Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Climate scientists should not be our politicians

Scientists shouldn’t feel compelled to run for political office to save science. Politics in the United States has dipped so low that every time an environmental issue comes up in the media science must be defended. Science (especially climate science) is being undermined in our political arena by people whose political and financial agenda includes keeping everyone on the doomsday path of fossil fuel use for energy. But it isn’t, nor should it be, the job of our scientists to fix our present dysfunctional political system.  

2018 is the year of scientists running for Congress The rising activism among scientists is a turnaround for a group that has traditionally seen politics as “grimy and grubby,” said G. Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. Many of these candidates have been recruited by 314 Action, a political action committee founded in 2016 to support policymakers who have scientific or technical backgrounds. Named for the first three digits of pi, 314 Action describes itself as the vanguard of “the pro-science resistance.” The group’s founder, Shaughnessy Naughton, said 7,000 people have responded to the group’s call to run for office. The group has also assembled a network of about 400,000 donors eager to support candidates who back science-based policies. (March 4, 2018) The Washington Post

Not that scientists wouldn’t be exceptional as politicians or communicators. Climate scientists have become very good at communicating the complexities of Climate Change. (Check out: “The Debunking Handbook, a guide to debunking misinformation, is now freely available to download ” from Skeptical Science)

But society would be better off if scientists spent more time at what they do best. Because of their work, much is now known about Climate Change (it’s happening quickly and it’s us). Much more needs to be researched so our climate models will be more accurate and more predictive of what’s coming. That is to say, we cannot spare our scientists. We need more expert information on how to slow down global warming and adapt.

Part of the problem with communicating Climate Change is that while the principle is simple (you emit more greenhouse gases and the place warms up) the repercussions are very complicated—and the possible solutions politically inconvenient. However good scientists may get at speaking to the public, what they are really good at is communicating with each other, often in wonky but tight, uncolorful language focused on accuracy--not storytelling or exuding warmth to the general public. 

We have other disciplines for reaching the public and those institutions (media and education) should up their game on communicating this crisis.

Granted, communicating Climate Change is still very tough, especially with the small but very vocal minority whose worldview is being threatened:

[From a transcript] Lewandowsky: Now if you then, as a researcher or communicator, present them with more evidence that climate science is real, then chances are that the recipients of the message are digging themselves deeper into their existing position and actually believe even more strongly that that is not the case. We have the experimental data to show that in a lot of different circumstances. It doesn’t just have to be climate science. It’s whenever people’s world-views are at stake, then presenting them with corrective information can have a so-called “backfire effect” of making them believe the mistaken information even more strongly. (Professor Stephen Lewandowsky, Moving past barriers to change (UQx DENIAL101x

More journalists should be trained in climate science and how to effectively communicate all that to the public. More politicians should listen to the science coming from our climate experts and then leading the public towards solutions, sooner rather than later.

In turn, it would be nice if the public themselves would stop thinking of themselves as passive customers of information and ideas, but instead as enlightened stewards of our planet. We are at an extraordinary point in history where public responsibility on our climate crisis may determine if we get to have a viable future.

Time passes. 

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