Here’s your chance to offer them messaging advice
The big story today is that two different groups of scientists are organizing efforts to respond to the most effective and self-destructive disinformation campaign in human history.
This is a welcome, but the challenge is enormous given that the disinformers and confusionists have many advantages including a big head start, much more money, a status quo media that prefers drama to substance, and a simpler task — creating a compelling narrative that does not have to have any basis in fact to convince people to keep doing nothing.
As if to underscore the challenges, the story of the two different groups became conflated, leading the far bigger group to put out a news release with this banner headline:
In the rest of this post, I’ll try to clear up the confusion and offer some basic messaging advice. Some of the members of one of the groups of scientists read this blog, so if you have any advice on what they should be doing and how, post a comment.
Here’s the AGU release:
An article appearing in the Los Angeles Times, and then picked up by media outlets far and wide, misrepresents the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and a climate science project the AGU is about to relaunch. The project, called Climate Q&A Service, aims simply to provide accurate scientific answers to questions from journalists about climate science.”In contrast to what has been reported in the LA Times and elsewhere, there is no campaign by AGU against climate skeptics or congressional conservatives,” says Christine McEntee, Executive Director and CEO of the American Geophysical Union. “AGU will continue to provide accurate scientific information on Earth and space topics to inform the general public and to support sound public policy development.”
AGU is the world’s largest, not-for-profit, professional society of Earth and space scientists, with more than 58,000 members in over 135 countries.
“AGU is a scientific society, not an advocacy organization,” says climate scientist and AGU President Michael J. McPhaden. “The organization is committed to promoting scientific discovery and to disseminating to the scientific community, policy makers, the media, and the public, peer-reviewed scientific findings across a broad range of Earth and space sciences.”
AGU initiated a climate science Q&A service for the first time in 2009 to provide accurate scientific information for journalists covering the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. AGU has been working over the past year on how to provide this service once again in association with the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico.
AGU’s Climate Q&A service addresses scientific questions only. It does not involve any commentary on policy. Journalists are able to submit questions via email, and AGU member-volunteers with Ph.D.s in climate science-related fields provide answers via email.
The relaunch of the Climate Q&A service is pending. When AGU is ready to announce the service, we will notify journalists on our distribution list via a media advisory that the service is once again available for their use.
For additional information about the Q&A service please see a 2 March 2010 article [pdf] about the 2009 Q&A service that was published in AGU’s weekly newspaper Eos, and a blog post about the service on AGU’s science communication blog The Plainspoken Scientist.
This is all to say that the AGU part of this story isn’t really much in the way of news, even though it is a good idea.
MJ‘s Kate Sheppard opines:
I’m troubled by the idea that AGU set up in this press release by creating a delineation between “a scientific society” and “an advocacy organization.” This statement makes it appear that any effort to fight skeptics on climate science would by nature be “advocacy” work, and that a scientific group, by extension, should not then participate in it.
This only serves to affirm the talking point of climate change deniers that scientists who take the time to explain the science and refute lies and misinformation are engaging in “activism.” The repetition of this false association by such an esteemed scientific group is problematic.
Yes, the AGU statement was unnecessarily wishy-washy. The AGU should have focused on what explaining what it is doing and not offer ill-defined statements of what it isn’t doing.
The L.A. Times did accurately report:
John Abraham of St. Thomas University in Minnesota, who last May wrote a widely disseminated response to climate-change skeptics, is pulling together a “Climate Rapid Response Team,” which so far has more than three dozen leading scientists to defend the consensus on global warming in the scientific community.
Abraham has become active in organizing scientists to debunk disinformers (see “Climate scientists eviscerate Lord Monckton’s attempt to disinform the U.S. Congress“). He explains his thinking on this new effort:
Recently, a number of new efforts have been launched by scientists in order to improve the communication of climate science. One effort is the American Geophysical Union’s 700 scientists who are on staff to answer questions centered around the Cancun climate conference. Another effort is one that I am personally involved in, the formation of a “rapid response” team of scientists that can respond quickly to media inquiries related to climate change. Both of these efforts reflect the fact that we haven’t been effective communicators; we are trying to get better.
The main motivation for forming the climate rapid response team is to provide rapid, high-quality information to the media and the public. We know that each year, the science supporting human-caused global warming gets stronger and each year, the consequences become larger. We also know that the window of opportunity is quickly closing. If we don’t take meaningful action soon, we will be committed to significant environmental damage.
