ClimateGate: Not Time to Fight Back, But to Engage

Last month, I did an interview with the Philadelphia City Paper on the stolen CRU emails. The feature story provides useful background and context on the communication dynamics of the event. Yet in organizing these details and assembling quotes, the reporter applies a now dominant narrative that the controversy is the latest sign of the growing strength of the climate skeptic movement, a movement fueled by the "anti-science" hostility of American society.

The moral lesson of this narrative, told by liberal commentators and reflected at mainstream outlets and various science media, argues that it's time for scientists to "fight back" and to become more politically savvy, with scientists encouraged to go so far as to organize political action committees and to openly support "pro-science" candidates. Scientists are told to learn how to better communicate with the public and with reporters, but only instrumentally, as a way to achieve their own ends and goals.

In short, from commentators on the left, the science community is being strongly encouraged to become more political and more partisan. Communication about issues such as climate change is a "street fight" that requires "war room"-style political campaigning.

Yet, the danger of this narrative and its recommendations, as Daniel Sarewitz and Samuel Thernstrom recently wrote at the LA Times, is that "citizens come to see science as nothing more than a tool for partisans of all stripes."

Instead of becoming more political and partisan, science institutions need to innovate and re-invest in public engagement initiatives that are aimed at restoring public trust, increasing transparency and public accountability, and increasing public participation in decisions related to science.

The communication goal is not to win a fictional struggle between "pro-science" good guys (usually Democrats) and "anti-science" bad guys (usually Republicans), but rather to increase and broaden public learning and input relative to how expert knowledge is developed, managed, and applied. The goal is to distribute and enable power across groups in society rather than to consolidate it within science institutions or within a specific political party.

Public engagement initiatives to these ends might range from hiring additional staff to process FOI requests while rethinking norms and policies related to the sharing and public release of data. Staff are also needed to effectively handle crisis communication situations in a way that enhances transparency and maintains public trust. These initiatives would also include longer term and more intensive investments in educating scientists, the public, and policymakers about the realities and myths of science-society relations, and the importance of public dialogue, two-way communication, and inclusive decision-making. These initiatives would also include new mechanisms for funding public engagement initiatives and for their organization and sponsorship, especially at the local and regional level.

These were among some of the major recommendations voiced at a recent panel held at the annual AGU meetings. For more on these goals and initiatives, see this recent paper. Also see this paper by Daniel Sarewitz at Issues in Science and Technology. For an example from the EU of educating scientists on science-society relations and public engagement, see this recent article.

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