Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Why lay the blame on scientists?

For a considerable period of time there has been continuous criticism of scientists, most notably climate scientists, by environmentalists and others on the “Left” wing of the political spectrum regarding their inability to properly communicate the perils of climate change. Unfortunately these critics have diluted themselves into believing that simply changing the semantics of the argument can significantly sway public opinion. This belief stems from the conclusion that the principle reason the public is not 90-95% in favor of new policy that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions is a lack of scientific understanding in both the realities and dangers of climate change. It is highly unlikely that such a contention is true because a number of easily understood and straightforward explanations of these two very issues embodying climate change are available from a number of online sources. In fact even this blog has produced such a document at the following link.

So if the documentation that meets the desires of these critics is available, why are they continuing to complain about a lack of scientific messaging from scientists? The principle reason for the criticism is that these critics are frustrated by the quantity of correct information versus misinformation. Such frustration can definitely be understood because both right wing bloggers and the mainstream media either go out of their way to artificially hype/lie about information that does not support human-driven climate change or offer equal weight to an issue that does not deserve such consideration.

However, to blame poor communication by climate scientists as reason for this environment is silly. Changing the message by using clever analogies and simple plainspoken language is not going to significantly change the general environment perpetrated by the right wing bloggers and the “mainstream” media. The problem is that the public is accepting that there are two reasonable and logical opposing sides to the issue of climate change where there are not. Basically a majority of the communication mediums have elected to present the options of 2 + 2 = 4 and 2 + 2 = 56 as a viable topic for debate. Offering a simpler, hopefully more easily understandable, analysis could help, but as long as another explanation exists the public will have to measure and judge the validity of each argument.

Regardless of how simple the pro human-driven climate change argument is presented it will still involve scientific explanation, either in the form of analogy or straight science, thus it will require thought to understand. This thought requirement involves a level of understanding and effort which is unfortunate when the opposing argument against human-driven climate change is ‘prove it beyond any doubt’ instead of ‘a reasonable or scientific doubt’. Thus according to the opposition, the pro human-driven climate change movement must prove that human-driven climate change is a scientific certainty. Interestingly enough such a contention can be demonstrated through reasoning that the Greenhouse Effect is scientific fact and a vast majority of greenhouse molecules that have been added to the atmosphere in the last 200 years are human derived. Unfortunately such an argument is heavily based in science something most do not want to wade through. Compound this opposing argument with the fact that major lifestyle changes at significant philosophical and short-term economical cost will be required when accepting and combating human-driven climate change and one sees why human-driven climate change deniers have made so much headway at stemming positive steps to combat climate change.

Therefore, it may be wise to invest in a different strategy than try to win the debate by simplifying an argument to battle against an argument that is as simple as it gets. The two most important questions to ask an individual during a debate:

1. Why do you believe x?
2. What prevents you from believing y?

The primary goal of the first question is to engage the individual and discover what attributes drive the belief of an individual. For example is the individual heavily influenced by upbringing, educational environment, logic, etc? Once this information is acquired arguments can be better generated to attack flaws in the belief system leading to a higher probability of success in expelling incorrect beliefs.

The second question is standard scientific analysis; find out what the individual believes are the flaws of a presented argument; if the individual cites flaws that are incorrect and the individual in question cannot accept these ‘believed’ flaws as correct then there is no need to continue the conversation because the individual is unwilling to change his/her beliefs. Such is another flaw in the thinking of those that wish for scientists to simplify their explanations of human-driven climate change, they believe that everyone will be receptive to the argument when both sides are stripped down to nothing but logic and facts, such is not the case.

Note that it is important to try to impress upon an individual the detriments of being incorrect and how it would negatively affect his/her life. Unfortunately the focus of this influence needs to be in the short-term if possible due to the human psychological characteristic of instant gratification and causality (the philosophy of ‘I’ll be dead so who cares what happens that far into the future’). For example one common argument made by environmentalists is explaining the ease and low cost of converting to a less fossil fuel dependent energy environment. Unfortunately this argument is not as powerful as it should be because even if switching involves lower cost than previously anticipated, it still costs money and if the rational for this switch is not properly expressed then any cost will be considered wasted.

Overall the problem of less than appropriate support for climate change is not predicated by over-complicated scientific communication. Sure, a wider range of depth in explanation would be a useful tool, but it should be quite apparent that treating the issue of human-driven climate change as a debate and trying to ‘out-argue’ the other side is the wrong strategy because the other side does not have a real argument. Instead of using a ‘fact shotgun’ approach to convince people, perhaps the better strategy is to ask what information people need to see to be convinced of the validity of human-driven climate change. Provide the necessary information to those that provide reasonable requests and no longer be concerned with those that do not. Using this strategy more precise effort can be applied to those that can be convinced and one can avoid wasting effort on those that cannot or do not want to be convinced.

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