Gave talk yesterday at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Slides here.
The talk was part of a science-communication session held in connection NOAA's 38th Climate Diagnostics and Prediction Workshop.
The other speaker at the event was Rick Borchelt, Director for Communications and Public Affairs at the Department of Energy's Office of Science, who is an outstanding (a) natural scientist, (b) scientist of science communication, and (c) science communicator rolled into one. Not a very common thing. I got the benefit of his expertise as he translated some of my own answers into questions into terms that made a lot more sense to everyone, including me.
Our session was organized by David Herring, Director of Communication and Education in NOAA's Climate Program Office, who also possesses the rare and invaluable skill of being able to construct bridging frameworks that enable the insights a particular community of empirical researchers discerns through their professionalized faculty of perception to be viewed clearly and vividly by those from outside that community. Magic!
My talk was aimed at helping the climate scientists in the audience appreciate that the "information" that ordinary citizens are missing, by and large, has little to do with the content of climate science.
There is persistent confusion in the public not because people "don't get" climate science. They quite understandably don't really "get" myriad bodies of decision-relevant science --from medicine to economics, from telecommunications to aeronautics -- that they intelligently make use of in their lives, personal, professional, and civic.
Moreover, the ordinary citizens best situated to "get" any kind of science -- the ones who have the highest degree of science knowledge and most acutely developed critical reasoning skills -- are the ones most culturally divided on climate change risks.
The most important kind of "science comprehension" -- the foundation of rational thought -- is the capacity to reliably recognize what has been made known by valid science, and to reliably separate it from the myriad claims being made by those who are posing or who are peddling forms of insight not genuinely ground in science's way of knowing.
People exercise that capacity by exploiting the ample stock of cues and signs that their diverse cultural communities supply them and that effectively certify which claims, supported by which evidence, warrant being credited.
The public confusion over climate change, I suggested, consists in the disordered, chaotic, conflictual state of those cues and signs across the diverse communities that members of our pluralistic society inhabit.
The information they are missing, then, consists in vivid, concrete, intelligible examples of people they identify with using valid climate science to inform their practical decisionmaking -- not just as government policymakers but as business people and property owners, and as local citizens engaged in working with one another to assure the continuing viability of the ways of life that they all value and on which their common well-being depends.
This is one of the animating themes of field-based science communication research that the Cultural Cognition Project is undertaking in Florida in advising the Southeast Regional Climate Compact, a coalition of four counties (Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Monroe) that are engaged in updating their comprehensive landuse plans to protect one or another element of the local infrastructure from the persistent weather and climate challenges that it faces, and has faced, actually, for hundreds of years.
One critical element of the Compact's science communication strategy, I believe, consists in furnishing citizens with a simple, unvarnished but unobstructed view of the myriad ways in which all sorts of actors in their community are, in a "business as usual' manner, making use of and demanding that public officials make use of valid climate science to promote the continuing vitality of their way of life.
It's normal, banal. Maybe it's even boring to many of these citizens, who have their own practical affairs to attend to and who busily apply their reason to acquiring and making sense of the information that that involves.
But as citizens they rightfully, sensibly look for the sorts of information that would reliably assure them that the agents they are relying on in government to attend to vital public goods are carrying out their tasks in a manner that reflects an informed understanding of the scientific data on which it depends.
So give them that--and then leave it to them, applying their own reliable ability to make sense of what they see, to decide for themselves if they are satisfied and to say what more information they'd like if not.
And then give as clear and usable an account of the content of of what science knows about climate to the myriad practical decisionmakers--in government and out--whose decisions must be guided by it.
Doing that is easier said than done too; and it doing it effectively is something that requires evidence-based practice.
But the point is, communicating the substance of valid science for those who will make direct use of it in their practical decisionmaking is an entirely different thing from supplying ordinary citizens with the information that they legitimately are entitled to have to assure them that those engaged in such decisionmaking are relying on the best available scientific evidence.
It's the latter sort of information that there is a deficit of in our public discourse, and that deficit can be remedied only with evidence of that sort -- not evidence relating to the details of the mechanisms that valid climate science is concerning itself with.
This is a theme that I've emphasized before (I'm always saying the same thing; why? Someone must be studying this...).
I'll say more about it, too, I'm sure, in future posts, including ones that relate more of the details of the field-based research we are doing in Florida.
But the most important thing is just how many resourceful, energetic, intelligent, dedicated people are doing the same thing--investigating the same problem by the same means of forming conjectures, gathering evidence to test them, and then sharing what they learn with others so that they can extend and refine the knowledge such activity produces.
David Herring and Rick Borchelt and their colleagues are among those people.