How should climate scientists (or other academics) engage the public?

A couple weeks ago we linked to a letter in Science calling for climate scientists to engage the public and media more vigorously, in order to “counter misinformation and deception.” As Greg Lusk mentioned in his post, this is similar to Evelyn Fox Keller’s call for increased engagement by historians and philosophers of science. However, Keller wasn’t just calling for more engagement, but better engagement. She argued that science is perceived as an elitist enterprise—a perception encouraged by scientists themselves—but in reality the scientific arguments are possible to frame in understandable and accessible terms.

Scientists typically view knowledge creation as something that occurs strictly through internal discussion. Public engagement is something that occurs only after knowledge has been created, and thus it consists simply of a one-way dissemination of results.  Keller argues that we need to re-conceptualize knowledge creation as something that requires both internal discussion among scientists and discussion among society-at-large. And of course this requires acknowledging the possibility that the conclusions reached through internal discussion could be revised through external discussion.

Similarly, Matthew Nisbet from Age of Engagement has written:

In addition, unlike the emphasis on science literacy which has a uni-directional connotation that problematizes and blames a “knowledge deficient” public, civic education and engagement is as much about informing the public as it is about also informing experts and decision-makers. Education should be viewed as a two-way process where experts and decision-makers seek input and learn from the public about preferences, needs, insights, and ideas relative to climate change solutions and policy options. In addition, unlike the emphasis on science literacy which has a uni-directionalconnotation that problematizes and blames a “knowledge deficient” public, civic education andengagement is as much about informing the public as it is about also informing experts anddecision-makers. Education should be viewed as a two-way process where experts anddecision-makers seek input and learn from the public about preferences, needs, insights, and ideas relative to climate change solutions and policy options.

However, this seems easier to say than to do. Actually trying to engage the public can be remarkably frustrating, as it is really hard to have a conversation with someone whose “knowledge” seems to largely come from sources we would consider at least inadequate or more likely blatantly deceptive. So, how do you have a conversation rather than give a lecture? How do you avoid elitism while also avoiding giving credit to a legion of bad or deceptive arguments?


  • Alice Bell Reply

    There aren’t any simple answers to this. Instead, I suggest you start by avoiding such broad questions. Apply a bit of HPS/STS – you know “science” isn’t a singular entity. Neither is the public. Or engagement.

    Just go out and try a bit. See what works for you, your audiences and your aims and objectives.

    Don’t know if these are of help?

    • Boaz Miller
      Boaz Miller Reply

      To be fair, Mike was not talking about “science” in general, but about climate science, and used the big questions to motivate the discussion.

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      Thanks for the links Alice.

      In case I wasn’t clear, I have a pretty specific situation in mind: You, as a climate scientist or academic, are having a conversation or debate with someone who is neither. How do you go about that conversation as a conversation, rather than a lecture? Or do you?

      • Praj Reply

        I think that conversation will be difficult until we address Alice’s point. That is, simply because everyone conceives of science as a singular entity, it’s going to be hard to discuss climate science in particular. I think that in this case, preconceived notions the public has about “how science works” colors the entire discussion.

        How often do scientists simplistically invoke ideas such as falsification? It’s hard to explain climate science without first explaining that there is no single science, and that the standards of, say, particle physics cannot be blindly applied everywhere. Before he passed away, I had this discussion with Stephen Schneider several times.

        I’ve previously elaborated on this rambling comment here:

        • W. Dean Reply

          You say in your blog that there is no unity of science, so a scientist from one field cannot presume to speak on behalf of any other. The only people who can speak with authority about a particular field, then, are those in the field. That creates an interesting paradox: the field is determined by the members of it, while the members of it are determined by the field.

          I think you’ve elevated Laudan’s point about methodological difference into an epistemological different, i.e., you’ve exaggerated different methods into different knowledges.

      • Alice Bell Reply

        Ok fair enough, but I still say that’s too not specific enough and the only way to really get a feel for the specifics at work is to have a go.

        I’d also say that simply having that conversation will probably help you do the lecture… That’s incredibly simplistic advice though, based on my everyday experience as a lecturer more than any expertise as a sci com academic (maybe it’s more useful though)

        I’d also say that the basic lecture vs discussion issue is one academics in sci com studies have been trying to work through for years, in a variety of contexts (deficit to dialogue and all that). That’s why I linked to those blogposts, which admittedly are still v basic. Some more academic stuff on climate science in specific you might like:

        • Hulme, Mike (2009) Why We Disagree About Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
        • Irwin, Alan (2006) Sociology and the Environment (Cambridge: Polity)
        • Yearley, Steven (1996) ‘Nature’s advocates: putting science to work in environmental organisations’, in Alan Irwin & Brian Wynne (eds) Misunderstanding Science? The public reconstruction of science and technology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 172-190).

  • W. Dean Reply

    I’m going to assume you’re asking an ethical rather than a practical question for two reasons. First, the ethical delineates what’s permitted in the practical one, and second, I think the ethical question more or less answers the practical one.

    1. Scientists should stick to what they know and stay out of advocacy, if only because it does far more damage to their cause than they realize. Here’s a case in point from the climate debate. Even if one assumes that warming is occurring (a scientific question), it does not follow that the only solution is Changing Our Way of Life Because the Chickens Have Come Home to Roost (a normative and economic question).

    Yet whenever someone proposes, for example, a climate engineering solution to mitigate CO2 (e.g., algae blooms, etc.), scientists and their science journalist spokesmen in the media invariably pooh-pooh the idea and attack the motives of the messenger without even making an attempt at refuting it. Now, I’m not saying any of these schemes will work, and I’m frankly declaring that I don’t know one way or the other. But scientists take the unacceptable step outside their expertise when they presume to speak ex cathedra about ethics and What We as a Society Must Do and how the only solution involves us Answering for Our Crimes Against the Planet.

