‘Truth’ as an Asset or Liability in Climate Dialogue

Some climate science communicators see ‘truth’ as handicapping their dialogues with the public and say advocates’ freedom from restrictions imposed by truth gives them an advantage in public discourse. If so … what then?

Just the facts. All the facts. And nothing but the facts.

The truth, that is, to step back a bit from one’s Jack Webb and “Dragnet” memories.

But is the truth enough? Or is it a matter of whose truth?

In the end, is the truth always and unequivocally an advantage, and in no way a disadvantage?

More than a few climate scientists say that their handicap of being somewhat saddled by their obligation to tell “the truth” puts them at a disadvantage in communicating climate change. Without often saying as much, they clearly feel their adversaries in the public policy arena — for purposes of discussion, let’s call them “skeptics” — are not so compelled, or so restrained. Those adversaries, for sure, of course would contest their actually straying from the truth and would see such accusations, á la Rodney Dangerfield, as a sign of their getting no respect.

Truth, in the truest meaning of “sound science,” inevitably involves uncertainties. Qualifications. Knowns and unknowns. Imperfect human judgments. Caveats.

One doesn’t find “inside-the-Beltway” public policy advocates acknowledging the uncertainties, the grey areas, of their thinking. Their positions are untempered, unvarnished, unequivocal.

Ever know an advocate who didn’t claim to have “sound science” on their side? An advocate who took pride in his or her position’s running counter to the best scientific assessments? Ain’t gonna happen: “Sound science,” we learned long ago, is often that science that supports one’s own biases and positions.

In dealing with the broad public on an issue such as climate change, there can be little room for qualifications and nuances involving, for instance, current understandings of the best available current evidence. Pinning ones views on those can seem a lot squishier, even if it isn’t, than simply “knowing” something.

But speak without appropriate qualifiers and conditions, and chances are you’re speaking more as an activist or advocate than as a “pure” scientist … whatever that is.

The truth can carry the day. Or, perhaps most appropriately, in the context of a changing climate, the year or decade or century or millennium. “The truth will out,” like a sculpture from Michelangelo’s formless block. That’s what we’ve all along been taught, have all along wanted to believe.

And it might still. But in the meantime, and as atmospheric CO2 concentrations, for instance, continue their merciless climb, might truth sometimes, and in some ways, be an impediment to those wanting to make the public case? That case being that human-caused climate change is a here-and-now thing, that it can bring with it some frightening implications, and that there may just be things still that the collective we could be doing to fend-off some of those most severe implications?

If truth indeed can be an impediment to effective communication, what then? No responsible scientist or science communicator could actually justify straying from the truth just for the sake of making a point with this or that audience. It’s therefore up to the audience — to all of us, really — to better appreciate the norms by which responsible science is and must be communicated.

Don’t you think? If not, let’s hear your take.

But if so … what are we waiting for?

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
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8 Responses to ‘Truth’ as an Asset or Liability in Climate Dialogue

  1. Paul Quigg says:

    Bud, “The future is unknowable” We all know this and in the context of climate change the truth is both an asset and a liability. The subject is so terribly complicated and we are dealing with every facet of the economy over mind-boggling time frames, the scientific community and or the media feel they must exaggerate their findings to get the publics attention. Every storm, drought, flood, etc. is touted as the result of greenhouse gas emissions. I did not use the term mind-boggling by chance. Every scientific study goes to great lengths to avoid “time discounting” which is very real and relevent to any understanding of the implications of future events. When time discounting is realistically applied to climate change models the models collapse. This is the reality of the problem and it can not be ignored in any rational discussion.
    What can I do today which will most effectively help the lives of my great-great-grandchildren? I have no answer to that question, but I can tell you right now, climate change is not at the top of the list.
    The earth is warming and I believe it will continue to warm as long as we consume fossil fuels and there is no realistic alternative to their continued use.

  2. Scott Denning says:

    We have a moral obligation to tell the truth. Sometimes this means a very narrow technical truth, in journals written by and for other scientists. Other times it means telling true stories of our experience as rational human beings, to broader audiences.

    The scientific truth about climate change is actually very very simple, and can be told without exaggeration to anybody. In this respect I strongly disagree with the previous comment. But of course the human, social, economic, and political truth is much more complicated.

    But nobody is exempt from the moral obligation to tell the truth, and there is no ethical excuse for using socio-political truths to lie about the science. This is simply wrong, and no amount of economic argument can make it right.

    • I’m staggered that this story even got published. As I recall the old saying in Fleet Street, London, it must have been a quiet news day!

      But Scott nails it on the head with his “The scientific truth about climate change is actually very very simple, and can be told without exaggeration to anybody.”

      Indeed, if I might be allowed, I published a recent piece including a wonderful video of David Roberts of Grist telling it in really simple terms on my own Blog, link is here http://learningfromdogs.com/2012/06/21/its-really-quite-simple/ for any who want to take a peek.

      The day that those advocating for change believe that ‘truth’ is a liability is the day that we might as well all give up.

  3. Nullius in Verba says:

    One of the best known commentaries on this question was by Stephen Schneider:

    “On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.”

    Of course, if you can do both, it isn’t an ethical bind and you don’t need to find a balance. But climate scientists have been aware of the problem for some time, have each had to come to their own decision, and the positions chosen naturally vary across the spectrum.