It is important for people to know that while this problem is complex, a lot is known about it. The vast majority of top climate scientists understand this is a serious threat. There are very few legitimate scientists who disagree, in fact, approximately 97% of the top climate scientists believe we have a problem. There are a few scientists who disagree. That disagreement is helpful, we want people trying to find fault in the science. However, people should know that the very small handful of scientists who disagree have not, in more than 20 years, been able to find a major fault in the science, they have not been able to propose an alternative explanation for the marked warming of this planet. All their explanations have continually turned out to be wrong.
On the other hand, the general public and members of government are split virtually down the middle on this issue. Half are concerned about global warming, half are not. Why is that? A major reason is that there is a great deal of bad information which typically germinates in the blogosphere and is created by people with little or no real expertise.
We are not na¯ve, we know that solving this problem will require real effort. Many of us believe the alternative is worse. We are on a path to cause real destruction to our planet and I am talking about more than just polar bears. This is a danger to the planetary system. Even if we were only interested in self-preservation we would want to take action.
We are also not na¯ve in recognizing that there is a political piece to this. It is well known, at least in the United States, that conservatives tend to be much more skeptical about climate change than liberals. I don’t think that needs to be the case. We need to move beyond partisanship toward cooperation. We’ve got to remember that conservatives care about the environment too. There have been many conservatives who have made comments about the need to act on climate change. We hope that continues because in the long run, history will look unkindly on those who have stood in the way of saving the planet. This will be an enormous political liability – although by then it will be too late to fix things.
The timing of these efforts was not linked to the recent elections in the U.S. The American Geophysical Union’s effort coincides with the scheduled Cancun climate conference. Our effort happens to be occurring simultaneously and is timed primarily by a recognition that scientists have an obligation to defend the science and engage the public.
We scientists have two hats that we wear. We are both scientists and human beings. As scientists, we need to find ways to get accurate scientific information to a wider audience in a way that is policy neutral. As humans, we are concerned. I am concerned not only for myself, but also for my children and for people in the world who don’t have the resources needed to adapt to the coming change. As a human, I have an obligation to speak up for them.
It is too bad that scientists have to take personal and professional risks in order to be good citizens of the planet. It shouldn’t be this way, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Also part of this is Scott Mandia, Professor of Physical Sciences at Suffolk County Community College, who comments here and who I have reposted (see “The complete guide to modern day climate change“). He told the LAT:
We need to take bold measures to not only communicate science but also to aggressively engage the denialists and politicians who attack climate science and its scientists.
“We are taking the fight to them because we are “¦ tired of taking the hits. The notion that truth will prevail is not working. The truth has been out there for the past two decades, and nothing has changed.”
We will all hang together or we will surely all hang separately.
Scientist are notoriously poor at messaging — heck, even smart people who are great speechmakers can be really poor at messaging, like, say, the current President.
So here are some excerpts, with revisions, of one of my first post on this general subject (see “Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1“):
Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king”¦. The subtle art of combining the various elements that separately mean nothing and collectively mean so much in an harmonious proportion is known to very few”¦. [T]he student of rhetoric may indulge the hope that Nature will finally yield to observation and perseverance, the key to the hearts of men.
So wrote a 23-year-old Winston Churchill in a brilliant, unpublished essay, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric.”
The ever-worsening reality of human-caused global warming is driving more and more scientists to become desperate about our future (see “Desperate times, desperate scientists“). Yet poll after poll shows that scientists and those who accept scientific understanding as the basis for action on climate change are failing to persuade large segments of society about the urgent need to act.
Anyone who wants to understand “” and change “” the politics of global warming, must understand why the deniers, delayers, and inactivists are so persuasive in the public debate and why scientists and scientific-minded people are not. A key part of the answer, I believe, is that while science and logic are powerful systematic tools for understanding the world, they are no match in the public realm for the 25-century-old art of verbal persuasion: rhetoric.
Logic might be described as the art of influencing minds with the facts, whereas rhetoric is the art of influencing both the hearts and minds of listeners with the figures of speech. The figures are the catalog of the different, effective ways that we talk-they include alliteration and other forms of repetition, metaphor, irony, and the like. The goal is to sound believable. As Aristotle wrote in Rhetoric, “aptness of language is one thing that makes people believe in the truth of your story.”
