# Climate Science Update

sylas
The chimp walking on its hands is the equivalent of the insets of the Greenland ice plot: it is a suggestive picture of a larger effect than has been observed.
The picture can be a true picture of a circus chimp that has learned to walk on its hands, so it is not "wrong". But it suggests something that is not correct.

I don't see the problem here. The insets seem to me to be intended to show the range of melts; the minimum and maximum. I don't think that's incorrect or even misdirection. That's also relevant information.

But I don't think this is a big deal. Different people will have different reactions to the form in which something is presented, and there are all kinds of ways someone can get the wrong idea by looking too quickly at something. I think trying to avoid all possible confusions in advance ends up being unreadable. It might be possible to add two more diagrams, with a "norm" as of 1960 and a "norm" of 2000; but I don't think it will make any major difference.

As for being "dry", I would much rather scientists don't try to remain dry and dispassionate.

There's been a lot of discussion in recent years, in all kinds of contexts, for how science is communicated. There's a problem with basic science understanding in the general population, not just on climate but in all kinds of areas, and ironically the USA is particularly bad by comparison with many other nations. And (as has been pointed out!) scientists are in competition with other voices that understand and use every PR trick they can think of. The great strength of science, in my view, is that it is real. Distortion for the sake of a communication is a bad idea. But I don't this example qualifies as that.

If you follow the "scienceblogs" group set up by Seed magazine, you can see a lot of this debate on good science communication being engaged. It often gets extremely heated. One interesting contribution is a recent book by Randy Olson: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1597265632/?tag=pfamazon01-20 (link to amazon).

Good science communication has to be accurate, but it also has to engage and motivate. You won't satisfy everyone, but personally I think this report is a step in the right direction. It is very clear, very punchy, with nicely set out major points, well referenced, accurate, and engaging many popular confusions and misconceptions directly. It gets away from "climate models", which lots of people find confusing and don't understand, and deals much more in the observables.

Cheers -- sylas

PS. In the example of the rainforest and the SUV, there are a number of problems. One is that usually "citizen" does not weigh up pros and cons at all. They don't even know the pros and cons, in many cases; and they often resent being educated if the knowledge is disquieting. Second, there is the problem of the commons. A lot of people get really hung up about their rights and freedoms, and presume that they do in fact have a right to use their SUV if they like, regardless of the effect on someone else's rain forest. Basically, they consider the "atmosphere" as a common dumping ground for their SUV and it's their own business, no-one elses, what they decide to do with it. But that same atmosphere is not only theirs. It is a common resource, shared by all kinds of folks, and what one person does with the common property affects others. How do you sort out rights and freedoms in that case. I don't know; this gets beyond only science. And scientists are not only scientists, they are citizens as well, and may freely decide to engage in political and social spheres.

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How do you sort out rights and freedoms in that case. I don't know; this gets beyond only science.
You work out a price of the incremental destruction of the commons.

sylas
You work out a price of the incremental destruction of the commons.

You can estimate that empirically (that is, scientifically); but science won't tell you the right way to decide how rights and freedoms apply to use of the commons.

You might use scientific methods to look at likely consequences of different policies; but the consequences and costs are not universal. Who is to say, for example, that a cost deferred to a future generation is to be avoided? Science might be able to tell you what the consequences of your actions are upon someone else, or the consequences of one society's conventions upon the resources available to another. It's politics and ethics and law -- all subjective human choices -- that determines whether you are constrained to consider that.

Cheers -- sylas

You can estimate that empirically (that is, scientifically); but science won't tell you the right way to decide how rights and freedoms apply to use of the commons.

You might use scientific methods to look at likely consequences of different policies; but the consequences and costs are not universal. Who is to say, for example, that a cost deferred to a future generation is to be avoided? Science might be able to tell you what the consequences of your actions are upon someone else, or the consequences of one society's conventions upon the resources available to another. It's politics and ethics and law -- all subjective human choices -- that determines whether you are constrained to consider that.

Cheers -- sylas

Once you've got the price, you put that price on the behaviour that causes the damage, and the market works out whether Johnny Public wants to do it when there's no "externalities" - a price to someone else that he's not paying.

In this case it would come out as a carbon tax on Johnny's fuel. I don't have the figures, but a lot of Johnnies would reconsider an SUV if filling up cost $500 or$1000. And some wouldn't. Both are good, if the money is spent relocating or otherwise conserving ecological resources.

vanesch
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
I don't see the problem here. The insets seem to me to be intended to show the range of melts; the minimum and maximum. I don't think that's incorrect or even misdirection. That's also relevant information.

