Saturday, April 3, 2010

Challenges in what to say and how to say it

There were a couple of items in the Grand Forks Herald in the middle of March that I have been leaving off to the side and am finally getting back to. The first was an op-ed column from March 12 by a handful of scientists from a few different North Dakota universities entitled "Don’t let politics elevate junk science" (pdf from North Dakota Climate Solutions Partnership website).

My thoughts on that column fall in line with the earlier discussion about messaging. Overall I was quite happy to see this column saying what it did. There is one quibble I have with it, and it is something others may disagree with. In fact I am not even completely sure how I feel about it.

The column chided political efforts to slam the brakes on the scientifically-informed efforts to address greenhouse gas pollution. It is great to have scientists out making the case to the public that the evidence clearly demonstrates anthropogenic climate change is occurring and is going to get worse, though we have the capability to avoid the worst possibilities. In this case it was local scientists, and they mentioned a local issue (not the biggest, but a local one) that had recently been discussed in the Herald, the detrimental effects warming are likely to have on prairie potholes and the waterfowl that depend on them.

But the following statement bothered me:
It is scientific research such as this that has led more than two dozen scientists here in North Dakota to sign a statement of principles that declare, “We believe that the Earth’s climate is warming and that there is strong scientific consensus that human activity is a significant factor. Scientific consensus on climate change has been affirmed by international scientific bodies and polls of scientists’ opinions.”

That "statement of principles" I assume is that from the North Dakota Climate Solutions Partnership Scientific Advisory Group from October 2009, which begins:
We, as independent members of the scientific community and members of the North Dakota Climate Solutions Partnership’s Scientific Advisory Group, affirm our belief in the following facts and statements:

Emphasis in both of the above quotes is mine and where my (possible) problem is.

Even though the above also say more solid things like "facts", "climate is warming", and "scientific consensus", to me words like the bold imply the issue is wide open to personal judgment. You would say, 'I believe Rembrandt is the greatest painter ever' or 'in my opinion the Yankees will win the World Series.' You would not say, 'if I jump off the edge of the roof I believe I would fall to the ground.'

Of course not every question in climate science is answered, but fundamental things like that the climate is warming and that human activities are a significant factor are known. They are known not because a lot of scientists just feel that way but rather because there is a vast collection of scientific evidence. I worry "believe" and "opinion" make these things sound up to one's preference, that if one thinks one does not like them they can just be hand-waved away.

But there are varied opinions on how to communicate the information about climate science and frame the discussion. Where I may be cold and analytical about it, others may be less responsive to piles of facts and evidence.

Some people, particularly some who may be unconvinced but reachable, may be much responsive with the issue couched in terms in terms of beliefs, values, and emotions. Not to say not by using facts, but rather not being merely stereotypical Joe Friday. I prefer the textbook approach, but I concede it will not always be the best way to go.

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