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I ♥ NCAR/UCAR--because they *genuinely* ♥ communicating science (plus lecture slides & video)

Spent a great couple of days at NCAR/UCAR last week, culminating in a lecture on "Communicating Climate Science in a Polluted Science Communication Environment."

Slides here. Also, an amusing video of the talk here—one that consists almost entirely of forlorn-looking lectern.

There are 10^6 great things about NCAR/UCAR, of course.

But the one that really grabbed my attention on this visit is how much the scientists there are committed to the instrinsic value of communicating science. 

They want people —decisionmakers, citizens, curious people, kids (dogs & cats, even; they are definitely a bit crazy!)—to know what they know, to see what they see, because they recognize the unique thrill that comes from contemplating what human beings, employing science’s signature methods of observation and inference, have been able to discern about the hidden workings of nature.

Yes, making use of what science knows is useful—indeed, essential—for individual & collective well-being.

That’s a very good reason, too, to want to communicate science under circumstances in which one has good justification (i.e., a theory consistent with plausible behavioral mechanisms and supported by evidence) to believe that not knowing what’s known is causing people to make bad decisions.

But if you think that “knowing what’s known” is how people manage to align their decisionmaking with the best available evidence in all the domains in which their well-being depends on that; that their “not knowing” is thus the explanation for persistent states of public conflict over the best evidence on matters like climate change or nuclear power or the HPV vaccine; and that communicating what’s known to science is thus the most effective way to dispel such disputes, then you actually have a very very weak grasp of the science of science communication.

And if you think, too, that what I just wrote implies there is “no point” in enabling people to know, then you have just revealed that you are merely posing—to others, & likely even to yourself!—when you claim to care about science communication and science education.

I spent hours exchanging ideas with NCAR scientists--including ideas about how to use empirical evidence to perfect climate-science communication--and not even for one second did I feel I was talking to someone like that.




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Reader Comments (3)

You managed to intrigue me, so I went and had a look at the NCAR/UCAR public outreach on climate science. The most obvious route led to this page: ( It's far from the worst I've seen, but you might like to suggest to them that doing the graphs ultra-tiny (under 'Climate of the Past', for example) so you can vaguely see an upward curve but not make out any detail isn't helpful. (As it happens, I know the graph, and the series in it all have issues, but never mind that now.) I also couldn't help noticing that they got their explanation of the greenhouse effect mechanism wrong, but almost everyone does that so I can hardly single them out for criticism on that.

But the big issue I had with the page is the lack of links to deeper explanations. There are a lot of assertions - some give some brief outline of their reasons, but most of them vaguely allude to some 'study' (or to 'criticisms') that if you don't know the area well you would have a hard time figuring out what they were referring to or finding out more about. This is a high barrier to surmount for the casual reader, so they'll likely not bother - either accepting (or rejecting) the conclusion blindly. In the former case, that's not science education; and it's a fragile sort of learning. In the latter, it likely means their efforts were wasted.

This sort of shallow presentation is a 'red flag' to the sort of heuristics I would use for recognising what was known to science. 'Science' should be primarily about the reasoning by which you reach a conclusion, not the conclusion itself.

That said, I will say that NCAR/UCAR is a *great* resource for anyone interested in climate science at a deeper level, with pages and pages of data and information for the more expert. But there's no bridge between the two.

And this is a big problem in a polarised debate where you can't rely on the usual cues about who knows what - where you have two sets of people telling totally different stories and you've got no way to tell which of them is right. When the usual cues don't work, people ought to fall back on scientific method - by looking at who has the best argument and evidence. But there's no easy access to that.

You could say, this sort of web page seems designed for the 'normal' science communication situation where people are more inclined to believe what they're told. (Though I would personally disagree with that approach.) So this seems like an ideal place to start making changes to deal with the 'polluted' environment.

So while you were there did they give any indication that they're planning to take on your ideas and make a big effort to revamp their education pages in this sort of way? Or is it just a matter of tweaking things a bit around the edges? The way you talked about their enthusiastic mission to communicate, it sort of gives the impression they're planning to do something big - but you might equally well have been talking about their existing efforts. Just curious.

March 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

I think that it would be useful to look at the historical trajectory of NCAR's public outreach efforts and how that segues with public outreach and results regarding global climate change in general. The original meas top I.M. Pei designed building was built to impress, and, IMHO, epitomizes a "scientific authorities on high" sort of mindset. Which is of course, what lead to it's staring role in the Woody Allen movie, Sleeper: But this in turn lead to easy attacks by science denialists who could more easily paint a false portrait of climate scientists as elites out of touch with real world needs. On the other hand, the website given by NiV above would indicate that public outreach is now out of date. Rather than an outward shell that made NCAR appear to easily fit in a movie depiction of the 22nd century, the website seems to be a public presentation seriously lagging in up to date expectations as to visual and graphical presentation. Which undoubtedly, has much to do with differences in funding levels over time.
This is not to disparage the many excellent scientists. Who do much great science, whether they are also struggling with a building that made them repeatedly climb up and down towers, to move from lab to lab. Or, trying to fill the gaps in public knowledge and inspiring the need for policy action while also completing their scientific research work.

March 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

"But this in turn lead to easy attacks by science denialists who could more easily paint a false portrait of climate scientists as elites out of touch with real world needs."