I find it just as ill-presented as picking out, say, 1991 and 2006 and showing almost equal and even slightly increasing ice surfaces (implicitly suggesting that there is NO trend) as is done on some deniers' blogs.

This is what I mean: if "science" wants to be "better" than just any PR opinion, then it has to stick to higher standards. If something is in a presentation, it is never by coincidence. There's always a communicative reason to it, as space, time and attention are limited. So every detail has been thought of in detail. The fact that they picked exactly these two extreme examples is no coincidence, and the fact that they don't explain WHY they picked them and not 1 year earlier, indicates that one wants to "pass an implicit message". It's the core technique of communication: passing implicit messages.

Again, the most honest way would have been to take a representative (close to trend line) year in the beginning, and one in the end, and to explain that we see here a visual of what the trend line (which is what counts!) represents. It is what you EXPECT to see with the insets: something that illustrates the main point of the plot, which is the trend. That's what's dishonest there.

As for being "dry", I would much rather scientists don't try to remain dry and dispassionate.

You don't have to be "dry" - being boring. But that doesn't mean that on the grounds of being not dry, you try to convey a certain conviction - just as anyone else! If you do that (and, as you say, as a human being and as a citizen you are entitled to), then you have to take off your authoritative hat off as a scientist. Otherwise you're abusing your "scientist" authority for sending out your personal opinion on the matter and it will, in the end, harm science as a whole.

Because nobody can deny that these climate projections, even if they are the best we can do now, are still highly uncertain - compared to things like planet orbits. You can't deny that the possibility exists that the doom predictions will turn out to be towards the lower end of the rather broad error margin. That the possibility is still open that things will not turn out to be so dramatic as these reports want us to believe. And if ever that turns out to be so, "alarmist scientists" have "sold the soul" of science, and science, as a whole, will be looked upon as just an activist's language.

There's been a lot of discussion in recent years, in all kinds of contexts, for how science is communicated. There's a problem with basic science understanding in the general population, not just on climate but in all kinds of areas, and ironically the USA is particularly bad by comparison with many other nations. And (as has been pointed out!) scientists are in competition with other voices that understand and use every PR trick they can think of. The great strength of science, in my view, is that it is real.

Exactly. But only in as much as we really know for almost sure that it is real. Sometimes that takes a lot of time.

Good science communication has to be accurate, but it also has to engage and motivate. You won't satisfy everyone, but personally I think this report is a step in the right direction. It is very clear, very punchy, with nicely set out major points, well referenced, accurate, and engaging many popular confusions and misconceptions directly. It gets away from "climate models", which lots of people find confusing and don't understand, and deals much more in the observables.

That's the main error, I would think. Because you can't say anything from these observables without any modelling behind it.

And scientists are not only scientists, they are citizens as well, and may freely decide to engage in political and social spheres.

Yes, but then they have to put up their hat as a citizen, and not as a scientist. Maybe the Pope has very strong convictions on certain culinary points, such as which wine goes with which kind of meat. But if he wants to give his opinion about that, he's talking as a citizen, and not as the Pope.

vanesch
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
You can estimate that empirically (that is, scientifically); but science won't tell you the right way to decide how rights and freedoms apply to use of the commons.

On the international theatre, there is no "higher authority" (like the State) that will make you pay externalities. There, the only law that holds is the law of the strongest.

I don't see China set back its economic growth just for the sake of some indian tribe living in a rain forest, even though it might not be "fair".

vanesch
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
Just to add to this: the problem climate science is dealing with with the public, is a problem of credibility, not a problem of "gravity of its predictions". The communication effort seems to try to emphasize the gravity, while that's very counter-productive on the side of the credibility. The more you are telling that "the world is going to end" - while most people don't think that there's much wrong with their immediate environment that justifies such claims - the less credible the claims become.

In other words, many people think that climate scientists are a bunch of green activists that misuse their position as a scientist to push through a kind of green political agenda. Crying wolf louder is not going to take away that suspicion, on the contrary.

Being sober and trying to explain exactly what's known, and what's not known, might help better.

sylas
Once you've got the price, you put that price on the behaviour that causes the damage, and the market works out whether Johnny Public wants to do it when there's no "externalities" - a price to someone else that he's not paying.

In this case it would come out as a carbon tax on Johnny's fuel. I don't have the figures, but a lot of Johnnies would reconsider an SUV if filling up cost $500 or$1000. And some wouldn't. Both are good, if the money is spent relocating or otherwise conserving ecological resources.