The figures have been widely studied by marketers and social scientists. They turn out to “constitute basic schemes by which people conceptualize their experience and the external world,” as one psychologist put it. We think in figures, and so the figures can be used to change the way we think. That’s why political speech writers use them. To help level the rhetorical playing field in the global warming debate, I will highlight the three rhetorical elements that are essential to modern political persuasion.
First: simple language. Contrary to popular misconception, rhetoric is not big words; it’s small words. Churchill understood this at the age of 23:
The unreflecting often imagine that the effects of oratory are produced by the use of long words”¦. The shorter words of a language are usually the more ancient. Their meaning is more ingrained in the national character and they appeal with greater force to simple understandings than words recently introduced from the Latin and the Greek. All the speeches of great English rhetoricians “¦ display an uniform preference for short, homely words of common usage”¦.
We hear the truth of his advice in the words that linger with us from all of the great speeches: “Judge not that ye be not judged,” “To be or not to be,” “lend me your ears,” “Four score and seven years ago,” “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” “I have a dream.”
In short, simple words and simple slogans work.
Second, repetition, repetition, repetition. Repetition makes words and phrases stick in the mind. Repetition is so important to rhetoric that there are four dozen figures of speech describing different kinds of repetition. The most elemental figure of repetition is alliteration (from the Latin for “repeating the same letter”), as in “compassionate conservative.” Repetition, or “staying on message,” in modern political parlance, remains the essential rhetorical strategy. As Frank Luntz “” the bane of climate progressives (see Bush climate speech follows Luntz playbook: “Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah.“) but an undeniably astute conservative messaging guru “” has said:
There’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.“
Third, the skillful use of tropes (from the Greek for turn), figures that change or turn the meaning of a word away from its literal meaning. The two most important tropes, I believe, are metaphor and irony. “To be a master of metaphor,” Aristotle writes in Poetics, is “a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.” When Bush said in 2006 that the nation was “addicted to oil,” he was speaking metaphorically. Curing an addiction, however, requires far stronger medicine than the president proposed (see “Bush State of the Union Addresses on Energy: Yada, Yada, Yada”¦.“).
SCIENCE, CLIMATE, AND RHETORIC
Rhetoric works, and it works because it is systematic. As Churchill wrote, “The subtle art of combining the various elements that separately mean nothing and collectively mean so much in an harmonious proportion is known to very few.” Unfortunately, the major player in the climate debate, the scientific community, is not good at persuasive speech. Scientists might even be described as anti-rhetoricians since they avoid all of its key elements.
Few scientists are known for simple language. As the physicist Mark Bowen writes in Thin Ice, his book about glaciologist Lonnie Thompson:
Scientists have an annoying habit of backing off when they’re asked to make a plain statement, and climatologists tend to be worse than most.”
Most scientists do not like to repeat themselves because it implies that they aren’t sure of what they are saying. Scientists like to focus on the things that they don’t know, since that is the cutting edge of scientific research. So they don’t keep repeating the things that they do know, which is one reason the public and the media often don’t hear from scientists about the strong areas of agreement on global warming.
Needless to say, the deniers are so good at repetition that they continue to repeat myths long after they have been debunked by scientists. Scientists, and the media, grow weary of repeatedly debunking the same lies, the same nonsensical myths. But that, of course, only encourages the deniers to keep repeating those myths. Like my 19-month-old daughter, they know that if they just keep repeating the same thing over and over and over and over again, they will eventually get their way. And they have (see The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 2 and Part 1).
Of course, when your “way” is just to get people to keep doing the same thing they have been doing for decades (i.e. nothing), your messaging task is considerably easier because the default position of most people, the media, and policymakers is “do nothing.”
Finally, scientific training, at least as I experienced it, emphasizes sticking to facts and speaking literally, as opposed to figuratively or metaphorically. Scientific debates are won by those whose theory best explains the facts, not by those who are the most gifted speakers. This view of science is perhaps best summed up in the motto of the Royal Society of London, one of the world’s oldest scientific academies (founded in 1660), Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word. Words alone are not science.
So, to be effective communicators, scientists will need to learn the essentials of rhetoric.
What advice do you have for these scientists?