Scare-mongering, or avoiding miscommunication?
Over at Crooked Timber, there's an interesting post about "quote doctoring" in the context of the battle over the reality of global climate change. In an interesting twist, John Quiggin's post looks at the doctoring of a quote about communicating scientific information to the public to miscommunicate what the original speaker was trying to communicate.
The quote in question, from Stanford University climatologist Stephen Schneider, is an interesting one:
On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.
[fn1. Schell, J. (1989). ‘Our fragile earth’, in “Discover” 10(10):44-50, October.]
The quote-doctoring discussed at CT seemed intended to make it look like Schneider was saying that it's OK to make scary, inflated proclamations to the public (while in your lab coat, naturally) if it serves the greater good of protecting the environment. But, interestingly, a number of the commenters to the post asked: isn't that what the full Schneider quote is saying?
I don't think Schneider is advocating punking the public in defense of Mother Earth. Rather, I think he's trying to capture some of the difficulty of communicating science to a lay audience. Let's go in for the close reading:
"On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts."
Scientists know that their conclusions are tentative. They are drawing the best conclusions they can with limited data. They know that what they know rests on an intricate inferential edifice, and that new data or wonky instruments or a change in reasonable background assumptions could result in changes -- sometimes big ones -- in what it's reasonable to conclude. When talking to other scientists, there is no problem with including doubts, caveats, ifs, ands, buts. Other scientists understand that these do not mean the conclusions are worthless, nor do they mean that the scientists reporting the conclusions don't know anything. Indeed, the scientists may know quite a lot. But, they are sensitive to the relations between their data, their assumptions, and their conclusions.
To put it more simply: the attitude in science is generally that you ought not to conclude anything that isn't fully supported by the data, and that you never know what the next datum will be. This is why good scientists actually bother to collect data rather than just making it all up. Scientist-to-scientist the question is not so much what do you think is going on here? as how does the data support this conclusion. Rather than come to a conclusion that turns out to be wrong, a scientist anticipates ways it might go wrong and data that might undermine it.
"On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change."
In other words, scientists don't just pursue knowledge for knowledge's sake. Having learned something about the world, they sometime feel that they should use that knowledge to avoid Very Bad Outcomes.
"To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage."
Lay people don't generally read peer-reviewed scientific journals, attend group meetings in the science labs at nearby universities, or talk to their scientist neighbors about issues much beyond lawn care, mass transit, and the occasional school board election. Also, people hardly read the newspaper, maybe watch TV news while they're doing other things, and might miss a science-related news item on the car radio because they're screaming at the guy who just cut them off. If lay people don't seek out scientific information, then scientists who want to share the information (and enlist the help) necessary to avoid Very Bad Outcomes need to seek out the audience. And, unless you want them calling you at home (during dinner time!), this means they need to get help from the mass-media.
"So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have."
Is the mass-media going to give you enough air time (or column-inches above the fold) to explain your conclusions, plus the evidence that supports them, plus the uncertainties and how big these are relative to the strength of your conclusion, in the loving detail a fellow scientist would want to see? Here's a hint: will it help sell advertising? If not, you have to make your point clearly and efficiently. You have to make it in such a way that an audience accustomed to tuning out science will pay attention. You have to make it clear how the information you are presenting matters, in this case as a means to avoid the Very Bad Outcomes. Oh, and you have 60 seconds. Go!
Having tuned out science so effectively, members of the public generally have no understanding of error-bars, which means they can't tell big ones from little ones. Rather than recognizing that some doubt is a concommitant of the scientific method, they think that any expression of doubt means that you're only guessing. (Of course, if the point of science were merely to produce wild guesses, there are far cheaper ways to achieve that goal.) But how much time do you have to give your lay audience the full review of the basics of the scientific method, including how certain our inferences from empirical data can be? Will they check out of this review before you even get to the (suitably qualified) conclusions to which you want them to pay attention so we have time to avert the Very Bad Outcomes?
Maybe we start out with the "big picture" of what we've observed, what we think it means, and why we think it matters. Then, given a reasonable amount of time, we can answer questions. Which, I think, is what Schneider is saying here: "This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both."
Given the lay person's state of understanding about scientific methodology, trying to communicate scientific conclusions with all the scientific caveats may itself be a kind of mis-communication, since the lay person may end up with mistaken impressions about the goodness of scientific knowledge and the actually methodology (and its limitations) that goes into producing it. It doesn't help, of course, that scientist from industry and think tanks go to pains to make relatively small uncertainties look big -- big enough to drive a Hummer through.
It would help the communication immensely if the public actually understood enough about how science works to be able to comprehend the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth from scientists who would like their knowledge to benefit even those who aren't scientists. But, it would seem, the public doesn't, in general, have that level of understanding. Until we figure out how to do something about that, it really does the least violence to the scientists' conclusions, and to the public, if the scientists translate their findings -- and their degree of confidence in them -- to laymen's terms.
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