Climate Change

Communicating Climate Change and the Scientific Delusional Disorder

January 8, 2015

Mad scientist. Image © Glen Edelson/Flickr.

One of the things I’ll never forget from grad school, back when I was a budding scientist, was my professor’s favorite motto: “I would rather be methodologically correct than right.”

It sort of pissed me off. I mean, come on: what normal person wouldn’t rather be right? And yet, my professor had put his finger on the essence of what it means to be a scientist.

This philosophy was pounded into our heads, in statistics classes, in the peer-review publications process, and over beers as we joked about the shoddy arguments of shabby scientists.  Scientists go through this rite of passage in graduate school — during which we swallow a sort of group delusional disorder pill.

That pill imprints us with an unnatural frame of mind: care less about finding truth (which is unattainable), and care more about the way to seek truth.

Science does not deliver the simple truth. It only delivers a cumbersome process for attempting to gather unbiased information about the elements of truth that can be measured. Capiche?

But while that frame of mind in many ways defines science and its relationship to truth, it’s alien and frustrating to those outside our weird club. Scientists, however, often persist in the delusion that what works for each other should work for everyone else, too.

This culture clash — which I’m calling the scientific delusion disorder — is a big part of the communications problem between scientists and normal people.

It’s why normal people are driven crazy when scientists can’t seem to just get to the point – stop your drivel of qualifiers and give us your bottom line!  And it’s why scientists get so frustrated when normal people don’t understand that for a scientist, there rarely is a bottom line!

In a New York Times op-ed piece this past Saturday, Naomi Oreskes articulates very well the implications of this communications problem for action on climate change.

She points out what the public (especially certain “conservative” elements of the public) does not seem to fully appreciate: the scientific community is by definition very conservative when it comes to communicating information.

This conservatism is a corollary of my earlier point about scientists being methods obsessed: we tend to be more averse to being wrong than desirous of being right. The implications of this tendency are that scientists routinely ignore findings until they are rather obvious — at least to those who are “in the weeds.”

Along these lines, Oreskes emphasizes that science is prone to “being too conservative and missing causes and effects that are really there.” She states that scientists “often refuse to use the language of danger even when danger is precisely what they are talking about.” In making these points, it seems that Naomi is asking scientists to be more like normal people.

This sort of scientific common sense might seem very appealing. But as a scientist, I can’t agree with it. Science should not be confused with common sense. If it is, it risks losing the specific value it offers to society — a particularly credible and unbiased source of information.

Scientists should be circumspect about jumping too deeply into an advocacy role — because too much advocacy by scientists can undermine the objective credibility of the scientific community.

Likewise, I think scientists should continue to be conservative in how we interpret data. If scientists do shift into a common-sense advocacy role (as well-informed humans with even a vestige of common sense may be prone to do), we should point out that we are speaking as normal citizens, rather than as our alter-ego: delusionally conservative data rats.

That said, here’s where I totally agree with Oreskes — and here’s my bottom line: scientists need to do a better job explaining to the rest of society that scientists are not normal, and we are definitely not liberal in our methods.

It is critical that the public understands just how conservative the scientific community is about communicating data. If we can do a better job explaining this to the rest of society, then the rest of society can do a better job advocating for sensible climate policy.

In other words, as a common-sense citizen, I think you should be FREAKED OUT by the drivel — i.e., the wonderfully dry, painstakingly measured and conservative scientific conclusions — of the IPCC.

Wait, one more qualifier. As a scientist, I must remind you that we cannot say with absolute certainty if humans are causing a global climate change catastrophe. It is virtually impossible to predict anything with absolute certainty about the future of our planet.  What this does mean is that humans are more likely to be causing a global climate change catastrophe than you realized. Which leaves us each with a common sense question: should I do something about it?

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  1. You sure sound like an advocate to me. Is the science of “man-made global warming” settled or not?

  2. Bronson,

    I’m a biochemist, and I appreciate what you’ve written, but I also disagree in part with it. You are correct that as scientists, we need to communicate better about the whole process of science, but as citizens, we cannot simply stand by and watch the world fall apart without entering into advocacy. As scientists we want to observe, analyze, chart, measure, test, retest, and repeat (that’s why it’s called research, right?). But as citizens of our nation and of our planet, I believe that the case can be made that we scientists have a moral imperative to use our knowledge to advocate for what’s best for the planet as a whole. I also believe it is possible that as citizens we can speak as advocates for a particular point of view and still speak as scientists when we discuss the data. I have done that when speaking to conservative religious groups about the origins of life, the scientific data, and the religious/philosophical question of “Why are we here?” Can something similar not be done when speaking about climate change to the public?

  3. We do swallow a pill in grad school–or at least some do–but I don’t think it’s the one you’re talking about here. And some don’t swallow the one you *are* talking about.

    Oreskes, and various others, likes to make sweeping statements about how Science is this that or the other, as if Science is some big, uniform monolith where everybody acts the same and thinks the same, a belief which you apparently buy into, based on this piece. Well, it isn’t. There are many different attitudes and approaches among scientists. Some are cautious and conservative and others are ridiculously cavalier and liberal. Some are quiet, others are vocal. Some are smart, some not so much. Some know statistics well, others only think they do, and others don’t really know if they do or not. And out of those differences come a wide variety of products, in terms of quality and recognition.

