Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Other Side of Climate Science

I recently submitted a paper that was somewhat against the mainstream climate change conclusions, and needless to say the paper was rejected.  It was submitted to a sociological journal which I assumed might be less partisan.  But this is not sour grapes about rejection.  I have come to view journals like clubs.  If you don’t agree with the rules of the club then you don’t get membership.  If you can’t find a club to join, start your own and seek like minded souls.  But this is not about trends in academia, it is about one single comment made by a reviewer.

The paper was about comparisons among weather observations for the last decade on the German Baltic coast, the perceptions of regional political stakeholders concerning weather changes over the last decade and what the future will bring, and the perceptions of climate scientists concerning the same things. As it turned out, the observational data demonstrated no change that would be discernable to human experience but the political decision makers made claims to the contrary concerning annual comparisons. Based on these claims the decision makers saw the need for immediate actions to adapt to a future of climate impacts, that is somewhat exaggerated in their account when compared to the advice from science.

As the conclusions of the political decision makers differed from the scientific advice, one of the goals was to explore the sources of knowledge used by the decision makers. As with most of my work, data was collected using questionnaire survey methods. To try and capture some sense of understanding the political decision makers were asked what I thought was a straight forward question: “How much do you use the following sources of information in shaping adaptation decisions and policy?” There was a list of possible choices from which to choose. The top three sources chosen were television, newspapers and radio. This seems quite clear and quite simple to me. You ask someone what are the sources of their knowledge and you would assume they would have an idea of what sources they use. “Not so!” I have been told.

A reviewer made the comment: “You can’t just ask people how much information they have received from various places, as that assumes that people know where they heard stuff – a dangerous assumption.” Well, first off, I did not ask them how much “information they received”, I simply asked what sources they used to attain information, not how much they took away from it. But that too is beside the point. The point is the claim made by the reviewer that people have no idea where they hear things. (I, myself, have taken to wearing a tinfoil helmet as protection against misinformation – it has an advanced misinformation filter.)


Let’s take two scenarios of persons on the street:

A: “Do you know what the score was for the foot ball game last night?”

B. “2 to 0”

A. “How do you now that?”

B. “I watched it on TV”

A. “How do you know you watched it on TV?”

B “Go f*%k yourself.”

C. “Do you know that the climate is getting warmer?’

B. “I have heard about it.”

C. “Where did you hear about it?”

B. “Television, radio, newspapers.”

C. “What about scientific journals or scientific conferences?”

B. “Go f*%k yourself. I drive a truck for a living”

Going back to the reviewer’s comment, I guess we know more specifically where we don’t get information. And I guess our knowledge is more specific if we observe the event first hand. The trouble is, it is not so easy to observe ‘climate’ change. We can observe the weather first hand though. And even then, data suggests, for weather, at least, that this is open to interpretation. If I look out of the window today and see rain I know it is raining. If someone asked me if we had more rain this spring than last spring, I could only guess, or repeat what I have been told. This is obvious in the data with some political decision makers claiming summers have gotten warmer and some political decision makers claiming that they have gotten cooler (all claims for the same small area of the German Baltic coast). And they claim to have received most of their information from public media. Does this reflect that some of the respondents are locked into a simplified linear warming projection and some being shaped by the more recent increased variability claims? Are they instructed to perceive change? Do they want to perceive change? Woe and betide those who are controversial. So how do we match sources and consequences for perceptions of climate change? According to the reviewer we can never know where people get their information so I guess we should stop here. Hmmm EVER THE ETHER.- a common dictum in contemporary social science. But if we did want to explore it ...

Oldies but goodies

So how could address this for a better understanding. It seems that climate change has permeated just about all academic discourse in one way or another, but I can find no reference (if anyone is aware of any, please let me know) to an application of Goffman’s work on social interaction to things climate change. (His concepts related to Frame Analysis, published in 1974, dealing with how conceptual frames structure perception, are often employed without much in terms of acknowledgement.).Overall, Goffman argues that our actions are dependent upon time, place and audience. Perhaps our problem could be addressed from the perspective of what Goffman calls front stage versus back stage; do we see one thing but tell people what we think they want to hear? Is that the case of the regional decision makers? Do we follow the lines of political correctness?

Now, I think it has been established that most climate scientists are only human. As they are human and scientists, we can logically assume they participate in social interaction with other humans when informing audiences of the prospects of climate change. (As of yet, I have heard of no information sessions being held at animal shelters- just a caveat, one must be careful these days; some scientists are naturally better than others, leading to bigger stages and bigger audiences). If this is the case then perhaps it might be fruitful to analyze the performance.