I don't believe the folks who think it can all be solved with "the market". As for taxes; Johnny is not going to vote for the people who want to raise his taxes because (as he says) he just doesn't care about rainforest. There's also no shortage of people claiming to be scientific and telling him things he likes to hear. And hey, if a country with enough Johnnies all vote that way, it's their right, isn't it? That last is a tricky question; because it isn't actually their atmosphere, or their rainforest. The dilemma of the commons is a particularly difficult problem in political philosophy; interestingly one of the major essays on the subject was published in Science magazine.

mheslep
Gold Member
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mheslep
Gold Member
As others said, we'll run out of fossil fuels in any case about this century or the next, ...
Rather we'll run out of cheap oil. We need not run out of coal or shale oil even in the next century.

Many say the problem is worse than the data shows, and on a daily basis. http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/article2633838.ece"'s pop magazine comments, etc.

Hmm. I agree with the Inconvenient Truth comments, although I note that coral bleaching is now attributed to global warming.

But Hansen is right (and the only scientist of the two). There won't be another ice age as long as human civilisation lasts on earth.

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mheslep
Gold Member
But Hansen is right (and the only scientist of the two). There won't be another ice age as long as human civilisation lasts on earth.
I'm sure Hansen writing in the literature is right about many things, though I don't know about humans and more ice ages. I was addressing comments in the popular press, which we seem to be on at the moment (public sentiment on AGW), where Hansen's clearly made some statements predicting conditions "worse than the data shows."

I'm sure Hansen writing in the literature is right about many things, though I don't know about humans and more ice ages. I was addressing comments in the popular press, which we seem to be on at the moment (public sentiment on AGW), where Hansen's clearly made some statements predicting conditions "worse than the data shows."

Worse than the current data shows.

1988 was fairly early days for climate modelling. It might have been within the range for what the data shows for then.

- scientist: you know that you're killing the rain forests with your SUV ?
- citizen: no, I didn't, am I ?
- scientist: yes you are
- citizen: ah, well, good to know. Have a nice day.
- scientist: but shouldn't you stop driving that SUV then ?
- citizen: nope, I like it too much.
- scientist: but the rain forest ?
- citizen: I weighted the pro and contra, and I prefer my SUV over the rain forest. Have a nice day.

Uh, that strikes me as a conversation imagined by someone who has never left the ivory tower of the academic world. I'm a "top contributor" on Yahoo Answers, where normal people hang out, and I promise you, it's very different out there. Have you ever been to YA, or 4chan, or YouTube, and seen how normal people think? They aren't robotic creatures of perfect logic, as you seem to be depicting them in that exchange. They won't take the initiative to go out and study the nuances of ideas presented quietly and calmly to them and carefully make a rational and informed decision based on some precise assessment of outcomes, probabilities, wants, and needs.

Here's how I think that would go on another forum (though I'm cleaning up the language a little):

- scientist: you know that you're killing the rain forests with your SUV ?
- citizen: ur gay.
- scientist: yes you are
- citizen: that's not wut ur mom said
- scientist: but shouldn't you stop driving that SUV then ?
- citizen: shudn't u stop packing fudge?
- scientist: but the rain forest ?
- citizen: trees are gay.

It's hard to engage people without getting them emotionally involved somehow, is what I'm saying, and they aren't going to just voluntarily put in the mental energy to try to understand what you're saying. You have to coerce them to, and that means pulling them in through clever use of emotion.

I mean look, you talk about presenting the facts in an unbiased way, as though the public will just accept that, as though they are keeping score of who's right more often. But really, aren't the politicians manipulating people using far more powerful tools of persuasion than the minor detail of being right and the even more minor detail of being able to back it up with complicated evidence? It's hard for me to see how science will be anything other than ignored when put up against talented persuasive speakers.

More than half of Americans believe that evolution is a myth. Is this because scientists somehow destroyed their own credibility, or is it because the persuasive power of religion is more effective at convincing people of things than naked rational argument could ever hope to be?

Just to add to this: the problem climate science is dealing with with the public, is a problem of credibility, not a problem of "gravity of its predictions". The communication effort seems to try to emphasize the gravity, while that's very counter-productive on the side of the credibility.

I think you are wrongly assuming that the reason science lacks "credibility" in most people's eyes is that it has failed them repeatedly by being biased. In reality, most of the failures they remember -- and the credibility gap itself -- were manufactured by political pundits.