  4. Long way to say ‘trust me, I’m a scientist’. Argumentum ad verecundiam.

  5. Finally, the presence of vigorous climate variability presents significant challenges to near-term climate prediction (25, 26), leaving open the possibility of steady or even declining global mean surface temperatures over the next several decades that could present a significant empirical obstacle to the implementation of policies directed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions (27). However, global warming could likewise suddenly and without any ostensive cause accelerate due to internal variability. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, the climate system appears wild, and may continue to hold many surprises if pressed.

    Complexity science is the core of understanding climate. Complexity emerges from the interactions of simple mechanisms – cloud, ice, vegetation, dust ocean and atmosphere. Climate is an emergent property of the shifting balance of these mechanisms.

    The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) defined abrupt climate change as a new climate paradigm as long ago as 2002. A paradigm in the scientific sense is a theory that explains observations. A new science paradigm is one that better explains data – in this case climate data – than the old theory. The new theory says that climate change occurs as discrete jumps in the system. Climate is more like a kaleidoscope – shake it up and a new pattern emerges – than a control knob with a linear gain.

    Solutions involve reducing anthropogenic changes on the system and are multi-dimensional involving economic and social development, better land use practices, sustainable production systems, reduction of population pressures, technological innovation and ecological restoration.

    The old climate framework failed because it would have imposed substantial costs associated with climate mitigation policies on developed nations today in exchange for climate benefits far off in the future — benefits whose attributes, magnitude, timing, and distribution are not knowable with certainty. Since they risked slowing economic growth in many emerging economies, efforts to extend the Kyoto-style UNFCCC framework to developing nations predictably deadlocked as well.

    The new framework now emerging will succeed to the degree to which it prioritizes agreements that promise near-term economic, geopolitical, and environmental benefits to political economies around the world, while simultaneously reducing climate forcings, developing clean and affordable energy technologies, and improving societal resilience to climate impacts. This new approach recognizes that continually deadlocked international negotiations and failed domestic policy proposals bring no climate benefit at all. It accepts that only sustained effort to build momentum through politically feasible forms of action will lead to accelerated decarbonization.

    Creative responses that build on social and economic development and enhance resilience – while reducing pressures on the system – would seem the rational way to go.

    The Copenhagen Consensus post 2015 MDG goals – focusing on the most effective use of existing commitments – would seem to be a good place to start.

    Climate will shift again – relatively soon – in ways that are both unpredictable and more or less extreme. But the political reality is that errors in understanding the science of climate conflated with unrealistic social and economic ambitions impede progress. Prattling about conservative with no real clue about anything doesn’t seem to be useful either.

  6. Scientists are (actually) human and are subject to the same biases, despite training in a system of thought that teaches a conservative attitude to truth.

    Scientists learn to speak very carefuel about their research, but the danger of group think is still present. The otherwise-very careful IPCC reports still fell into outsized claims of glacial melting in Himalayas. And recent controversis in conservation biology (e.g. Kareiva vs. Soule) have raised the issue of whether conservation biology is biased toward finding harmful effects on biodiversity. MaNY more example could be provided, especially from climate change.

    Orestes and Griscom are both wrong: scientists are just as capable of being alarmist as non-scientists. Knowledge and training are no defense against the human condition.

  7. Cheers, Mr. Griscom, for demonstrating why the Nature Conservancy is one of the few eco-NGOs which retain a semblance of respectability.

  8. Wait, one more qualifier. As a scientist, I must remind you that we cannot say with absolute certainty if humans are causing a global climate change catastrophe. It is virtually impossible to predict anything with absolute certainty about the future of our planet. What this does mean is that humans are more likely to be preventing a global climate change catastrophe than you realized. Which leaves use each with a common sense question: should I do something about it?

    There, fixed it.

  9. Your understanding of science is infinitely better than Oreskes’. I find it ironic that you can discuss its inner logic so lucidly and honestly, then fail to notice the cynical distortions of a notorious miseducator.

    With that out of the way, I love this article. I want to applaud and thank you for being one of the first people to make the points above.

    Have you ever stopped to wonder why such game-changing and eye-opening ideas have never been communicated to the public? We’ve had 20+ years to “communicate the science”, yet have somehow succeeded in leaving non-scientists more confused than ever about the very meaning of science.

    Any hypotheses as to why we’ve been miscommunicating so unforgivably?

  10. “I’d rather be methodologically correct than right” seems to me to mean nothing more than the generalization of “don’t draw to an inside straight”.

    That is, make decisions based on available evidence, and understand that the variability of the universe is such that the wrong decision sometimes wins, but that doesn’t vindicate it.

    This is something that all too few people understand. Even if you win the lottery it was a bad idea to buy the ticket. Even if you get to your destination safely it was a bad idea to drive at double the posted speed. etc. etc. All too often, people attaining a favorable result will feel smugly vindicated, or similarly if someone who didn’t follow their advice obtains a bad result. But it is better, in the long run, to be methodologically correct in decision making under uncertainty, than to occasionally fortuitously obtain a good result.

    Anyway that’s what I take it to mean, lacking context.

    While I agree with the gist of your piece, I wonder if you haven’t overinterpreted the advice that inspired it.

  11. to Bronson Griscom;
    “Black Ice in Greenland” was explained as “soot from forest fires”. There appear to be miles of ice.
    Has this source been verified by chemical test? Wood ashes contain considerable sodium.
    Forest fires do produce a lot of soot but also grey ash and carry minerals, especially sodium.
    Would you please comment to me; I am studying global warming and glacier melt concerns.
    Thank you,
    Arthur Krugler