I have a pair of Narwhal fingerpuppets. I win.
After the idea that “academic freedom is bullshit”, another interesting line I heard at SciFoo which has stuck in my mind: ecologist Ken Caldiera remarking that climate science was increasingly moving from prediction to explanatory mode. Today’s editorial in the Independent – suggesting their was a pause in concern of global warming but it’s back on the adenda – and George Monbiot’s column – on Arctic ice melt and celebrating heroism of Greenpeace activists – reminded me of it.
Having just re-read Spencer Weart’s great The Discovery of Global Warming, I’m not sure Caldiera’s statement exactly holds. There wasn’t a single “eureka” moment when it came to climate change (or perhaps “oh bugger” is a better term than “eureka” in this context). Rather, the science gradually unraveled and spread and was checked, used and believed in difference places at different times as climate scientists engaged in ongoing interlinking processes of discovery, explanation, prediction for well over a century. It continues to do this, and will probably continue to do so, albeit with different degrees of stabilisation. This is a classic study of how science works, possibly even more than like “the Pasteurization of France“;.
Still, I thought Caldeira’s idea was interesting, and there are a few different ways we might take it which were worth fleshing out.
We can read Caldiera’s statement as a rather depressing one about change to the planet. Climate change is increasingly shifting from something that is likely to happen or happening in hard-to-spot ways to something that is already causing perceptible changes which people in positions of power might start asking questions about. Thus, those who study the science of climate change – climate scientists – go from people who have special equipment, knowledge and methods for spotting what we’d not otherwise see to using these resources to explaining what we’ve done.
Alternatively, we might see it more as a shift in the actions of scientists. Whether climate change is more or less obvious (or happening at all, if that’s a debate that rocks your boat) isn’t so interesting here as a shift to scientists coming out of their labs to tell everyone else about it, sometimes repeating forcefully things they’ve said for years, but with an awareness that they don’t just need to say, they need to be heard.
With Caldier’s talk spinning round my head, it was interesting to see Chris Rapley writing for the FT (paywall-ish) arguing for more strident talk on climate change. This states quite plainly there are significant risks involved in climate change, that this already discussed in private between scientists, business people and politicians, and the public need to hear it too. It complains that there’s a “tacit understanding among responsible commentators that nothing too shocking should be said about climate may end”, arguing that any idea that climate is too contentious and complex a topic for a non-expert commentator to tackle is just wrong, and any fears that any honest appraisal of the possible course of events risks the charge of alarmism is simply a poor excuse.
I’ve rehearsed some of the reasons why communicating climate science is hard before: it’s abstract, slow moving, requires behaviour change, could be funded better (ahem) and has a committed set of “Merchants of Doubt” to contend with. There are many reasons why scientists won’t stick their neck out when it comes to taking uncomfortable messages to the public, especially on climate science. It’s oft-repeated cynicism that science progresses one obit at a time. I’d take a slightly cheerier view that, as a highly social beast, science progresses through peer pressure. People like Rapley and Caldiera provide some headline statements which may help other climate scientists come out of their shell, and I’d say that’s probably a good thing.
Finally though, I should say that I’m not entirely comfy with the notion of scientists simply explaining. I worry that this sets up a rather patronizing relationship with a imaginary passive “public”, which is unlikely to be very successful, as PR strategies go. Moreover, the social, economic, political and cultural change required needs more than scientific voices. It’s bigger than just knowing what is happening to the planet, even if that is a component to the core of the issue. Discussion of MMR happened in playgrounds as much as in newsprint and doctors’ surgeries, GMO and BSE policy played out in supermarkets as much as Whitehall. I guess the aim should be productively linking scientists to these conversations I wish I knew the best way to do this, but I suspect there are many, and more and more people are working on it.