People I've talked to have often given reasons they don't trust scientists, and not a single reason that I can remember has actually been a genuine case of scientists trying to sell them on something that didn't happen. They say they cried wolf on the "global cooling" thing, but they don't remember that that was a minority loony idea seized on by a hungry media to create a pop-culture phenomenon, not an idea most scientists backed. They say science teaches against the story of creation in the Bible. True, in a way, but not something science should be trying to atone for. They sometimes link science with Nazi Germany, again, this comes from right-wing talk radio. The fundamental reason science is not seen as "credible" is that it says things that contradict what they are trained to believe. A lack of credibility for that reason isn't something to be ashamed of, or something to be "fixed".

vanesch
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
It's hard to engage people without getting them emotionally involved somehow, is what I'm saying, and they aren't going to just voluntarily put in the mental energy to try to understand what you're saying. You have to coerce them to, and that means pulling them in through clever use of emotion.

But that's my point, that's eventually a politician's job, but not a scientist's job. A scientist shouldn't care what the public believes or not, and a scientist shouldn't want to coerce them into whatever action (apart from funding his research).
A scientist should give information to the public (in as much as the public is interested), might advise politicians (if they ask for it), and that's it, in my eyes.
It is not the scientist's responsibility to steer society in any way (apart from funding his research). A scientist, as a scientist, shouldn't care about what society does or doesn't, with the result of his research and whether Joe Sixpack believes him or not. Because by trying to convince Joe Sixpack, a scientist becomes, in a way, an activist for a cause, and once you're perceived as an activist for a cause, you've - in the eyes of others - lost your neutrality wrt "facts".

I mean look, you talk about presenting the facts in an unbiased way, as though the public will just accept that, as though they are keeping score of who's right more often. But really, aren't the politicians manipulating people using far more powerful tools of persuasion than the minor detail of being right and the even more minor detail of being able to back it up with complicated evidence? It's hard for me to see how science will be anything other than ignored when put up against talented persuasive speakers.

If science is ignored that shouldn't affect the scientist (as long as he gets his funding). He might eventually get his kick out of the pleasure when disaster strikes, to be able to show publications where he could say: "we had foreseen it, but politicians weren't interested - not my responsibility, but yours". That would *boost* scientific credibility. The other way around, "crying wolf" and having maybe to admit, one day, that one was somehow wrong on the gravity of the issue, will be very very damaging to the credibility of science. Science can only remain credible - I think - if it stays neutral and outside of public policy debate.

More than half of Americans believe that evolution is a myth. Is this because scientists somehow destroyed their own credibility, or is it because the persuasive power of religion is more effective at convincing people of things than naked rational argument could ever hope to be?

Of course. So there's no point trying to convince people who even believe the earth is 6000 years old. You better don't talk to these people, rather than expose yourself to impossible debate. If on top of that, you will introduce emotional argumentation TOO, you've lost all distinction from your opponent.

With a creationist, there's no point in having a discussion, you can only loose. If the basics of scientific argumentation are not accepted, then, as a scientist, you cannot say anything, and you better don't say anything rather than entering the game of rhetoric, because then you lower yourself to the same standards as those that convinced the creationist in the first place. Yes, you can try to convince him, but by the same time, you've sold your soul, as you've rendered "valid" any non-scientific reasoning on the same level as a scientific one because you're using it yourself.

Now, as a human being, I can understand that if you think that you really need to coerce people, cost what cost, into action. But as a scientist, you're killing what sets apart science, in the process.

vanesch
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
The "conversation" I propose is rather:

- scientist: you know that you're killing the rain forests with your SUV ?
- citizen: ur gay.

- scientist: have a nice day. I'll spend my time elsewhere. Not worth my attention.

sylas
The "conversation" I propose is rather:

- scientist: have a nice day. I'll spend my time elsewhere. Not worth my attention.

Why would a scientist think it not worth their attention to help people get a better understanding of the real facts of the matter, especially for a subject that has a significant impact on human lives?

I appreciate that it is a waste of time talking to this person; but there are other conversations worth having; and even worth being passionate about.

Cheers -- sylas

But that's my point, that's eventually a politician's job, but not a scientist's job.

It's a politician's job to convince people that science is worth listening to? No, that's not right, it's a politician's job to get elected and stay there. They tell people whatever they think will get people to vote for them. Why would science be useful in that? People don't even *like* science.

A scientist shouldn't care what the public believes or not, and a scientist shouldn't want to coerce them into whatever action (apart from funding his research).

Well, the "action" in question was listening to what you have to say, so since that's the thing that (ultimately) gets people to fund your research, I'd think that would fall under your umbrella.

