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.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

10 books to check out from Jordan Peterson's 'Great Books' list

The Canadian professor has an extensive collection posted on his site.

Jordan Peterson with Carl Jung and the cover art of Jaak Panksepp's 'Affective Neuroscience' (Image: Chris Williamson/Getty Images/Big Think)
Personal Growth
  • Peterson's Great Books list features classics by Orwell, Jung, Huxley, and Dostoevsky.
  • Categories include literature, neuroscience, religion, and systems analysis.
  • Having recently left Patreon for "freedom of speech" reasons, Peterson is taking direct donations through Paypal (and Bitcoin).
Keep reading Show less

Your body’s full of stuff you no longer need. Here's a list.

Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.

Image source: Ernst Haeckel
Surprising Science
  • An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
  • Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
  • Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
Keep reading Show less

Should you invest in China's stock market? Know this one thing first.

Despite incredible economic growth, it is not necessarily an investor's paradise.

  • China's stock market is just 27 years old. It's economy has grown 30x over that time.
  • Imagine if you had invested early and gotten in on the ground floor.
  • Actually, you would have lost money. Here's how that's possible.