Summary: Here are brief excerpts and my comments from a speech by an eminent climate scientist. It illuminates important aspects about one of the great public policy debates of our time. He was speaking candidly to his peers, but we can also learn much from it.
“Some Thoughts from a Reluctant Participant”
Presentation by Richard Alley.
At the Forum on Transforming Communication in the Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise — Focusing on Challenges Facing Our Sciences.
Given at the 2018 Annual Conference of the American Meteorological Society, 7 January 2018.
The text was generated by YouTube’s transcription software, so there are errors in it. Hopefully only minor ones. At the end you will see the video of the presentation, its abstract, and a brief bio of Professor Alley.
Why climate science is right yet so many do not believe!
To show the reliability of climate science, Alley borrows credibility from physics by talking about computers, cell phones, and GPS. He tells the assembled meteorologists and climate scientists about the Greenhouse Effect (Joseph Fourier 1824 Tyndall 1859, etc.). Later he turns to another subject.
“This is a survey that was done by the folks at the Pew Research Center …They asked a question: ‘Do universities and the colleges and universities have a positive or negative effect on the way things are going in our country?’ …The party that now controls the House the Senate and the presidency in Washington, that controls a lot of State houses, this poll asked them — and the average voter said universities and colleges have a negative effect on the nation and some of them probably answered with a cell phone.”
So Alley tells the audience that many Republicans are too stupid to see the connection between the universities training people in the advanced physical sciences and their cell phones! This is the crudest kind of tribalism. There are many reasons for people to worry about the role of universities in America. Their increasing abandonment — even opposition — to core western values. Their skyrocketing cost and indifference to educating undergraduates in ways useful to their lives. Their increasing role as advocates for far-left political and social changes. Alley must know this, but chooses to paint a different picture to his audience.
He then gives an analogy.
“I want you to do a mental picture for me. Think of a …big European capital and ask yourself are the roads ideally designed for modern traffic? …A big modern city has outer belts and inner belts and overpasses subways and it’s built around a bunch of oxcart paths from a thousand years ago. We’re trying desperately to live with oxcart paths from a thousand years ago because they got ingrained …”
That is a disturbing use of a “just so story” (like Kipling’s How the Elephant Got His Trunk) in a speech about hard science. It is aslo quite false. First, modern cities have transportation problems irrespective of their age. For example, New York and Washington DC were built on logical grid systems in the past two centuries — no oxcart paths — and have traffic problems (3rd and 9th worst in the US, respectively). San Jose barely existed before the widespread use of cars, and today has the 5th worst traffic. Second, we have more than adequate tools to deal with congestion — buses, cabs, light rail, and subways were all developed over a century ago.
The actual explanation for these two things is simple. We are not locked into the current system, it is not “ingrained”, and we do have alternatives. We just prefer not to use them. The reasons are complex, and political scientists have explained them.
Alley goes into another long excursion, then begins the serious justifications for the current state of climate science.
“I counted ice core layers. We counted 110,000 ice core layers before we got to the folds. I had a student come up in classes a few years ago who had a little printed religious tract that said what an evil lying person I was because the world is 6,000 years old. And I had counted more years than that. …you go into evolution real fast and there’s a whole lot of really bright people in high schools around America that are never gonna come to med departments and work on evolution antibiotic resistance because they’ve been told that evolutions in evil eye and people are going to die because of this now.”
The political influence of Christian fundamentalists on climate science is negligible. Alley uses them as a “whipping boy” or distraction from the more important sources of low public confidence in climate scientists’ forecasts.
So in Alley’s version of the world, the public’s confidence in climate science results from dumb Republicans and Christian fundamentalists (plus some research about brains). So there is no need for climate scientists to listen to their critics, or consider what they might be doing wrong. On to the fixes!
But first, more wrapping climate science in the prestige created by other fields of science.
“I can remember my dad railing against the idea that we had to get rid of the lead and the gasoline because it would ruin our lawnmower. You know the tobacco scientists. There have been a lot of groups over time who have attacked science to avoid having to deal with the policy implications.”
First, look at public opinion.
“What I want to do is see is see if we can go a little bit as to how we might solve these things. How we might end up going where we want to go. …So our fellow citizens, I think they’re almost all really good people, I think they want the right things — they’ve been misled by a few loud voices.”
Before discussing fixes, Alley reminds the audience that there is no need to listen to those who disagree with them. To Alley, communication consists only of talking — not listening. Then follows a long digression, leading to this.
“These are maps on a survey that was done by the Yale climate communications people on how the public views climate change …”
This survey excites Alley, but let’s look at what it actually says. First, here are the interactive maps Alley discusses. See the survey’s report here (the maps show 2016 data, I link to the May 2017 data). These are the work of highly credentialed experts; the survey is sophomore level work.
Question 1: “Do you think global warming is happening?”
Over what time horizon? Since the little ice age ended? During the respondent’s adult lifetime? Without knowing this information, the responses are meaningless. Due to the Recency Effect, people tend to remember recent events best — and overweight their significance. That does not work well when asked about science, but works very well for hunter-gathers on the African veld. It is hard-wired into us, and well-designed surveys take that into account.
Question 1.3: “Assuming that global warming is happening, do you think it is mostly human caused?”
