"Listen to All The Facts"

Thu, 2011-04-28 06:48Chris Mooney
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"Listen to All The Facts"

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:

Ben Santer is a man with a lot of accolades under his belt: A recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant; an E.O.Lawrence Award; a Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) Distinguished Scientist Fellowship; contributor to all four assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore; and now an American Geophysical Union fellowship. 

But he’d give all the awards up if it meant he could present his research on human-induced climate change to a patient audience – an audience that would listen to all the facts before making judgments about reality of a “discernible human influence” on climate.

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!

Previous Comments

Science is, by nature, dispassionate. Without having read the book, “New Enlightenment” sounds a bit more like “New (Blog) Science” than something that contains meaning. Is every scientist supposed to become a psychologist as well, in order to communicate their research? Accurate is accurate, a fact stands whether we understand ourselves or not.

RE: “But he’d give all the awards up if it meant he could present his research on human-induced climate change to a patient audience – an audience that would listen to all the facts before making judgments about reality of a “discernible human influence” on climate.”

I’m sure that Ben is a true believer but that’s not what real science is about. If we were to adopt Catholicism as the state religion we would have countless faithful peer certified priests ready to give us peer reviewed instructions on how we should go about saving our souls, not just the planet. All we would need for all this advice is to put them all on a government payroll. Oh atheists need not apply, deniers are not admitted to the church.

For one with so much desire to keep the public informed, it’s passing strange that those who make a livelihood out of this 100% taxpayer supported industry ALWAYS refuse to engage in open debate. They tried it once and got their rear ends handed to them in a basket.


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