Saturday, March 25, 2017

How not to convince a scientist that comic artists make good science communicators

Thanks to RationalWiki I found a blog post by a comic artist on science communication. It left me confused at several levels. As always I write the following not in any official capacity, and my opinion is mine alone and not necessarily shared by any person or institution I am affiliated with.
I don't know much about science, and even less about climate science.
This right here may well be the core problem of what follows.
So as a practical matter, I like to side with the majority of scientists until they change their collective minds. They might be wrong, but their guess is probably better than mine.
On the other hand, this is a very insightful paragraph. It would be helpful if we could all respect each other's expertise a bit more. Unless I have good reason not to, I assume that fully qualified primary school teachers know more about teaching primary school children than I do, plumbers know more about plumbing than I do, and so on.
That said, it is mind-boggling to me that the scientific community can't make a case for climate science that sounds convincing, even to some of the people on their side, such as me. In other words, I think scientists are right (because I play the odds), but I am puzzled by why they can't put together a convincing argument, whereas the skeptics can, and easily do. Shouldn't it be the other way around?
The implication is that it is the climate scientists' fault that there are climate change denialists, because scientists are poor communicators. Fair enough, many of us scientists probably could be better communicators. But in this context the argument only works if one assumes that everybody is rational and open to evidence in the first place. The fact is, it is just a really, really uncomfortable idea that our daily comforts like driving the car to work or cranking up air conditioning might be destroying our collective future. It is understandable that many people would reject such an idea regardless of how good a case could be made.

Whether denialists actually do make a better case than scientists is, of course, yet another matter. I do not think so, but then again, I am also a scientist, so I may not be representative.
As a public service, and to save the planet, obviously, I will tell you what it would take to convince skeptics that climate science is a problem that we must fix. Please avoid the following persuasion mistakes.
A comic book author telling scientists how to communicate science. Next up: a dentist telling comic artists how to draw, followed by a philosopher telling structural engineers how to design a bridge.
1. Stop telling me the "models" (plural) are good. If you told me one specific model was good, that might sound convincing. But if climate scientists have multiple models, and they all point in the same general direction, something sounds fishy. If climate science is relatively "settled," wouldn't we all use the same models and assumptions?

And why can't science tell me which one of the different models is the good one, so we can ignore the less-good ones? What's up with that? If you can't tell me which model is better than the others, why would I believe anything about them?
So as his first point the author assumes that there can only ever be one model in any area of science, and all the rest should be discarded. That is not how this works. That is not how any of this works. I am currently envisioning somebody applying the same logic to molecular phylogenetics: "If evolution was settled, wouldn't you all use the same model of character evolution? Why do you still have GTR, JC, F81, and all those other models?"

And how is it "fishy" if scientists have several models that "all point in the same general direction"? Logically, wouldn't the exact opposite look fishy, if each model lead to a different conclusion?
2. Stop telling me the climate models are excellent at hindcasting, meaning they work when you look at history. That is also true of financial models, and we know financial models can NOT predict the future. We also know that investment advisors like to show you their pure-luck past performance to scam you into thinking they can do it in the future. To put it bluntly, climate science is using the most well-known scam method (predicting the past) to gain credibility. That doesn't mean climate models are scams. It only means scientists picked the least credible way to claim credibility. Were there no options for presenting their case in a credible way?

Just to be clear, hindcasting is a necessary check-off for knowing your models are rational and worthy of testing in the future. But it tells you nothing of their ability to predict the future. If scientists were honest about that point, they would be more credible.
This seems more like a personal hang-up than a general problem. How many members of the general public will think "ah, the scientists say that their models work well if tested against past observations, but precisely that is a very good reason not to trust their capacity to predict the future"? Cannot imagine it would be many.