If the respondent is benchmarking since the end of the last ice age, or the Little Ice Age, the answer is “no.” If they are thinking of the past century or so, the answer is “probably not”. If they are thinking of the decades after 1950, the answer is “yes” (per the IPCC’s AR5). If they are thinking of the past 20 years (roughly El Nino peak to El Nino peak), the answer is “who knows?” The change is too small (0.16°C per decade).
Doing Communication Right!
Now this post is already too long, and we are only at the 30 minute mark of Alley’s 56 minute presentation — having touched on only a few of the many points he makes. I urge you to watch it in full. Let’s conclude with what I consider the key point he makes. Alley quotes from a presentation earlier on Monday by Edward Maibach, a communications science professor at George Mason U: “Increasing Public Understanding and Facilitating Behavior Change: Two Guiding Heurtistics.” It is in the abstract.
“The organizing heurstic for improving communication effectiveness is: simple clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources.”
This is “the hair of the dog that bit me” advice. Take a drink to cure a hangover, derived from belief that the cure for rabies was taking a potion containing some of the infected dog’s hair. It is awful advice. Professor James Hansen began the current campaign for political action to fight climate change by telling a simple story to the US Senate in 1988. After thirty years of telling simple stories, activists have almost nothing to show for their vast investment of money, effort, and political capital.
The reason is simple. This advice is outdated. It was once effective, but now works as well as 1950 TV commercials would if aired today.
“Persuasion requires … a strong message through simple stories and vivid action.”
— Film as a means of political persuasion by Hans Traub (1933). Quoted in Film in the Third Reich: A Study of the German Cinema, 1933-1945 by David Stewart Hull.
“Successful propaganda tells simple stories that are familiar and trusted, often using metaphors, imagery and repetition to make them seem natural or true.”
— Propaganda and its techniques by Analyzing Contemporary Propaganda, a collaboration between Renee Hobbs and the United States Holocaust Memorial.
“The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a few essential points. These slogans must be repeated until every last member of the public understands what you want him to understand.”
— From a text about government by one of the founders of modern politics: Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler.
Americans are bombarded with roughly $260 billion in advertising every year. More Americans are more sophisticated today than in the past. Simple stories are not the sure-fire tools they were in the 1930s.
People have legitimate reasons to question the need to make for massive expenditures on the basis of climate scientists’ long-range forecasts. Many eminent climate scientists have cogently stated them. The response of climate science as an institution has been to mock or ignore public concerns and ostracise their members with heterodox beliefs. Neither generates public confidence.
Nor do speeches like this one.
Abstract of his presentation
“Our funding increasingly requires that we learn and then make that learning useful to the public. Successful communication thus is no longer optional but an imperative. Despite encouraging signs that we are getting better at communicating our science to the public, major challenges remain. These challenges can seem large. Some people simply don’t want to hear about our results.
“I work on sea-level change, for example, and knowing what is coming could save immense sums of money. But, the best news we could give people on this topic is that change will be small and slow. Worse news may not be welcoming. Making scientific knowledge of this type actionable for policymakers and the general public requires building broad understanding of the science. Informed responses by policymakers can be blocked if the public is confused, and those who seek to generate confusion have a much easier task than those of us fostering broad understanding.
“In order to get the communication right, we must first get the science right – everything else rests on this bedrock of knowledge. Beyond that, the scholarship is clear that scientists’ voices are essential but insufficient. We need help from a broad range of people and disciplines. Wise use of weather, water, and climate knowledge helps businesses, industry, agriculture, and the military save lives, save dollars, and save the environment. Enlisting the full breadth of those who benefit from our science can be highly successful. We need to include the voices of military leaders, farmers, and businesspeople as well as artists, teachers, medical experts, and more. Scholars in social science and communications are increasingly examining our challenges, successes, and shortcomings, and we have much to learn from these efforts.
“In recent years, AMS, its members, and the weather, water, and climate community have been leaders in improving communications. These successes create an urgency for us to continue, because we now have the attention of so many.”
About Richard Alley
He is a professor geoscience at Penn State U (see his pages there). He was a lead author in the IPCC’s AR4, is a highly cited author, and the recipient of many awards and honors for his work. See his Wikipedia entry for details.
For More Information
- Important: climate scientists can restart the climate change debate – & win.
- How we broke the climate change debates. Lessons learned for the future.
- Thomas Kuhn tells us what we need to know about climate science.
- Daniel Davies’ insights about predictions can unlock the climate change debate.
- Karl Popper explains how to open the deadlocked climate policy debate.
- Paul Krugman talks about economics. Climate scientists can learn from his insights.
- Milton Friedman’s advice about restarting the climate policy debate.
- Disturbing research about the use of “narratives” in climate science papers.
- Professor Michael Mann destroys the case for massive immediate action on climate change.
- Roger Pielke Jr. describes the decay of climate science.
- Roger Pielke Jr. describes the distorting of climate science.
To learn more about the state of climate change…
… see this book by Professor Roger Pielke Jr: The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change. See my review. Here is the publisher’s summary…
“In recent years the media, politicians, and activists have popularized the notion that climate change has made disasters worse. But what does the science actually say? Roger Pielke, Jr. takes a close look at the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the underlying scientific research, and the data to give you the latest science on disasters and climate change. What he finds may surprise you and raise questions about the role of science in political debates.”