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?