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The Messenger Matters: What to Do ? (3)

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 3:40 PM GMT on September 13, 2010

The Messenger Matters: What to Do ? (3)

The first article in this series was motivated by a Republican candidate for State Office coming to my office to talk about climate change. The previous two entries in the series (one, two) have focused on the identification of the evolving political nature of climate change and what that means to knowledge-based education and communication. I have argued that scientists, generically, are not well positioned to participate in ideological confrontation and are easy foils for savvy political strategists. This leads to a dilemma - there is a need for communicating correct information about climate change, but at least a subset of this communication serves to fuel the political cause of those who oppose using resources to address climate change on a political or ideological basis. It is easy to make things worse.

One of the common points made in political arguments is that scientists sustain arguments about the threats of climate change because it is a way to keep funding coming to the field. This is a classic conflict of interest argument, which does not, intuitively, carry a lot of substance. For example, as Steve Schneider pointed out, if scientists were truly vested in a conspiracy to enhance and maintain their funding, then they would not state that global warming is “unequivocal” (IPCC 2007). It would be a lot smarter to say that we think global warming is important, but we need to do a WHOLE lot more research. For scientists to state that warming is “unequivocal,” and that we really need to pay attention to impacts often works against the obvious self-interest of the climate scientist. Such a position empowers new fields of expertise and their constituencies. In a tight budgetary time this pulls money away from science. But like the knowledge of climate change itself, if too much effort is made to counter the conflict of interest argument, then this only serves to fuel and spread the political argument. (“More research” is quite often a political tactic to delay action.)

There is a point to be extracted from the above. The messenger is important.

The role of the scientist in the communication of scientific issues and their possible consequences is complex. Scientists open themselves up to the conflict-of-interest criticism if there is even an indirect link between what people say and the way they get their funding. However, scientists are required by the scientific method and, de facto, contractual obligation to report their research. In their reports they need to write why the work is novel and important. Being novel and important does contribute to sustained funding - as it should. On top of this there is constant pressure from agency program managers and politicians for scientists to communicate their results in a way the public can understand. There was a time period when I was in the government where it was stylish to be asked the question “so what?” The implication of this question was that you must go beyond saying something is important, but you must say why it is important - often we were told, “so your mother could understand it.” In addition to these motivations and demands for scientists to communicate broadly, there is also the role of advocacy. There are some who see issues as so important that they move beyond the purveyors of objective knowledge to advocates of particular points of view (Scientists as Advocates).

Earlier in this series I put forward the notion that scientists needed to be cognizant of their role in what is now political discourse and, perhaps, to seek to do no harm. This requires scientists not only to understand their audience, but to also understand where their point of view is perceived to lie. Assume that one determines that they are engaged in a political exchange. Then given that the IPCC report has been politicized, authors of the IPCC report are by definition engaging in a political discussion. Being in a political discussion the role of correct facts and consideration of complete knowledge becomes complex. Not only does the aforementioned role of factual knowledge in science-motivated political issues come into play, but the IPCC author is a political voice motivated by a perceived partisan defense of their position and their work. Careful accurate statements by a scientist in such a position is likely to do little good, and careless statements are likely to generate new tendrils of the political argument and contribute to escalating personal attacks and attempts to discredit the messenger.

The messenger is important, and the most obvious way past the problem of the politicized messenger is to expand and diversify the messenger base. Perhaps the easiest diversification of the messenger base is to engage a far broader cross section of voices from the community of scientists. There are experts outside of the community of IPCC authors and the lead authors of classic papers. These voices bring new strength and perspectives to the body of knowledge – different ways of stating ideas. Often these voices are young, the next generation, and if we have confidence in our efforts, then we should have confidence in those who have learned from us.

The idea of the inclusion of new voices in scientific communication is almost simplistic; however, it is not easy to achieve. For example, journalists and reporters naturally come to the expert and the people at the top of the author list. They come to people who have made news, perhaps have a history of controversy or the notoriety of an advocate. In this case, if there is to be diversification to new voices, then making that happen might fall to the scientists themselves - scientists opening the paths to new voices. Sometimes this requires a harsh personal accounting of where a scientist sits in the political and communication environment, followed by self-imposition of boundaries. Am I doing good? Am I doing harm?

The role of translators between the climate expert and a particular audience is growing. The audience ranges from the general public to people in business, in government, in nongovernmental organizations, in academia and education, and even to climate scientists from different sub-disciplines of climate science. Translators are often needed in complex problems. The experts in the field may or may not be good communicators, and they are often not comprehensive and objective.

Traditionally, a subset of journalists stood as translators, but the past decade has seen great changes in journalism. We have the democratization of journalism with the emergence of, for example, blogs; the decline of structured, editor-supervised journalism; the emergence of point-of-view journalism; and the identification of virtually all authors as representing a point of view or a political position. In many instances, I strive to serve as a translator in these blogs/articles, and I have made the deliberate decision in my research career to translate between fields.

A natural question arises in this search for translators and honest sources of information: are there ways that we can organize to provide a source of substantiated, vetted, and unbiased climate information? Ideas of community wikis and community-certified blogs emerge. (see Judy Curry’s controversial take on this) This will be explored more in future articles, but such a self organization has, potentially, profound implications for the process of peer review and role of the professional societies. Such an approach is, perhaps, a democratization of science, which would change the role of the expert.

The widest diversification of the messengers of climate change comes from the active inclusion of people who are positioning themselves to adapt to climate change and to address the changes in energy policy that are necessary to affect climate change. I have mentioned several times the paper by Daniel Farber that concludes that scientific investigation of climate change warrants legal standing in U.S. courts (Trust, but Verify). I have also discussed the positions articulated by Jim Rogers the CEO of of Duke Energy. Responses to climate change can be found in national security, energy distribution, municipal climate action plans, the insurance industry, etc. These are people and organizations who have looked at the knowledge, looked at the evidence, and have started to align capital and human resources with the solution space. These are the stories and the messages that need to be brought forward. Diversification of the messenger community outside of the community of scientists and academics and government researchers not only brings forward voices who are responding to the body of climate-change knowledge, but also untangles conflict-of-interest perceptions and provides concrete examples of the translation of climate science to action. This is where some principles of organization need to be focused.


Pakistan: I am certain to maintain an interest in Pakistan far longer than the average disaster attention span. My youngest sister Elizabeth is Counsel General in Peshawar so I keep an eye on the news. We remain at the start of this flood, and we are just beginning to realize the consequences. Attention to the Pakistan flood is moral imperative, a humanitarian imperative, and a security imperative. (Pakistan Flooding: A Climate Disaster)

Here are some places that my sister has recommended for the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan. Organizations she sees.

Doctors Without Borders

The International Red Cross

MERLIN medical relief charity

U.S. State Department Recommended Charities

The mobile giving service mGive allows one to text the word "SWAT" to 50555. The text will result in a $10 donation to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Pakistan Flood Relief Effort.

Portlight Disaster Relief at Wunderground.com

Figure 1. U.S. State Department blog on Pakistani floods Washed out bridge in Pakistan. The U.S. has helped replace several bridges in remote regions in the northwest of Pakistan.

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.