Report from Garrison Institute Climate Change conference: the good & not so good…

As noted previously, I attended the Garrison Institute meeting on Climate, Mind and Behavior.

On positive side, the highlight, in my view, was very interesting presentation by George Marshall.

Marshall, a man of apparently unbounded curiosity, creativity, and public spirit, is organizing a set of related initiatives aimed at improving climate-change science communication.

One of these is, essentially a mega-wearhousing facility for collecting, organizing, & promoting transmission of empirical studies on communication.

Another is a research project aimed at production of effective targeted messaging. Marshall outlined a research protocol that is, in my view, just what’s needed because it focuses on fine grained matching of cultural meanings to the diverse information-processing dispositions that exist in the public. It uses empirical measurement at every stage — from development of materials, to lab testing, to follow-up work in field in collaboration with professional communicators.

This is exactly the systematic approach that tends to be missing from climate change science communication, which is dominated by impressionistic throw-everything-against-the-wall-but-don’t-bother-measuring-what-sticks strategy…  Marshall offered a devastating (and devastatingly funny) analysis of that.

I look forward to the distribution of the video of his talk (the organizers were filming all the presentations).

On downside:

1.  Goldilocks was also there. Lots of just-so story telling — “engage emotions … but don’t scare or numb” — based on ad hoc mix and match of general psychological mechanisms w/o evidence on how they play out in this context (indeed, in disregard of the evidence that actually exists). The antithesis, really, of the careful, deliberate, fine-grained, and genuinely empirical approach that Marshall’s protocol embodied. Sigh…

2. I was also genuinely shocked & saddened by what struck (assaulted) me as the anti-science ethos shared by a large number of participants.

Multiple speakers disparaged science for being “materialistic” and for trying to “put a number on everything.” One, to approving nods of audience, reported that university science instruction had lost the power to inspire “wonder” in students because it was disconnected from “spiritual” (religious, essentially) sensibilities.

For anyone who is inclined to buy that, I strongly recommend watching The Relation of Mathematics to Physics, Lecture 2 of Richard Feynman’s 1964 Messenger Lectures on the Character of Physical Law!

Actually, I think it is a huge problem in our culture that we don’t make it as easy for people who have a religious outlook and love science (there are many of them!) as it is for those who have a more secular outlook & love it to participate in the thrill and wonder of knowing about what we know about nature.

But that problem is one rooted in an imperfect realization of the Liberal ideal of making all the resources of a good society (including access to its immense and inspiring knowledge of nature!) available to all citizens irrespective of their cultural worldviews or moral/political outlooks.

Those who ridicule science for being insufficiently “spiritual” or for being excessively “materialistic” etc. are engaged in a form of illiberal discourse.  They are entitled to pursue their own vision of the best way to live but should show respect — when engaged in civic deliberations — for those who see virtue and excellence in other aspects of the human experience.

That these anti-liberals happen to be concerned about climate change does not excuse their cultural intolerance.

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