And I find the comparison with investment advisors a bit misguided; we are not talking stock performance here, where one tries to predict the future of one particular investment. We are talking something more comparable to macro-economic modeling, and while there is certainly a lot of motivated reasoning in economics such high-level processes can be predicted with some confidence. It would be hard to say where exactly IBM shares will be in two years, but it should be no problem to provide a prediction on whether inflation will go up or down if the central bank of a country prints a lot more money. (Even I know that increasing the amount of money raises inflation, all else being equal.) Likewise, it might be hard to say exactly how much rain Madrid will have in the year 2100, but it should be no problem to provide a prediction on whether temperature will go up or down if CO2 levels in the atmosphere are doubled, and by how much approximately. (Apparently up by between 1.5 and 4.5C.)
3. Tell me what percentage of warming is caused by humans versus natural causes. If humans are 10% of the cause, I am not so worried. If we are 90%, you have my attention. And if you leave out the percentage caused by humans, I have to assume the omission is intentional. And why would you leave out the most important number if you were being straight with people? Sounds fishy.
This is, again, very strange. If somebody says, "I will now push you over the cliff edge" they have your attention, but if they say "get back, quick, the cliff is crumbling under your feet!", you ignore them? What? I at least would say that even if warming were natural we should not ignore it but still prepare for flooded coastal cities and failed harvests.
There might be a good reason why science doesn't know the percentage of human-made warming and still has a good reason for being alarmed. I just haven't seen it, and I've been looking for it. Why would climate science ignore the only important fact for persuasion?
No idea where the idea comes from that climate science ignores this factor. It is widely agreed among the climate science community that humans are the main factor in what is currently happening, and in turn that expert consensus is widely known to exist.
Today I saw an article saying humans are responsible for MORE than 100% of warming because the earth would otherwise be in a cooling state. No links provided. Credibility = zero.
Why credibility = zero? Does the author not know that the earth underwent some noticeable cooling during the early modern period? Little ice age, anyone? There is also a good argument to be made, based on the timing of previous glacial cycles, that we are due for the start of another ice age, although of course such a change would take hundreds to thousands of years. I haven't looked into it deeply, but the idea that the earth would be cooling a bit if not for the use of fossil fuels is, in fact, at the very least credible to me given these considerations.
4. Stop attacking some of the messengers for believing that our reality holds evidence of Intelligent Design.
What "messengers"? What has any of this to do with Intelligent Design - where does that suddenly come from?
Climate science alarmists need to update their thinking to the "simulated universe" idea that makes a convincing case that we are a trillion times more likely to be a simulation than we are likely to be the first creatures who can create one. No God is required in that theory, and it is entirely compatible with accepted science. (Even if it is wrong.)
Ye gods, the simulated universe... Although I cannot find the link again I once read a very nice analogy for it. "Look, we can do simulations - so probably we are also simulated" is entirely equivalent to some Renaissance philosopher seeing the first paintings that used realistic perspective and concluding that because the real world also has perspective we must be paint pigments on another being's canvas.

It is all about getting caught up in enthusiasm about a new technology, with no evidence being involved anywhere along the chain of reasoning. There is no evidence that something like us could even be simulated, and it seems rather implausible that somebody would be motivated to run such a simulation. I guess one could play the mysterious ways card regarding the simulator's motivations, but then we are deeply in religious apologetics territory.

But still, the main point is that point #4 is completely besides the point.
5. Skeptics produce charts of the earth's temperature going up and down for ages before humans were industrialized. If you can't explain-away that chart, I can't hear anything else you say. I believe the climate alarmists are talking about the rate of increase, not the actual temperatures. But why do I never see their chart overlayed on the skeptics' chart so we can see the difference? That seems like the obvious thing to do. In fact, climate alarmists should throw out everything but that one chart.
Sorry to say, but reading this item I cannot help but think of the term Not Even Wrong. Of course temperatures go up and down naturally, so no scientist is ever going to "explain that away". The implied claim that climate scientists assume no non-anthropogenic climate change has ever taken place is shades of crocoduck, a ridiculous straw-man that would only be brought up by somebody who has not made the slightest effort at understanding the science in question. Scientific publications "produce" the very same charts of natural change, that is where the denialists get them from. The question is, do I have to "explain away" the fact that people die of natural causes all the time before I can object to somebody trying to kill me?

