Steve Mosher reports that things got a bit bizarre at the 2010 American Geophysical Union convention in San Francisco
Guest post by Steven Mosher
At AGU today I was witness to a “new AGU.” In the very first Steven Schneider Memorial speech Michael Oppenheimer explained the variety of ways that climate scientists can engage the public and the press. There was much I can recommend in Oppenheimer’s advice. He advised scientists to understand that their expertise on particular scientific issues does not give them expertise on all issues, especially on issues that touch on policy. It is one thing to note a scientific finding that climate models predict a 3°C warming for the doubling of CO2; it is quite another thing to opine that controlling CO2 is the answer.
Oppenheimer also was clear that scientists should state their bias openly. He self identified as a “progressive” and was open about his time spent at the EDF. All in all a good presentation, especially for fans of C.P. Snow. Oppenheimer did, however, say one thing that was bizarre.
He seemed to offer the following advice:
You can’t sit on the sidelines and do nothing, because your name might show up in a climategate mail. He argued that some poor scientist had been vilified because his name was merely mentioned in a climategate mail.
I have no clue who he is talking about, but his argument came down to this. If you think you are safe as a scientist by merely staying in the lab and speaking only about science, you are wrong. Why? because some guy got vilified by just being mentioned in the mails. Let’s be clear about who was the center of the mails: Jones and Mann. As Oppenheimer stated a scientist should not think his expertise in science gives him expertise in other areas, areas like the climategate mails and areas like advising other scientists how to conduct themselves with the press and public. Personally, I’d just block mails from people who ask me to delete things.
After Oppenheimer’s speech the “new AGU” assembled a panel of authors to discuss how to communicate with the press and the public. It was a great panel. A sullen Heidi Cullen didn’t say a word. A late arriving Jim Hansen and Naomi Oreskes who suggested that scientists should study history. One member of the panel dominated the discussion, Greg Craven. If you don’t recognize the name, you might recognize the jester hat: Yes, Greg is the high school teacher who made that video about global warming. Basically Pascal’s wager.
Greg nearly always starts every long-winded rant with the phrase “I’m no expert.”
Today was no different, but it came with a twist. He did claim to be an expert in communicating to the public. He was not. I cannot begin to describe the delicious sense of irony I felt when I listened to a panel of people who have no demonstrated skill or expertise in selling messages to the public, trying to tell scientists how they should sell a message to the public. And the questioners were also entertaining. Only one, Steve Easterbrook, managed to ask a rational question. But let’s roll tape to the questions and Craven’s performance.
One of the first questions referenced Revkin’s column on the need for more Republican scientists. Oreskes, with boring predictability, said the Republican party has been anti-science since god was a kid. Epic fail, since the question was not a history question, nevertheless, she trotted out her usual gruel. Craven then launched into his act. He wasn’t an expert on psychology but he read that conservatives are irrational and prone to confirmation bias.
There are so few Republican scientists, he explained, because Republicans are irrational.
That is a quote. That is the “new AGU”.
I’ve explained before that this view of one’s opponents leads to only one end. If you believe your opponents are irrational, then at some point you contemplate using force to get them to agree. I’m not shocked to find this in a teacher. The urge to commit violence on those who refuse to learn is an occupational hazard. I taught, I know. And we should not forget who hit the red button first:
There is a lesson here. People who talk to a captive audience of students do not have expertise in talking to the public at large. You do not convince Republicans by calling them irrational. You do not assume that an audience at AGU is full of Liberals. Greg went on for some time, foaming at the mouth about getting passionate ( the first step to violent action) and I don’t think anyone on the panel thought that there might be a conservative ( much less a Libertarian who believes in global warming) in the audience . One panelist copped to being an independent. Finally, no one on the panel seemed to realize that you do not convince the unconvinced by calling them denialists.
They did seem to agree that Al Gore was not a good choice as a spokesperson and that the meme of “the science is settled” was a bad idea.
The next questioner, sensing that Craven had stolen the show, decided to ask a 10 minute “question,” This activist from Oakland spoke with fire and passion about scientists needing to speak out. Craven, interrupted her passion because she had gone on “long enough”, and tried to steal the show back. Then she complained about him cutting her off.
Cullen looked pained. The only professional was silent. At some point Craven made a promise to shut up and stop hogging the limelight. A promise he would break on nearly every subsequent question, even those questions directed specifically away from him. At one point he banged his head on the table. Rational thought at it’s best. And he scribbled furiously as other people spoke, like he was getting ready to pass a note in class.
John Mashey asked a question as forgettable as his screed on Wegman. Craven took charge again and argued the “if not now, when” argument.
Basically, it goes like this. As a scientist you have to decide at some point that enough is enough. You have to put your scientific commitment to the discipline of doubt aside and “blow past” your boundaries. Say what you feel, not what you can prove.
[ Steve Mosher: Mr. Craven has complained that this is not a direct quote of what he said. It is not a direct quote, it is,as the text indicates, a synopsis of my interpretation of his argument. ]
Rational thought at its best.
Steve Easterbrook, thankfully, asked the only intelligent question. On one hand we have Oppenheimer telling us take care when going beyond our expertise. On the other hand we have Craven, saying “blow past” your boundaries. Oppenheimer tried to paper over the difference, and Oreskes, who seemed to be shooting me looks as I sat there laughing, agreed that there was a difference between these views. Craven, breaking his promise again, read what he had been scribbling. Some sort of challenge to climate scientists that he promises to post.
By this time Hansen had joined the dais and the next questioner wanted to know if the push for action against climate change should be like the civil rights movement. Again, the scribbling genius of public communication took the microphone. And explained that he was finally going to keep his promise about shutting up. So, he handed his statement to Hansen, who dutifully read Craven’s forgettable text. Ah the humility of that. Not content with dominating the dais for an hour our expert in communicating with the public hands a note to Hansen to have Hansen read it. “Here Jim, read this for me.”
After all the PR disasters of climategate they still don’t get it. You don’t convince people by calling them irrational or ignorant. You don’t win hearts and minds by calling them denialists. You can’t scare people of faith, whether they have faith in religion or faith in human ingenuity. And you don’t pass notes in class, Greg. Maybe a dunce hat is in order for that move.
Due to Mr. Mosher being pressed for time, this article was edited from raw form by Anthony Watts, correcting spelling, formatting, punctuation, and adding relevant links. No other changes were made.