The Tao of Climate Science

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJun 28, 2010 11:15 PM


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With the climate change debate becoming increasingly hard-nosed and polarized, perhaps it's time the main players in climate science reconsidered their tactics. Right now, force meets force. This has largely deteriorated into a never-ending rhetorical battle of insults between climate scientists and skeptics. (Climate activists, taking their cue from the hostile landscape, are more transparent, with some calling for a "serious takedown" of one particular renegade scientist). I realize that caged fighting is all the rage, but I don't think it's going to change the dynamics of the climate change discussion. There are, however, other martial arts that could help break this ugly standoff. For example, should climate scientists ever want to establish a better rapport with skeptics (and the public at large) they might consider taking up Tai Chi, a popular Chinese martial art that blends "soft" and "hard" techniquies. Why? Here's one excellent reason via Wikipedia:

The philosophy of Tai Chi Chuan is that if one uses hardness to resist violent force, then both sides are certain to be injured at least to some degree. Such injury, according to tai chi theory, is a natural consequence of meeting brute force with brute force. Instead, students are taught not to directly fight or resist an incoming force, but to meet it in softness and follow its motion while remaining in physical contact until the incoming force of attack exhausts itself or can be safely redirected, meeting yang with yin.

Please do no think I am recommending that Tai Chi be used to outwit skeptics. Rather, I am suggesting that the philosophy may serve as a useful metaphor for more productive engagement with the public (though as an off-and-on-again student of Tai Chi, I certainly recommend it for both body and mind). I started thinking about this after paying closer attention to the comment threads at Real Climate. These guys, I believe, are well intentioned and they perform a valuable public service. Over time, they have also come to represent the public face of climate science. They have to know this. Yet the way RC interacts with a segment of its readership does not reflect well on the communication skills of some of the RC contributors. If you are familiar with radio jock Howard Stern (who can be crude but is also often hilarious), then you might know this classic bit he has shared with listeners countless times. It's a twenty second exchange between a young Howard and his father, who berates his son with a classic one-liner. I think some of the guys at RC, either out of impatience or frustration, or just sheer contempt, employ variations of the same putdown. It's probably not the best way to win people over to your side of the argument. This brings me to an op-ed by Chris Mooney in yesterday's Washington Post, titled

If scientists want to educate the public, they should start by listening

The column likely has some scientists scratching their heads, since Mooney is the co-author of the recent book Unscientific America, in which he argues that

Americans are paying less and less attention to scientists.

So who are scientists supposed to listen to if people have already tuned them out? Maybe Chris can smooth that one out in his next op-ed. At any rate, I would argue that the Real Climate guys who are the public face of climate science in the blogosphere (where much of the nasty debate plays out) are indeed listening to the public. It's how they're responding that strikes me as the bigger problem. UPDATE:

I think Mooney's essay is worth taking up in a separate post. Meanwhile, have a look at Orac's rebuttal. BTW (and this is off-topic, but hey, it's my blog), some of you may be interested to learn that I agree with Orac that scientists can't and shouldn't be building bridges to the anti-vaccine movement. That said, I happen to think that Orac and other science bloggers unfairly lump in climate skeptics with creationists and anti-vaccine activists as part of the larger "denialist" anti-science phenomena. For example, here's Orac in that current post


Here's the problem with Chris' observations. As he clearly points out, denialists, be they anti-vaccine, creationist, deniers of anthropogenic global warming, or whatever, are indeed highly motivated "consumers of science." That's part of the problem. They are consumers of science, but do not understand (or necessarily accept) the scientific method or how science works.

If the more serious and science-minded climate sceptics don't want to be painted with this broad brush (and make no mistake, they are), then I think it's up to them to distinguish themselves from the anti-science types they are so often grouped with. I know they feel they shouldn't have to, but hey, this is the world we live in.

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