I have great admiration for Ben Santer. Not only is he a top climate scientist, but the guy went through brutal and unfair political attacks concerning the IPCC report in 1995. (Some of that story is here.) I’m glad Santer is being honored this year by being elected as a fellow of the American Geophysical Union–a development that, predictably, Joe Romm hails and Anthony Watts mocks.
However, I must confess that I literally received a jolt reading the Lawrence Livermore National Lab press release about this. It goes like this:
To which I’m afraid my first thought was: Like how the birthers sat back and carefully contemplated the new information when Obama released his birth certificate to them yesterday?
Now, I know that Santer (or whoever wrote this press release) have the best of goals in mind. But the fact is that, beyond perhaps an audience of their peers, climate scientists are never going to get to lecture about their research to a captive public audience with lots of patience and no preconceptions. Public communication is almost never like this.
And even if it was, it’s impossible even for scientists to lay out the facts without frames, judgments, narratives. Those narratives, in turn, evoke emotions, in both audiences and among those who choose to tell them. And emotions integrally shape how we reason, sometimes for the better, sometimes very much for the worse.
Recently, I did a podcast with George Lakoff, author of many influential books, including most recently The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st Century American Politics with an 18th Century Brain. Lakoff’s argument is that too many of us—liberals and scientists, especially—are strangely wedded to an outdated 18th century view of the mind, according to which reason is dispassionate, logical, disembodied, objective, and so forth. Lakoff calls this the “old Enlightenment” view.
The “New Enlightenment,” by contrast, uses science itself to understand how people reason. Its answers are a lot more frustrating and depressing, and often mindboggling, but they have the virtue of being accurate and based on the emerging science of the human mind.
The good news is this: In my experience, scientists are open to following the evidence about communication, and persuasion, wherever it leads. They just need some nudging–and, reasonably enough, they need to see the evidence. Well, it is compiling very rapidly now. Let’s heed it!