It's not something I've come across, at least, not in the context of NCAR/UCAR.

" On the other hand, the website given by NiV above would indicate that public outreach is now out of date."

It's difficult to tell. These things sometimes have their own very particular internal history. It reads like one of the blurbs you sometimes get when somebody is tasked to "write some public-education-outreach stuff" because it turned up in a mission statement or objective and somebody thought they ought to have something to tick that box. Quite often, these things are not even written by the scientists. I came across one once at a NASA website that I had used as an example of bad public science education because it said the greenhouse effect worked like a greenhouse, and somebody else traced its authors to be members of the web media team. You can get PR people and high school students on summer jobs and all sorts of people given the job. If Dan hadn't said about how keen they were on public education, I'd have assumed something of the sort.

However, it appears that I missed the main site, and there is actually a bunch more pages there. This one, for instance, on the greenhouse effect: . While a bit better than the other one, this is pretty dire too. The explanation offered of what makes a greenhouse gas a greenhouse gas - that the atoms are held together loosely - is incorrect. It's actually because the molecules contain two different sorts of atoms which have different electric charges on them, and so as an electromagnetic wave passes they are pushed and pulled by it separately, causing the molecule to bend and vibrate and absorb energy from the wave. The explanation of how the greenhouse effect works is so vague that it's hard to be sure if that's what they meant, but they seem to be offering the usual explanation of greenhouse gases absorbing radiation and then re-emitting it downwards, warming the surface. Again, the explanation is wrong. Convection short-circuits this process entirely.

The actual reason is that the Earth warms or cools until it emits as much energy to outer space as it absorbs. The heat absorbed from the sun requires the emitting surface to be at about -18 C, to emit the right amount of energy. With greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, this emission to space comes from about 5 km up on average, so the temperature there is fixed at -18 C. And because all gases get hot when they're compressed and cool when they expand, (and adding in the effect of condensing water vapour), circulating air warms about 6.5 C/km as it descends to the surface and cools at the same rate as it rises, so 5 km lower down we have to be 5 x 6.5 = 33 C warmer than the emitting layer, or about +15 C. Adding greenhouse gases pushes the emitting layer higher above the surface, so more warming occurs in between.

It explains a lot more, too. It explains why water doesn't get hot under the sun, even though it absorbs and emits infrared radiation in just the same way. (The oceans would boil if things worked as that web page claimed). It explains why the surface of Venus is so hot - the clouds that emit all the heat to space are 50 km high, and compression heats it at 7.5 C/km down to the surface, so the surface is 350 C hotter than the clouds. It explains why the surface of the Earth isn't at an average temperature of 67 C, which it would be if that web page was right.

All this has been known since 1964 or earlier. Why are we still seeing this bogus explanation being repeated? Granted, the real explanation is a little bit more complicated, but all the elements of it are familiar - they just need to be put together. And there's really no excuse for giving wrong explanations, especially without letting the reader know what you're doing - either explain it right or don't explain it at all.

Now, given the errors in it, I suspect the page was not written by any of the climate scientists there. It was probably written by a student or volunteer of some sort. So I don't think they're trying to mislead anyone - they were probably badly educated about it themselves.

But even so, you can see the problem for someone - perhaps leaning a bit towards being sceptical - who comes to NCAR and expects to see an explanation that will answer their questions. How do I know this is true? How do I know who to trust? How can I understand why it works that way, and why warming is inevitable, and how do I answer that pesky sceptic friend of mine who keeps on asking difficult physics questions?

Reading that web page wouldn't tell me what I need to know, it wouldn't give me any sort of confidence in my own understanding, it would lead me into false beliefs that a sceptic could demolish in debate (although few would, most of them having themselves been misled by similar presentations), and you will see, as I noted before, no links from there to a deeper, more accurate explanation, or even any indication of where I might find one.

Here we are, 20+ years after the enhanced anthropogenic greenhouse effect was declared the greatest threat to mankind, and not even NCAR/UCAR can clearly and accurately explain to the public how the damn thing works!

How did we get here? I think it is because we got lazy, and started relying on scientific authority. We build webs of trusted experts who tell us what to believe, and they themselves trust their own networks of experts, who learnt it from other experts, and so on in endless circles. Students believe the teacher, the teacher believes the textbook, the textbook believes the experts, the experts believe the literature, the literature believes the references, the references refer to the consensus, the consensus asks each other. We have got out of the habit of systematic and principled scepticism. We're busy, we don't have time, we're not qualified. You have to "dumb things down" for the general public. And I think this is 'situation normal' - we only ever notice it when the networks are fragmented into opposing camps and we find other people disagreeing with what we thought we were certain of. I don't think our methods of science education are any different, or any better, on topics that are not so controversial.

The other question is: does it matter? Does it matter that a large fraction of people think the sun orbits around the Earth? Or don't know why the sky is blue? Sure, it's fun, and interesting, and I think it's good if people do know and care about these things, but is it only good in the same way they ought to know Shakespeare and Mozart? Aesthetically and culturally preferable, perhaps, but something that frankly we can all (bar a few professionals) manage perfectly happily without?

I'd like to think it was more necessary than that, but I find it difficult to come up with any solid arguments to prove it.

March 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

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