(Taken directly from Wikipedia on Goffman – this is one blog posting borrowing from another so I assume it is ok)

There are seven important elements Goffman identifies with respect to the performance:

1. Belief in the part one is playing is important, even if it cannot be judged by others. The audience can only try to guess whether the performer is sincere or cynical.

2. The front or 'the mask' is a standardized, generalizable and transferable technique for the performer to control the manner in which the audience perceives him or her.

3. Dramatic realization is a portrayal of aspects of the performer that s/he wants the audience to know. When the performer wants to stress something, s/he will carry on the dramatic realization.

4. Idealization. A performance often presents an idealized view of the situation to avoid confusion (misrepresentation) and strengthen other elements (fronts, dramatic realization). Audiences often have an 'idea' of what a given situation (performance) should look like and performers will try to carry out the performance according to that idea.

5. Maintenance of expressive control refers to the need to stay 'in character'. The performer has to make sure that s/he sends out the correct signals and quiets the occasional compulsion to convey misleading ones that might detract from the performance.

6. Misrepresentation refers to the danger of conveying the wrong message. The audience tends to think of a performance as genuine or false, and performers generally wish to avoid having an audience disbelieve them (whether they are being truly genuine or not).

7. Deception refers to the concealment of certain information from the audience, whether to increase the audience's interest in the user or to avoid divulging information which could be damaging to the performer.

Now if we couple these with McLuhan’s ‘The Medium is the Message” (Marshall McLuhan, 1967) which, simply put, considers the effect that each medium has on perception, and consider scientists along with TV and Newspapers, etc., as a medium, then maybe we would get a clearer understanding of how climate change is being communicated

(Both Gofmann and McLuhan were from western Canada although I don’t think either of them played ice hockey)


Georg Hoffmann said...

All my life I waited for this moment.

You have absolutely no idea of Marshall McLuhans work. As it happens I have Mr McLuhan right here.

Dennis Bray said...

I think I saw the smoker at a GW conference once.

Marshall McLuhan?

expertshand said...

i found this informative

@ReinerGrundmann said...


I was not involved in reviewing your paper ;-) but do think that the referee you quote may have a point. Unlike football results which you know because you have watched the game, knowledge about CC has more diffuse sources. If CC is a top issue in society it will be difficult to establish where people get their information from and which information shapes their opinions.
In other words, it may be naive to assume that a general question like the one you describe would capture this.
If climate change is everywhere in the social discourse, it will be in the print media, TV and radio news, documentaries, novels, think tank reports, new social media, family and friends' conversations, gossip & banter, etc.

Dennis Bray said...

@ Reiner

The question was directed to local politicians and asked which sources they employed in making policy decisions. While they might listen to gossip etc. it is doubtful they would state this as a source. I agree climate change is likely in the ether and this likely influences a person's persuasion, just as we tend towards our own preferred academic sources. Everyone knows about cancer but if you have it you tend to rely on more refined sources in search of a prognosis and treatment. Following your argument would it be suffice to simply say 'I just know, although I have no idea how I know'? If that is the case then I think we may be in big trouble.
Knowledge about climate change is of course more complex than knowledge about a football score, and knowledge about weather changes is also not so obvious. But I imagine you might know the sources where you heard about climate change. I know I remember where I first heard about the global cooling scare long before warming became the culprit. At that age I heard gossip, not much, but some. (I was living in Arctic conditions at the time. :-) ). And I am sure that lay people talk about climate change - but not nearly as much as those professionally involved in the issue seem to think,mso on that account I have doubts about a significant role for gossip. I can honestly not remember the last time I heard CC as a topic of conversation among lay people in a public place. But, in my question, I also included meetings, conferences, etc. as a choice. As for the 'top issue' I have my doubts that it is at the forefront of consciousness for the majority of the population.

ingno said...

Dennis Bray,

Thank you for an interesting posting on an interesting topic. I think that your main thesis is reasonable, given that politicians are very dependent on what the media writes about them (and on what they believe that other people read).

I have a strong feeling that the gap between the MSM-politician bubble and what common folks see and listen to is growing every day. The information input for the decision makers is through the media (and they believe that common folks care very much about that). Whereas their voters get information by what they experience (concerning a particular question) in their everyday life. The internet blogs may also play a role nowadays.

Therefore there are a lot of "surprises" for the politicians on the election day.

Question is, how and where do the MSM get their information about climate change?

AnonyMoose said...

"Question is, how and where do the MSM get their information about climate change?"

According to one reviewer, we can't assume that the MSM knows where they get their information. That would explain some of what they do.

EliRabett said...

Local elected officials have to and do (if they want to stay local elected officials) listen to their constituents. Given the nature of the position, they are out in public almost everyday being bombarded with the opinions of their constituents and their "knowledge" reflects what they hear daily.