Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: Science Communication

Here's something I never thought I'd be saying: I can empathize with Justice Scalia.

James Milkey, assistant attorney general of Massachusetts, corrected Justice Antonin Scalia, saying: “Respectfully, Your Honor, it is not the stratosphere. It’s the troposphere.”

“Troposphere, whatever,” Justice Scalia replied. “I told you before I’m not a scientist.” Over a brief flutter of laughter from observers, he added: “That’s why I don’t want to have to deal with global warming, to tell you the truth.”

from Supreme Court arguments in 2006 via Dot Earth

I share with the Justice a wish not to have to understand more than the barest outlines of the science that goes into the climate data and future modeling that tells us that we're well into a process of human-caused global warming. I am confident the scientists understand the trends if not the details. Why shouldn't I be confident? After all, we (mostly) enjoy the benefits of antibiotics and the world wide web, as well as sending Mars rovers to explore the red planet. I'd be just dopey not to have a lot of confidence in scientific knowledge; such a view would contradict my experience. But I don't expect to have to understand all the nuances.

Still, living on a planet that our species is in the process of frying means that more of us do need to understand more, unless we're willing to cede all democratic control of decision making to some body of experts. And that's probably not about to happen. We need to know more because knowing more will enable better collective decisions. And we need to know more to fend off crackpots and people whose salaries depend on not understanding the problem. (H/t Upton Sinclair.)

Learning enough to make informed decisions doesn't require all of us to understand climate science in depth, but it does mean we need to integrate an assumption that human actions are driving changes in the natural world and that these changes derive from our choices. We can learn to understand that; most of us have internalized the counter-intuitive perception that the planet is round and the universe does not revolve around the sun. One day, awareness that to a considerable extent the planet is what we make it will seem equally obvious.

I was extremely pleased the other day at a class put on by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to meet two new employees who explained that they'd just graduated from college with degrees in "Science Communication." Now there's something we need: more people trained to speak across the gap between the scientists and the educated masses. And the scientists seem to be getting this; there's even a Science Communication academic journal.

At the New York Times' Dot Earth blog, Andrew Revkin argues that better communications need to move into new avenues. He suggested the video below. I'm not so sure -- but we need every medium we can find.

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- reminders of an inconvenient truth.

No comments: