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"Uninhabitable Earth" ... Good #scicomm? 

This article in New York magazine--


--has attracted a lot of critical attention, particularly from climate scientists, who have attacked many of its claims as unsupported by the best available evidence. But at least some commentators think the "alarmism" the story conveys is needed to galvanize public opinion.

So what do the 14 billion regular readers of this blog think? Is the article good science communication?

Also, let's try this: in addition to stating your view, identify what you think is the best argument on the other side.   


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Reader Comments (10)

The piece is carefully written to alarm people of the dangers of climate change, and be shareable. So that part worked fine.

There's now an annotated version which cites in detail the science sources (see at top of the article). See

Reading the annotations, I think those pushing back on the science aren't successful. Which leaves pushing back on the tone and framing. As you asked, does the article achieve it's scicomm goals?

Arnold Kling, in his book The Three Languages of Politics, says writing tends to fall into three categories:
1) close minds of your in-group - easy/popular
2) open minds of your in-group - hard/unpopular
3) open minds of out-group - very hard/niche

Very few claim to be doing #1, even though most people acknowledge that writing often falls under that category. The canonical example being sports writing about why the home team is good and the visiting team is bad.

So I'm sure the (stated) scicomm goal of the article is of course to do #2 and #3. In this case, for #2 take people already concerned about climate change, the writer's in-group, and open their minds to be even more alarmed and hence do more. In category #3, convince the writer's out-group who are not alarmed about climate to become alarmed and do something.

Empirically this could be tested by survey. You first ask a few questions to classify people's degree of alarm and activism about climate, then have them read the article, then ask again if it changed their views. In particular not just if they are now more alarmed, but also if they are now more likely to support paying higher taxes on gas for example. This would be useful to try! I'm not certain what would happen. But my guess is of course that this is clearly a case of writing category #1. People already alarmed about climate (the in-group), are now even more convinced that the out-group is bad. I suspect on the margin it would help those in the in-group to become slightly more activist though. While it would harden views of the outgroup.

The analogy to politics is clear enough. Do you get more votes by going for turnout and riling up the base (the in-group)? Or by attempting to appeal to those on the fence or even in the out-group?

What concerns me is our current president of course appeals only to his base. And this article is also appealing mostly to its base. It's hard to reach the out-group. But I at least wish more effort was made to do writing to open minds of the in-group (style #2). Perhaps that is the only path to doing #3 anyway.

July 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNathan Taylor

I think alarmism just makes people care about their food supply. Just like how The Jungle aimed for America's heart and hit it in its stomach, so did Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth; some people decided to not care about the CO2 at all, and most affected people decided to pay attention to their food systems, in many cases to the detriment of other environmental and climate-change sensitive issues.

Alarmism's whole point is that the end state is scary. Anyone who works to adapt to the challenge is trying to make the end state less scary. So if you want to pursue effective adaptation solutions, you can't use alarmism, because alarmism alienates the people who are trying (and being forced) to adapt. I think the only people who like it are mitigation-only ideologues, climate-change apocalypsists, and those whose actual agenda is against the fossil fuel industry and other powers-that-be.

July 22, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

Dan - this entire discussion dates back to 2006 (at least) with the much-ridiculed Stern report and an analysis by a UK think tank
which concludes with the common-sense recommendation the climate change communicators must approach the issue in the same way as advertisers.

Exactly like the advertisers, the "sky is falling" climate contingent has discoverd that, given that the sky hasn't fallen recently, additional warnings for that specific product will be simply tuned out. Ads for popular diets, beauty, and exercise routines are a classic example - if any of them worked there wouldn't be any need for ever-newer ones, but hope springs eternal. Fear has to reach ever-higher pitches until finally warnings pass beyond the audible range - newer warnings must be found if they're to be effective, and there is NOTHING in the articles you link except a re-hash of the tired old warnings in the 2006 link I posted above.

July 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

"has attracted a lot of critical attention, particularly from climate scientists, who have attacked many of its claims as unsupported by the best available evidence. But at least some commentators think the "alarmism" the story conveys is needed to galvanize public opinion."

The climate scientists are well aware that exactly this approach was tried back in the 1990s (I'm happy to give examples!), and it didn't work then. In fact, it proved one of the most effective lines of attack used by sceptics to discredit climate science. Given the way opinions have ossified since, it's *definitely* not going to work now!

"Also, let's try this: in addition to stating your view, identify what you think is the best argument on the other side."

That whatever you might think of anthropogenic climate change, natural climate change is still a risk. (It's a pretty weak argument, though, since we've been living with natural climate change for millennia, and modern technology has pretty much got it licked. But it's a valid point.)

I'll be interested to see if anyone else actually answers that one!

"Reading the annotations, I think those pushing back on the science aren't successful."

On what basis? Did you read anything by those pushing back on the science, or only the author's own footnotes on it?

(It's not hard to poke holes in the "science" here - but there's not much point since I think most people who are not already believers are going to think the article more than a little silly, and true believers won't be convinced by anything. I'm just a little curious what your process is for deciding whether scientific objections are valid or not. Did you look, and decide the author had indeed adequately answered the objections, or did you assume the author's footnotes were the sum total and final word on the argument?)

July 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Potentially, some interesting asymmetries... although, I'm not entirely sure... asymmetries in what:

July 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Highly emotive framing of this kind does not so much communicate the message, as create it. The NYM article is not science communication, it is cultural messaging. And it is not particularly surprising, aligning well as it does to the output of virtually the whole Western authority matrix over many years, which from presidents and prime ministers on downwards has trumpeted the certainty of imminent (decades) climate catastrophe, in the most urgent and emotive terms. This certainty is not supported by orthodox science let alone more skeptical science, and hence represents easily the most dominant and indeed an overwhelming pollution (as you put it - I dislike the term) of the science communication environment. The article differs only in providing more 'detail', which as even some orthodox scientists point out, is just speculation.That more mainstream scientists have not complained before demonstrates the depth of their cultural alignment. Yet I guess there is some boundary on extreme propositions after all, which may be moving inward somewhat in changing political times (there have been very many articles preaching climate doom over the years).

>'in addition to stating your view,'

My view does not come from skepticism of orthodox physical climate science, nor of belief in it. The 'consensus' in the climate domain, as indeed it calls itself, along with its grass roots support, ticks every box for being cultural. Hence my view is that it is cultural. Whether ACO2 turns out to be good, bad, or indifferent, the central narrative of that emergent culture, i.e. the certainty of imminent climate calamity, is just a fairy story, like all other cultural narratives.

>'identify what you think is the best argument on the other side.'

For those who think the certainty of imminent climate calamity is not an emergent cultural consensus, I'd advise that they stop behaving in every was as though it is, including acting as secular prophets of doom per this article. Emphasize win-win scenarios; e.g. much better preparedness for floods or droughts. Whether these are caused by climate change or not such preparedness is needed anyhow for many regions, which could not now even handle recent historic extremes. Avoid emotive messaging, which is highly polarizing. This article of apocalypse has drawn some complaint from the orthodox, but little, and most will likely give it a pass as a 'necessary exaggeration' for the cause. However, for the half of the public not inclined to belief in climate change, this will only increase their skepticism of a domain that looks religious, not at all like a branch of science.

July 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

@AndyWest-- I pretty much agree w/ you. But it would be interesting to do an empirical test of how persuasive this article is relative to other forms of science communication.

July 25, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


Persuasive of what? The NYM article's highly emotive signalling does not communicate science and merely trumpets a cultural position. As with all such signalling, the article will no doubt persuade some who already leaned a little towards this position to commit further, while turning off those who already leaned somewhat away. Those at the balance point could fall either way. But persuading people towards science it cannot not do, because it is a *cultural* narrative. So empirically comparing its persuasive power to science communication is like comparing apples with house-bricks. How could this tell us anything?

Various studies, e.g. Smith and Leiserowitz 2014, note unsurprisingly that climate fear memes disengage the public, although this is presumably a net effect and they didn’t look at the likely polarization beneath (I can't recall). It is most probable that the effect of the NYM article will likewise be a net disengagement, especially as a few even of the orthodox have objected in this particular case. However, even had it been net engagement, how can engaging with a cultural fiction help? This usually hinders. And the conclusion of disengagement didn't appear to alert the various authors to the serious generic problem of injecting high emotion into science communication over decades, despite all social scientists are surely aware of the dangers of emotive bias; they typically recommended using alternate emotive devices to fear instead, and as potent as possible while remaining under the threshold of backlash. Anyhow their recommendations have no practical effect in turning back the fear dial, because fear in cultural narratives (and especially fear / hope combinations) has a very high selective value and hence will continue to prosper in any case.

Most of the climate communication that has flooded the public from powerful authority for many years is not supported by even the orthodox science, let alone anything tending to luke warmer or skeptic. Yet climate cultural consensus policing is strong, which has prevented some mainstream scientists from objecting for fear of being branded a denier, and likely for many more through subconscious emotive commitment to the cultural certainty of calamity, as aided by the cellular nature of science over a huge range of interactive fields. The NYM article combines several apocalypses together, and in a time of changing politics where the risk of such highly speculative excursions facing serious questioning, is increasing. While the orthodox complaints were carefully framed and modest in number, this does seem to mark a slight shift in the wind.

July 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

Also seen on the Chicken Little channel recently:

Any guesses how this gets politicized? It could go either way, I think. There's the potential environmental man-made toxin tie-in - all set for panic on the left. But there's also: "no significant decline was seen in South America, Asia and Africa" - which could panic white males (this type of inequality might hit them where it, uh, hurts).

July 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

"Any guesses how this gets politicized? It could go either way, I think."

It looks exactly the same as the last time the identical scare story hit the headlines, back in 1992. (Bjorn Lomborg discussed its history on p238 of his book 'The Skeptical Environmentalist'.)

"which could panic white males (this type of inequality might hit them where it, uh, hurts)."

Right up until someone points out that having sex more often reduces sperm count! :-)

To predict political appeal of scare stories, you have to consider what they're being blamed on. For the eco-left, it's "man-made chemicals"; what would it be for the right? Are sperm counts declining because Westerners are turning to weak liberal vegetarianism? Is it doe to Metrosexual degeneracy? Are boys not doing enough outdoor sports and similar manly activities?

I don't think "white men" really works - I doubt anyone is going to believe that skin colour has any effect - why would it change over time? - and the "men" bit goes without saying if you're talking about sperm count. So if you're going to bring race into it (and surely we're no longer so racist nowadays as to do so?) you would have to identify some popularly perceived threat to white people that could cause infertility. Are brown-skinned immigrants working at fast food stalls lacing the food with infertility drugs as part of their nefarious plan to take over the country?! I really can't see that one taking off.

So no, my guess is that if it goes anywhere it will go to the environmentalists, same as last time. But more likely, enough people will remember the last time that they'll just roll their eyes and ignore it.

July 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

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