A scientist should give information to the public (in as much as the public is interested), might advise politicians (if they ask for it), and that's it, in my eyes.

So it should sit and wait to be consulted, never daring to assert itself. So why would anyone bother to consult it, then? You believe that you are going to sell your product without the least bit of advertising? How many phones would Motorola sell if they refused to advertise in any way and just waited to be asked whether they happened to sell phones? Having a product and not being willing to tell anyone about it unless asked seems precisely as useful as not having any product at all.

If science is ignored that shouldn't affect the scientist (as long as he gets his funding). He might eventually get his kick out of the pleasure when disaster strikes, to be able to show publications where he could say: "we had foreseen it, but politicians weren't interested - not my responsibility, but yours".

I don't know how to respond to this. It is beyond my imagination to conceive of how a human being could be so detached from the world as to watch it decay into chaos and not only not be concerned, but actually "get a kick out of" it.

The other way around, "crying wolf" and having maybe to admit, one day, that one was somehow wrong on the gravity of the issue, will be very very damaging to the credibility of science.

You keep saying this, and I keep not seeing it in practice. Again, the mass public isn't some perfect analyst. Remember that "Mad Money" guy on CNN or whatever back in the day? All he did was sit around and make predictions. He wasn't good at it. People kept watching, despite the fact that he cried wolf hundreds of times and was wrong. It took a disaster the size of the financial meltdown to finally get rid of him, and even then, only after Jon Stewart roasted him for a whole week and it grabbed headlines. There are similarly thousands of charlatans, quacks, and scammers who make money on the basic human tendency to want to see something as a success and to not be very good at remembering failures.

Of course. So there's no point trying to convince people who even believe the earth is 6000 years old. You better don't talk to these people, rather than expose yourself to impossible debate.

Nonsense. How do you think they came to believe that in the first place? Because the other side doesn't have any qualms about trying to convince people of their beliefs, and they know what tactics actually work (sitting around, waiting for them to come to you, and trying to maintain absolute credibility by refusing to advocate for yourself at all probably isn't one of them). "Debate" may be the wrong way to think of it. Debates are between fairly high-minded, scientific types. Normal folks don't "debate", they just talk. I feel that the unwillingness of many scientists to talk to plain folks and take the initiative to put forth their side, with a little normal, human self-advocacy is the thing that damages science, by making it look cold, scary, and antisocial, as well as making it unlikely that most people will ever have heard your side.

You know, when I talk to real, live young-Earthers (which I do fairly often), I find that they just don't know about science. No one has told them much about it. Scientists refuse to lower themselves to reach out to them, and their own community certainly doesn't encourage them to go seek out science on their own. When I show them and explain to them how geology and biology and things work, they are sometimes surprised and excited, having had no idea this whole world of cool ideas existed. You'd be amazed.

If on top of that, you will introduce emotional argumentation TOO, you've lost all distinction from your opponent.

No, you have one distinction left: being actually correct, and being able to back it up. And if that isn't enough, we're screwed regardless.

The thing is, the artificial distinction you're trying to maintain, the distinction of talking to normal people totally dispassionately, is not a positive distinction. It makes you look worse, not better. It's better to behave like a normal person so as to even the odds on that front, so hopefully the slight edge of being right will be enough to put you ahead.

If the basics of scientific argumentation are not accepted,

Oh, for the last time, normal people are not scientists! That isn't how you talk to them. They aren't trained for that.

then, as a scientist, you cannot say anything, and you better don't say anything rather than entering the game of rhetoric, because then you lower yourself to the same standards as those that convinced the creationist in the first place. Yes, you can try to convince him, but by the same time, you've sold your soul, as you've rendered "valid" any non-scientific reasoning on the same level as a scientific one because you're using it yourself.

So... you acknowledge that it might work, but you don't want to do it because it makes you feel dirty? Come on, the world is messy. People aren't perfect like math. You have to roll up your sleeves a little when dealing with people.

So how well has that worked so far? Have we made those kinds of arguments look bad? Have people stopped using them? Of course not. You don't have the power to render those arguments valid or not in the minds of the public. Maybe someday, average people will be at that intellectual level. But in the real world of today, I think people already see them as on the same level, and there's not much any of us can do to change that. You just have to work with the rules the world gives you, even if they're dumb rules.

But as a scientist, you're killing what sets apart science, in the process.

