Tag Archives: climate

Science and the greens

I’ve written a piece with Adam Corner about science and the green movement.

It’s a complex issue with many components, characters, ideas and histories to weave through. Although I have a lot of sympathy when people, like Fred Pearce, worry the green movement is too often “turning up on the wrong side of the scientific argument”, I also think we should be careful of marginalising the political contribution the green movement can offer. Scientists and members of the green movement – where they don’t already overlap – should be listening to each other more.

You can read the full piece at the New Left Project, or here’s an extract:

It’s not just their scepticism of science and technology, which gets the greens into trouble with the scientific community; it’s their overconfidence in it too. In the wake of the 2009 “Climategate” hack, Mike Hulme wrote a piece for the Guardian complaining that climate camp activists misunderstood science as they tried to use it for political advocacy. Citing an example of a banner claiming protestors were “armed only with peer-reviewed science”, Hulme stressed they were armed with much more than that. The Climate Camp protest reflected a powerful vision of politics and economic justice, and should be open about that. Using phrases like “as demanded by the science” only emasculates public debate.

It is important to see that Climate Camp slogan in its political context too though. The campaigners were responding to concerns that they were dangerous; they wanted to suggest they were armed with something other than sticks. The actual banner has a set of ellipses as well as the word “only” between “armed” and “peer reviewed”. Read in such light, we could even see this as a relatively humble cultural reference to science, applied for its timidity, not ferocity. Moreover, why not stand behind some science? Especially as there are so many others quick to try to diminish the strength of scientific voices in this debate. We appreciate this may sound at odds with our earlier emphasis on the political nature of science and technology, but it is possible to be aware that science won’t win a battle outright, and still say it is part of the argument. We think our environmental policy decisions can cope with the small degree of nuance required to draw on science whilst also putting it in a social context. We think our environmental policy needs to be able to do this.

Steven Yearley suggests environmental NGOs were initially wary about campaigning on climate change; they were looking for concrete successes and this topic just looked like one designed to provoke and sustain controversy. Looking at recent campaigns, we might be excused for thinking some have returned to a rather 80s focus on saving animals and battling corporate corruption. It’s all bees, oil spills, gas bills and aircraft noise, with the complex, abstract and contested topic of climate change hiding in background. Maybe the climate science will come out from behind the polar bear pictures with the publication of the fifth IPCC report, or maybe not. Sense About Scienceare working on questions of the public understanding of uncertainty. Arguably this is a worthwhile, scientific and sensible thing to do, but considering the well documented well-funded and well-organised campaigns to spread doubt in climate science (the so-called “Merchants of Doubt”), it’s understandable many are concerned about such an approach. One person’s open and healthy acceptance of uncertainty is another’s “dragging heels with inaction”, or even stirring trouble. Uncertainty, like many aspects of environmental policy, can be rhetorically deployed to a range of ends.

S#*@ scientists say

A lot of scientists and science writers I follow online seem to be sharing a table outlining terms which have, apparently, different meanings for scientists and the public, as if it was some sort of incredibly useful resource.

Physics Today, October 2011, pp51.

It popped up on one of the American Geophysical Union blogs as well as Southern Fried Science who has extended the conversation with a googledoc. Then it got Boing-ed. I think the table has been taken a little out of context, lifted from a pay-walled article in the American Institue of Physics’ magazine, Physics Today. None of the people passing around this table seem to care about the basis for this advice. How did they learn that this was a meaning the public would take from a word? How did they test the ‘better choice’? This sort of questioning was my first reaction to the chart, and frankly I’ve been a bit shocked by the uncritical attitude approach other people have taken to it.

So, I dug out the article and although it covers a lot of what might easily be described as probably quite sensible media training advice, that is really all it is. It is based on the experience of the authors, which I’m happy to agree is pretty decent experience, but is still rather partial, not to mention unsystematic. That doesn’t mean the debate prompted by the table hasn’t been useful. I’m not disputing the idea that scientists use different language from other people. But scientists often use different language from one another too, or at least, one specialist will have a different set of terms from another. Moreover, it’s plain silly to assume all members of the public (whatever ‘the public’ is…) take the same meaning in all contexts. To take, for example, the 6th word on that list: ‘uncertainty’ won’t necessarily mean ‘ignorance’ to everyone without scientific training, all of the time. Let’s not be reductive about language, please.

I’m all for people reflecting on the multiple meanings of words associated with science, and for people sharing advice and experiences to help come up with a ‘better choice’. By all means think about terms, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is anything other than a bit of useful blah, please don’t take any of this as set in stone and please, please, PLEASE don’t generalise about the whole of science and the whole of the public as some sort of simple and discernible binary. Otherwise I’ll just start stabbing things. As that Physics Today argues (if you read it, not just blogposts…) climate change communication is worth doing well. Precisely because I agree with this, I want to stress that it is important that we keep in mind the specific context of our various utterances on science, and avoid the lure of too-easy generations.

Personally, I think we should be investing in detailed and rigorous social science on this issue. Although I do think a bit of general chatter is useful (if you are interested, do go and play with that googledoc), I also think it is worth more than that. It’s worth being clever about this. It’s worth being precise. It’s worth being evidence-based.