Greenwire's E&E has a very informative blog on the role of scientists as public communicators of science... and policy options. As some scientists are crossing the line from pure science to advocacy, several problems emerge. One is the expertise, another is the credibility. Both are linked. John Krosnick argues that the audience, especially poorer people, tend to discount the credibility of scientists if they include policy statements in their communications:
Using a national survey, Krosnick has found that, among low-income and low-education respondents, climate scientists suffered damage to their trustworthiness and credibility when they veered from describing science into calling viewers to ask the government to halt global warming. And not only did trust in the messenger fall -- even the viewers' belief in the reality of human-caused warming dropped steeply.Some outspoken climate scientists seem to realize where they have gone wrong.
It is a warning that, even as the frustration of inaction mounts and the politicization of climate science deepens, researchers must be careful in getting off the political sidelines.
"The advice that comes out of this work is that all of us, when we claim to have expertise and offer opinions on matters [in the world], need to be guarded about how far we're willing to go," Krosnick said. Speculation, he added, "could compromise everything."
For decades, most members of the natural sciences held a simple belief that the public stood lost, holding out empty mental buckets for researchers to fill with knowledge, if they could only get through to them. But, it turns out, not only are those buckets already full with a mix of ideology and cultural belief, but it is incredibly fraught, and perhaps ineffective, for scientists to suggest where those contents should be tossed.
It's been a difficult lesson for researchers.
"Many of us have been saddened that the world has done so little about it," said Richard Somerville, a meteorologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and former author of the United Nations' authoritative report on climate change.
"A lot of physical climate scientists, myself included, have in the past not been knowledgeable about what the social sciences have been saying," he added. "People who know a lot about the science of communication ... [are] on board now. But we just don't see that reflected in the policy process."
Somerville has been a leader in bringing scientists together to call for greenhouse gas reductions. He helped organize the 2007 Bali declaration, a pointed letter from more than 200 scientists urging negotiators to limit global CO2 levels well below 450 parts per million.These are themes we have often pondered here on Klimazwiebel. It is good to see that others are start talking in similar terms. But we should be clear about the aim of such re-evaluations. The problem with advocacy science is not advocacy as such. It is the counterproductive outcome of specific forms of advocacy which is worrisome and which does damage to the political cause of the scientists, but to scientific practice in general. Much of this misguided advocacy is based on a complete misunderstanding of the policy process and the nature of mass media communication, as expressed in the deficit model of science communication, the "natural ideology" of scientists.
Such declarations, in the end, have done little, Somerville said.
"If you look at the effect this has had on the policy process, it is very, very small," he said.
This failed influence has spurred scientists like Somerville to partner closely with social scientists, seeking to understand why their message has failed.
It's a discussion that's been long overdue. When it comes to how the public learns about expert opinions, assumptions mostly rule in the sciences, said Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School.
"Scientists are filled with conjectures that are plausible about how people make sense about information," Kahan said, "only some fraction of which [are] correct."
The deficit model has remained an enduring frame for scientists, many of whom are just becoming aware of social science work on the problem. Kahan compares it to the stages of grief. The first stage was that the truth just needs to be broadcast to change minds. The second, and one still influential in the scientific world, is that if the message is just simplified, the right images used, than the deficit will be filled.So why do climate scientists, more than most fields, cross the line into advocacy?
Most of all, it's because their scientific work tells them the problem is so pressing, and time dependent, given the centuries-long life span of CO2 emissions, Somerville said.It is about time that these basic lessons are discussed more broadly.
"You get to the point where the emissions are large enough that you've run out of options," he said. "You can no longer limit [it]. ... We may be at that point already."
There may also be less friction for scientists to suggest communal solutions to warming because, as Nisbet's work has found, scientists tend to skew more liberal than the general population with more than 50 percent of one U.S. science society self-identifying as "liberal." Given this outlook, they are more likely to accept efforts like cap and trade, a bill that, in implying a "cap" on activity, rubbed conservatives wrong.
"Not a lot of scientists would question if this is an effective policy," Nisbet said.
It is not that scientists are unaware that they are moving into policy prescription, either. Most would intuitively know the line between their work and its political implications.
"I think many are aware when they're crossing that line," said Roger Pielke Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, "but they're not aware of the consequences [of] doing so."
This willingness to cross into advocacy could also stem from the fact that it is the next logical skirmish. The battle for public opinion on the reality of human-driven climate change is already over, Pielke said, "and it's been won ... by the people calling for action."
While there are slight fluctuations in public belief, in general a large majority of Americans side with what scientists say about the existence and causes of climate change. It's not unanimous, he said, but it's larger than the numbers who supported actions like the Montreal Protocol, the bank bailout or the Iraq War.
What has shifted has been its politicization: As more Republicans have begun to disbelieve global warming, Democrats have rallied to reinforce the science. And none of it is about the actual science, of course. It's a fact Scripps' Somerville now understands. It's a code, speaking for fear of the policies that could happen if the science is accepted.
Doubters of warming don't just hear the science. A policy is attached to it in their minds.
"Here's a fact," Pielke said. "And you have to change your entire lifestyle."