No! There's what I think is the error, right there. What sets science apart is the way it is conducted, not the way it is communicated to the public. I'm all for dispassionate debate between scientists. I'm all for all the behaviors you've described, within the scientific community. I'm arguing that they don't make sense at the interface between science and the public. It's like bad impedance matching. The standards of communication are different between those two communities (obviously they are much lower in the public sphere), and by insisting that all scientists' communication follow the same hard standard right up to the sharp boundary, with no gradual transition between the two communities, you're ensuring a huge reflection coefficient, so to speak. A lot of that information will stay bottled up within the community and never get out.

vanesch
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
I think the main difference in opinion we have here (and I agree it is drifting away from the topic of this thread, my fault mainly, but I think it is worth having this discussion nevertheless), is that there are people who tend to think that science "has something to sell to the public", while I don't think so. Science is not a religion that needs converts. Of course, *society* should probably be better off if people were more interested in science, but that's up to society to decide, to find out, ... and not up to scientists.

It's a politician's job to convince people that science is worth listening to? No, that's not right, it's a politician's job to get elected and stay there. They tell people whatever they think will get people to vote for them. Why would science be useful in that? People don't even *like* science.

Mmm, but in that case, science shouldn't bother people, right ?

Well, the "action" in question was listening to what you have to say, so since that's the thing that (ultimately) gets people to fund your research, I'd think that would fall under your umbrella.

There's something to say for. So scientists should have people pay attention to their science, and scientists should tell people that their science is important to people, ultimately in order to get funding. I grant you that. So all this "advertising" is in essence meant to get a certain domain of science funded.

So it should sit and wait to be consulted, never daring to assert itself. So why would anyone bother to consult it, then? You believe that you are going to sell your product without the least bit of advertising? How many phones would Motorola sell if they refused to advertise in any way and just waited to be asked whether they happened to sell phones? Having a product and not being willing to tell anyone about it unless asked seems precisely as useful as not having any product at all.

But that's the point. There's no product to sell. The "product" of science are journals and books, essentially for other scientists. Of course, because science is funded by the public, scientists should do some effort to explain to that interested part of public what their stuff is about. There should indeed be some communication, for the small part of the public that is interested. And yes, you were right, there needs to be some part of propaganda, probably, in order to get funding. Maybe Kopenhagen is nothing but a big funding fancy fair for climate science, and this update report is part of that, and I missed entirely what it was about.

I don't know how to respond to this. It is beyond my imagination to conceive of how a human being could be so detached from the world as to watch it decay into chaos and not only not be concerned, but actually "get a kick out of" it.

Ah. I nevertheless think that that detachment is the first requirement in order to be able to study something. And yes, an anomalous happening would indeed render the matter to be studied more exciting, no ?

You keep saying this, and I keep not seeing it in practice. Again, the mass public isn't some perfect analyst. Remember that "Mad Money" guy on CNN or whatever back in the day? All he did was sit around and make predictions. He wasn't good at it. People kept watching, despite the fact that he cried wolf hundreds of times and was wrong. It took a disaster the size of the financial meltdown to finally get rid of him, and even then, only after Jon Stewart roasted him for a whole week and it grabbed headlines. There are similarly thousands of charlatans, quacks, and scammers who make money on the basic human tendency to want to see something as a success and to not be very good at remembering failures.

Ah, so you mean there's actually no problem in trying to "panic people" because hey, they will forget anyway if you were wrong and others do it too ?

Nonsense. How do you think they came to believe that in the first place? Because the other side doesn't have any qualms about trying to convince people of their beliefs, and they know what tactics actually work (sitting around, waiting for them to come to you, and trying to maintain absolute credibility by refusing to advocate for yourself at all probably isn't one of them). "Debate" may be the wrong way to think of it. Debates are between fairly high-minded, scientific types. Normal folks don't "debate", they just talk. I feel that the unwillingness of many scientists to talk to plain folks and take the initiative to put forth their side, with a little normal, human self-advocacy is the thing that damages science, by making it look cold, scary, and antisocial, as well as making it unlikely that most people will ever have heard your side.

But that's the point: it doesn't matter what "side" people are on, or what they believe.

You know, when I talk to real, live young-Earthers (which I do fairly often), I find that they just don't know about science. No one has told them much about it. Scientists refuse to lower themselves to reach out to them, and their own community certainly doesn't encourage them to go seek out science on their own. When I show them and explain to them how geology and biology and things work, they are sometimes surprised and excited, having had no idea this whole world of cool ideas existed. You'd be amazed.

It is their problem, it is society's problem, but it is not science's problem I'd say.