    Not only is it not their place as scientists to pass judgment upon Mankind and His Destructive Relationship with the Environment, it turns the debate political. Whether it’s justified or not, the general public cannot help but wonder which came first, the science or the ideology. And I don’t blame them, because I wonder myself when I listen to the histrionics of David Suzuki et al. Did he simply seize on the global warming idea because it fit with his environmentalism or he became a more ardent environmentalist because of global warming?

    2. Philosophers and historians should also stick to what they actually know, not what they presume to know on the basis of authority. A case in point is Philip Kitcher’s remarks about Freeman Dyson (in the talk that was recently featured in Bubble Chamber). He chastises Dyson for “abdicating his responsibility as a scientist” by criticizing climate science. Does Kitcher know for a fact that Dyson was wrong? If he does know it for a fact, he certainly didn’t say. I found this very disappointing. A philosopher (of all people) should know what he doesn’t know and there was an easy test in this case: if you’re parroting the judgment of someone you read in the morning paper (or the Atlantic Monthly), you don’t know. And if you don’t know, but speak anyway, you just look like you’re trying to polish your reputation as a right-thinking intellectual.

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      I think that’s an interesting point. It’s a pretty classic view that science tells us how things are, not how they out to be. It is descriptive, not normative. Or, science gives us hypothetical information—“If you do X, Y will result”—but doesn’t tell us whether Y is desirable. In this view, when scientists advocate for a particular action, they are not acting as scientists, but as political actors. There’s no particular reason why scientists can’t be political actors, but it can be confusing if a scientist is speaking as a scientist in one breath and as a political advocate in the next. Now, this idea of science as purely descriptive, or “value free”, has been widely criticized, but I think I agree with you that it is useful as a regulative ideal at least.

      I wonder if this isn’t what scientists are already aspiring to though. Don’t they usually couch their arguments in the form of “If we do X then Y will result”, where X is “fail to reduce carbon emissions” or something and Y is “the global mean temperature will increase by 2-4 degrees by 2080” or something like that? So are scientists really overstepping their bounds? I believe the IPCC report does talk about possible intervention scenarios, but as far as I remember it is all couched in hypothetical terms.

      It is interesting, and dismaying, that we can’t even have a solid debate about values while agreeing on some basic facts. I guess Bjørn Lomborg kind of falls in this camp as he agrees that climate change is occurring but argues that their are other more pressing concerns right now, and climate change can wait a while. But this is hardly the norm.

      • W. Dean Reply


        I’m not a positivist, so didn’t suggest that scientists and philosophers stick to what they know because science can’t tell us how to live. Nor do I think that science somehow obliges scientists to stick to science. I think we all have an obligation, as human beings, to be (at least somewhat) humble in recognizing what we do and do not know.

        But even if someone doesn’t accept humility as a virtue, a simple calculative prudence should tell him that presumptuousness is often (if not always) a self-defeating rhetorical or communicative strategy. Whenever climate scientists go beyond their expertise to “call for immediate action,” not only do they presume to know something they don’t (e.g., “that time is running out for action”), they presume to dictate policy. The result of hubris is predictable: a small faction becomes fervent proselytes (often for preexisting reasons) while the majority becomes suspicious.

        As for not overstepping bounds, I agree that you could phrase most of what’s come out from scientists themselves as “if x, then y” statements. But the abstraction doesn’t tell the whole story. Your example is a good case of what I mean. I’ve heard scientists and their media followers repeat the claim that “If we don’t cut GHE, temperature will rise x-number of degrees.”

        But, strictly speaking, this is a half-truth. As the IPCC itself pointed out, it doesn’t matter if we meet those long surpassed Kyoto targets, because even that’s not enough to stop the climate change that’s coming in the next 50 years—the damage is already done. So why undertake a massive GHG reduction project that will impoverish us all for no real mitigation in temperature? Because It’s Time to Pay for Our Wicked Ways? I can’t help but think that’s the answer.

        No doubt if you pushed some of the scientist-bureaucrats who put out these loaded statements, they’d tell you it’s not mixing science and advocacy, it’s translating science into language the lay-person understands. I call it language geared to scare the lay-person into accepting the preferred policy option.

        The hatchet job Bjorn Lomborg received from Scientific American over his Skeptical Environmentalist is the reason I don’t buy that magazine anymore. I wasn’t a big fan of his then, and I’m not really now, but SA’s treatment of him was an obvious case of excommunication dressed up as dispassionate analysis.

        At any rate, Lomborg does bring in other experts (like economists and policy wonks) to come up with the policies he thinks we should follow and then argues the case. And that is a breath of fresh air next to crowd that says Zarathustra Proclaims You the Last Man, Unless You Recycle.

  • Boaz Miller
    Boaz Miller Reply

    As Sheila Jasanoff said in the Trust in Science conference in Toronto in 2007, factual controversies are not settled without settling the relevant controversies about responsibility, blame, and who is to pay the price. That is, as long as the controversy is not resolved around questions such as who is required to reduce carbon omissions, do countries like China and India have the right to undergo a rapid process of industrialization and reach the same level as the developed countries, how many children can people in the developing world have, what price should people in the developed world pay, etc. – the factual question of whether there is human-made global warming and what its implication are remains open.
    Scientists often don’t get that. They see the controversy in purely factual terms, and hence tend to think of climate skeptics are irrational, stupid, and unreasonable. They don’t get that much of the problem is not that people do not get the scientific evidence. On the contrary, they do – they are are just not willing to admit it as long as it is assumed that they are to pay the price rather than other people.

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