    Uncertainty is a particular problem, especially when explaining complex issues to politicians. There is a perceived need for statements to be given high confidence if they are to act on it. As one IPCC author said “We thought that if we can highlight it, it will impact policymakers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.” Or as the IAC said regarding the IPCC process: “IPCC’s guidance for addressing uncertainties in the Fourth Assessment Report urge authors to consider the amount of evidence and level of agreement about all conclusions and to apply subjective probabilities of confidence to conclusions when there was “high agreement, much evidence.” However, such guidance was not always followed, as exemplified by the many statements in the Working Group II Summary for Policy Makers that are assigned high confidence, but are based on little evidence. Moreover, the apparent need to include statements of “high confidence” (i.e., an 8 out of 10 chance of being correct) in the Summary for Policy Makers led authors to make many vaguely defined statements that are difficult to refute, making them therefore of “high confidence.” Such statements have little value.”

    An alternative approach is to avoid discussing it at all if the choice has to be made between telling the whole truth and opening the ‘uncertainty’ can of worms. Most scientists keep their heads down, not commenting publicly on the topic. Or they’ll willingly explain the simple Janet-and-John version, but drop out of the conversation if questions are asked about data and technicalities arise. It’s not necessarily that they don’t know the answer, but sometimes that they know where discussing it will lead.

    This unfortunately has led to a lack of nuance in the mainstream debate. By avoiding the complexities and uncertainties, the debate is impoverished – the simplified story left vulnerable to critics who know what complexities to raise. Without any ready answer in the standard canon, the case for action is easily derailed.

    A classic case of this is explanations of the greenhouse effect itself. These range from “trapping heat like a blanket” through “working like a greenhouse, to let visible light in but block infrared escaping” to “absorbing upwelling infrared and re-radiating it back to warm the surface”. But none of these are the actual, technical explanation, and all of these mechanisms can easily be shown to be flawed. Providing a wrong explanation and having a critic show that it is wrong is in the end far more damaging than either providing the correct explanation at the cost of complexity, or not explaining it at all, saying it is too complicated.

    Scientists should have more faith in the general public. Tell the truth. Provide the correct explanations. Publish all the data with its messiness and uncertainties, and the limits and assumptions underlying the conclusions. And trust the public to sort it out. It’s true most people won’t be able to understand – but some of them will, and they’ll talk to their friends, and pass the word. They’ll make their own minds up on the conflicts, and some will disagree. But being fully open and honest will recognised, and is itself powerfully persuasive, even if the material itself is difficult and ambiguous.

    “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.”

    “And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”

    • Anna Haynes says:

      > Scientists should have more faith in the general public.

      Nullius, how about if we go by evidence rather than faith? The general public that I talk to can easily grasp “it acts like a blanket”, but will be completely thrown (and lose all motivation for engagement) by “…absorbing upwelling infrared and re-radiating it back to warm the surface”.

      > some of them will [understand], and they’ll talk to their friends, and pass the word.

      What evidence do you have that those who think they understand actually do? My experience has been that those citizens with the greatest confidence in their views are typically the most strongly contrarian.

      Maybe it would work, if we didn’t have a tobacco-company-spawned disinformation machine fighting big-picture understanding, and lauding contrarianism, every step of the way. But we do, and as Naomi Oreskes said, “it just doesn’t work”:

      “I think a lot of us in the scientific community… have been raised with what I call a
      “supply-side” model of science – we think that it’s enough to just do
      scientific work, and that if we do the work and establish the facts
      that somehow that will trickle down to the places where that knowledge
      is needed.

      “Or you can think of it as a diffusion problem – that if we create
      this high concentration of knowledge in great universities like
      Stanford, then the osmotic pressure will cause it to diffuse to the
      areas of low concentration of knowledge.

      “I think we see that that just doesn’t work – the world of humans
      doesn’t work according to the laws of diffusion and osmotic pressure.
      So we have to be more active – I think that the scientific community
      needs to embrace the idea that it isn’t enough just to do the
      research, that you actually have to think about ways and means of
      communicating it and getting it out there, and to understand that when
      you do, it’s not just that the public are ignorant or foolish or
      whatever, but that there’s actually active resistance, that you have
      forces working against it; and you know, there’s a lot at stake in
      these debates.”

      As for your “one IPCC author…” quote, google it; Murari Lal was appalled at the article, saying “I was a lead author for the second assessment, third assessment, and fourth assessment and this is the first time in my life that I’ve been attacked like this.”


  4. Anna Haynes says:

    (Hello Bud, belatedly.)

    Is cherrypicking “truth”?
    Does the answer to this Q depend on whether the cherrypicking is done so as to highlight an ongoing and extremely worrisome trend, vs. to obscure it?

    On big-picture accuracy vs. detail accuracy -
    When I took intro. chem., our prof. would frequently preface his explanation by saying “I’m going to lie to you now”, by which we understood he meant he’d provide the most accurate big-picture understanding, via a simple explanation that gave some inaccurate detail. I don’t think any of us would have preferred accuracy of the details over grasping the big picture.
    So how can we say something like this to the public, and have the meaning be understood (and not have it be twist-able or co-optable?)

    • James says:

      You put together a great point with what you exepainld. A great number of people have to read your posting to allow them to have a greater perspective about this issue. It was great of you to offer great info and supporting arguments. After reading this, I know my mind is pretty clear about the subject matter. Carry on the great work!

  5. Paul Quigg says:

    In my previous comments I remarked that the truth was both an asset and a liability, and the liability part was in the context of being truthful about the uncertainties in predicting the impacts of future climate change. I have been troubled by the relatively rapid creep of certainty in IPCC Assessments based almost entirely on increased computer power with little reference to additional science. Running climate models over and over without the addition of some meat and potatoes is not going to raise confidence levels. The differences between the working group reports and the SPM’s confirm the lowered emphasis on uncertainty and when the media gets into the picture uncertainty pretty much is omitted.
    Climate change has been in the public discussion for over twenty years and public interest peaked in 2007 with a rapid decline since. The scientific community and the media have failed miserably in selling their product. Under the best efforts possible greenhouse gas concentrations will increase for many, many years and we must honestly face the probability of rising global temperatures.