The thing is, the artificial distinction you're trying to maintain, the distinction of talking to normal people totally dispassionately, is not a positive distinction. It makes you look worse, not better. It's better to behave like a normal person so as to even the odds on that front, so hopefully the slight edge of being right will be enough to put you ahead.

But why would I care what the other person thinks (as a scientist, not as a citizen) ?
I mean, if it is a fundamental human right to believe in strange stories (called religions) and a large part of world population is convinced of such things, why would one have any "duty" to make them accept "science" - apart of course, from sufficient support to get funding ?

If a scientist thinks, according to his science, that society might face a problem in one way or another, it is of course his responsibility to inform political leaders about it, and also to inform, in as much as they are interested, public about it. However, he should respect society's mechanisms to respond to that, and that response might very well be "we don't believe you", or "we don't care". His job is done at that point and now it is in the hands of society who has to determine what to do with that given (that a scientist told them there might be a serious problem).

So how well has that worked so far? Have we made those kinds of arguments look bad? Have people stopped using them? Of course not. You don't have the power to render those arguments valid or not in the minds of the public. Maybe someday, average people will be at that intellectual level. But in the real world of today, I think people already see them as on the same level, and there's not much any of us can do to change that. You just have to work with the rules the world gives you, even if they're dumb rules.

I would say, if the intellectual level of society and its mechanisms of decision-taking are not up to the level of responding "correctly" to the scientist's message, then so be it. It is not his problem, it is society's problem and if that means society is going to put itself into big doodoo, then it has only itself to blame. Not the scientist.
You could just as well "scientifically" argue who has to be president or something. No, society has its ways of making (good or bad) decisions and has to put up with them.

A lot of that information will stay bottled up within the community and never get out.

Again, I don't know if it should by all means get out. Science is conducted for science's sake, and for the intellectual pleasure of scientists taking part in it. In as much as society wants to take advantage of that (like technological advances), it is of course their good right, but if it doesn't, that doesn't matter to science and to the intellectual pleasure of the scientists, no ? With your caveat, I agree, that it still should get ways to get funded.

Far most mathematics research never gets out either. There's a lot of science that never gets out of the "ivory tower" or only to that small fraction of population that is interested in it. The bulk of the public doesn't see a promille of what science is about.

So, yes, science should communicate to the public, but only to those that "ask" for it, and without trying to convey a "message of action", because I don't think it is its duty and it is in any case a lost case.

sylas
So, yes, science should communicate to the public, but only to those that "ask" for it, and without trying to convey a "message of action", because I don't think it is its duty and it is in any case a lost case.

An interesting aside... I agree it is worth looking at!

In my opinion, concepts like duty apply to people. I think everyone has a moral duty of care which means that if they discover something important that has a significant impact on other people, they DO have a duty to inform, and often they also have a duty to actually do something to alter the impact. This isn't just limited to science. If you are a bushwalker and see clear indications of fire in dry country, you have a duty to inform others if at all possible. If you notice an fire near at hand (say, a carelessly extinguished camp fire of other campers) then you may well also have a moral responsilbility to actually stop and put it out.

This is a matter of ethics; I'll let moral philosophers dig into details of various cases. But in general, I do think anyone has a duty of care; and that applies for scientists as much as anyone else.

I don't agree it is a lost cause. Some people seem determined to remain ignorant on various issues. Some people are open to being informed.

Finally, I think scientists are people are involved in more than only science. There's nothing wrong or inconsistent with a scientist also being a passionate advocate of some social cause. It might even be something which isn't "important" to other people; a good example would be scientists who become passionate about conservation of some ecosystem or species which doesn't actually have any economic or social impact; but which the scientist values and wants to preserve for its own sake. There's nothing wrong or inconsistent with being both a scientist and an activist.

Regardless of the passions or values of an individual scientist, the science itself should (IMO) continue to be evaluated on its merits as science in the same way, no matter how important the associated social or ethical issues. In THIS sense, I quite agree that science is orthogonal to social or ethical issues. But that says nothing about what scientists "ought" to do more generally.

Cheers -- sylas

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vanesch
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
In my opinion, concepts like duty apply to people. I think everyone has a moral duty of care which means that if they discover something important that has a significant impact on other people, they DO have a duty to inform, and often they also have a duty to actually do something to alter the impact. This isn't just limited to science. If you are a bushwalker and see clear indications of fire in dry country, you have a duty to inform others if at all possible. If you notice an fire near at hand (say, a carelessly extinguished camp fire of other campers) then you may well also have a moral responsilbility to actually stop and put it out.

