Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cutting through the climate messaging fog - Nov 2010 Nevada City Advocate column

A comment from Jon Shilling made me realize it's worth reprinting this column - which appeared in the October November 2010 issue of the Nevada City Advocate - on how to know what to think about climate change, when you hear Russ Steele saying one thing about climate, Al Stahler saying another, and Anna Haynes saying something else entirely. I need to incorporate (more) links in it though, to make it more useful.
You hear all sorts of things about climate change - that it's real, it's a hoax, it's our doing, it's natural, it's very complicated, it's basically simple, our individual actions will solve it, China will swamp anything we do, it's the end of the world, it's plant food.

You might feel it's hopeless to make sense of it all. Some folks get stuck there, and just use the messaging morass as a smorgasbord of justifications for whatever position they decide to hold.

But we can do better; here are some simple tools for cutting through the message fog to see the big picture.

First tool: An appreciation for the power of science. Science isn't some lone guy plugging away, it's a communal and competitive effort, and a set of the best methods we humans have developed, for coming to understand the real world. It works, not because the scientist is a paragon of purity, but because the endeavor's competitiveness makes it self-correcting - you get ahead by advancing the state of knowledge, by pointing out flaws in the current science, by coming up with something that works better.

Second tool: Awareness of the distinction between using science and doing science. We don't need to understand the science ourselves; we can be the CEO, and use the scientific understanding that we've paid the scientists (who've had the training) to develop for us.

But how will we know what that scientific understanding is?

Third tool: (broken) Sadly, we can't trust the press. Science journalists should tell us the state of the science, but the convention of "balanced", "two sides" (credible or not) stories pollutes even science journalism, with foreseeable consequences. "Balance" in the press distorts the scientific picture, and so distorts public understanding.

So you'll need...
Fourth tool: the credibility spectrum. Glenn Beck's opinions on science carry less weight than those of individual climate scientists, which in turn are trumped by surveys of climate scientists and by statements from professional scientific associations, with our national science academies at the top. (Keep in mind that the credibility of the original source is what matters - if Beck is just conveying the science academies' judgment, and can prove it, you should listen.)

So what are the most credible sources saying? They're saying there is a scientific consensus that global warming is real and largely human-caused. A long list of reputable scientific organizations have recognized this, and to an overwhelming proportion of actively researching climate scientists, the evidence supports this assessment. And the remaining, "doubter" group has lower expertise.

You'll need to know more - about what the science says about likely consequences of inaction, about what risk analysis says about uncertainty's implications, about what economics says about what sort of policies are most effective; and about how you can counter contrarians (spoiler: check ) - and about the [somewhat] counterintuitive actions we most need to take.
Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Anna Haynes said...

Also see Bart's 2009 post on who to believe -
"Amidst all the different information about climate change, how is a layperson going to know who is right? There are a few clues one could follow, that don’t require any specialized knowledge. ..."