Yes. But we're in the case:

- hey, there's a fire, let's put it out. Care to give me your water for it ?
- nah, there isn't a fire.
- yes, look there ! It's burning.
- Nope, it's not. And even if it were, I don't care. I prefer to keep my water.
- you know, a fire is dangerous. It could do a lot of harm.
- will you shut up with your fire, you left-wing nitwick. You just want my water, right ?
- But the town is going to burn down. Hell, the *whole world* is going up in flames ! The entire galaxy is going to go up in smoke ! The universe will soon collapse into a black hole because of the fire! Think of your kids, they won't like it inside that black hole!
- stop it, silly !

I don't agree it is a lost cause. Some people seem determined to remain ignorant on various issues. Some people are open to being informed.

In the pursuit of good vibes and happiness, sometimes ignorance is a bliss !

Finally, I think scientists are people are involved in more than only science. There's nothing wrong or inconsistent with a scientist also being a passionate advocate of some social cause. It might even be something which isn't "important" to other people; a good example would be scientists who become passionate about conservation of some ecosystem or species which doesn't actually have any economic or social impact; but which the scientist values and wants to preserve for its own sake. There's nothing wrong or inconsistent with being both a scientist and an activist.

Sure, but it is important to make the distinction. A person can be both a scientist and an activist. But when he's an activist, he's not "representing science" and his discourse is not to be taken as "the position of science".

sylas
Sure, but it is important to make the distinction. A person can be both a scientist and an activist. But when he's an activist, he's not "representing science" and his discourse is not to be taken as "the position of science".

Of course. Science can give information on the consequences of choices. Valuing one consequence over another and acting consistently with that evaluation is beyond science. Science informs choices; making the choices is policy/ethics/aesthetics/appetite/etc.

Cheers -- sylas

I think the main difference in opinion we have here (and I agree it is drifting away from the topic of this thread, my fault mainly, but I think it is worth having this discussion nevertheless), is that there are people who tend to think that science "has something to sell to the public", while I don't think so.

Well, I share some of the blame for the derail, but it certainly has been an interesting discussion anyway.

There's something to say for. So scientists should have people pay attention to their science, and scientists should tell people that their science is important to people, ultimately in order to get funding. I grant you that. So all this "advertising" is in essence meant to get a certain domain of science funded.

I guess that's one way to look at it that we can agree on, so I'll take that as common ground and maybe call it quits pretty soon, as I'm running out of argumentative energy. The way I would phrase it is that if my tax dollars are paying for something, then I expect it to do more than discuss a bunch of ideas internally for the sole purpose of having a bunch of scientists enjoy the beauty of things that only they are aware of. I want a product, such as something that I can have some contact with. That seems equivalent to your position that you should advertise your work somewhat to get funding, albeit seen from the other side of the divide.

But that's the point. There's no product to sell. The "product" of science are journals and books, essentially for other scientists. Of course, because science is funded by the public, scientists should do some effort to explain to that interested part of public what their stuff is about.

I wish it would be willing to do a better job of that than it is doing now. All I see are token attempts to explain a few things at a superficial level, and for everything else, understanding is made deliberately difficult. "If you want to understand it, then you should be willing to fight for that understanding." Well, we're paying for it, so you'd think they could hire a few folks to try and bring more of the interesting stuff down to the public's level. It's not impossible, though it does take some effort and ingenuity, especially for complicated things. I end up having to explain a lot of things that it seems like more scientists should be willing to try and explain themselves. I'm not qualified. I know a scientist could do a better job than I do if they sat down and tried. And I disagree that the journals are the end product of science. Again, if they are, it's hard to see why the public would be wanting to fund it, unless they've been misled somehow.

Ah, so you mean there's actually no problem in trying to "panic people" because hey, they will forget anyway if you were wrong and others do it too ?

"Panic", no, but "appropriately concern", yes. When I think "panic", I think rioting in the streets. You probably shouldn't try to get people that upset. But if you replace the word "panic" with "concern", then I agree with that statement.

It is their problem, it is society's problem, but it is not science's problem I'd say.

To me, science is a piece of society. Its purpose should be to provide some value to society. For what it's worth, if you aren't taking any money from public sources, then I could understand and agree with you if you don't communicate with the public (aside from at least pointing out serious problems, as you suggest, and then letting the authorities deal with it (or not) from there). That's what private R&D firms do, and I'm not complaining about them.

Far most mathematics research never gets out either. There's a lot of science that never gets out of the "ivory tower" or only to that small fraction of population that is interested in it. The bulk of the public doesn't see a promille of what science is about.

And I think that's an awful waste of a great deal of human effort.