And why rates of increase? Of course a higher rate of change is a problem because it gives us less time to adapt and wildlife less time to move with their climate zone, but ultimately that is not all that "alarmists are talking about". Yes, if Miami is going to turn into Atlantis it may matter whether rates of change are different to, say, the onset of the current interglacial, but first and foremost it matters that the population of Miami will have to move, right?
6. Stop telling me the arctic ice on one pole is decreasing if you are ignoring the increase on the other pole. Or tell me why the experts observing the ice increase are wrong. When you ignore the claim, it feels fishy.
Maybe I missed something, but to the best of my understanding ice is shrinking on both poles. But even if this refers to some reference saying that ice is growing in some part of the Antarctic (a weblink would have been helpful), nobody would claim that every place on earth will experience the same effect with the same effect size. It is, for example, entirely to be expected that it will get drier in one place but wetter in another. In fact, the reason the former place is now drier is most likely that the rain it usually got is now falling in the latter place!
7. When skeptics point out that the Earth has not warmed as predicted, don't change the subject to sea levels. That sounds fishy.
This must either refer to some isolated incident that is not referenced or represent a misunderstanding: It sounds like a garbled version of the observation that the ocean has absorbed some of the warming that was expected to be absorbed by the atmosphere.
8. Don't let the skeptics talk last. The typical arc I see online is that Climate Scientists point out that temperatures are rising, then skeptics produce a chart saying the temperatures are always fluctuating, and have for as far as we can measure. If the real argument is about rate of change, stop telling me about record high temperatures as if they are proof of something.
This is merely a repeat of #5.
9. Stop pointing to record warmth in one place when we're also having record cold in others. How is one relevant and the other is not?
I already touched on this with regard to #6. North America seems to have unusually cold winters precisely because the north pole has unusually warm ones, due to shifting air currents. Truth be told, this objection really astonishes me. Some denialists sound as if they would be surprised by workplaces being empty at the same time as when beaches are full of people. "So are there more people or less people? You don't make sense!"
10. Don't tell me how well your models predict the past. Tell me how many climate models have ever been created, since we started doing this sort of thing, and tell me how many have now been discarded because they didn't predict correctly. If the answer is "All of the old ones failed and we were totally surprised because they were good at hindcasting," then why would I trust the new ones?
This is partly a repeat of #1 and partly a severe misunderstanding of how science works. "If Newton's theory of gravity was superseded by Einstein's theory, why should I now trust Einstein?"

Also, this.
11. When you claim the oceans have risen dramatically, you need to explain why insurance companies are ignoring this risk and why my local beaches look exactly the same to me.
To the best of my understanding, even Donald Trump's Irish golf course has lobbied the local government for a sea wall to protect against rising sea levels...
Also, when I Google this question, why are half of the top search results debunking the rise? How can I tell who is right? They all sound credible to me.
Yes, when I google about health, the search results variously suggest certified pharmaceuticals, homeopathy, reiki, acupuncture, chiropractics, and much more. There are quacks on one side and science-based medical research on the other. How can I tell who is right? I am so confused!
12. If you want me to believe warmer temperatures are bad, you need to produce a chart telling me how humankind thrived during various warmer and colder eras. Was warming usually good or usually bad?

You also need to convince me that economic models are accurate. Sure, we might have warming, but you have to run economic models to figure out how that affects things. And economic models are, as you know, usually worthless.
To be fair, the author may not realise that the last time global temperatures underwent several degrees of change we did not have billions of people living in coastal areas that are going to be flooded, or billions of people to be fed by crops that will suddenly find themselves under heat and drought stress.
13. Stop conflating the basic science and the measurements with the models. Each has its own credibility. The basic science and even the measurements are credible. The models are less so. If you don't make that distinction, I see the message as manipulation, not an honest transfer of knowledge.
Once more this probably refers to an unreferenced incident, so it is difficult to address. More generally, every mathematical description of a system is a model. If I say, "every day this plant grows 5 mm" I have formulated an (admittedly simplistic) model. It not sure how that is so much less credible than a chart showing the plant to have a stem height of 4.3 cm, 4.8 cm, and 5.3 cm on successive days. It is merely a different way of expressing the same pattern.
14. If skeptics make you retreat to Pascal's Wager as your main argument for aggressively responding the climate change, please understand that you lost the debate. The world is full of risks that might happen. We don't treat all of them as real. And we can't rank any of these risks to know how to allocate our capital to the best path. Should we put a trillion dollars into climate remediation or use that money for a missile defense system to better protect us from North Korea?
Yet another instance of what was presumably an unreferenced incident experienced by the author. I would not know how any serious climate scientists would ever have to propose Pascal's Wager, given that the action of CO2 as a greenhouse gas has been established for more than a century and that evidence of rising sea levels, shrinking glaciers, rising atmospheric temperatures, and increasingly extreme weather events are all around us. But then again, I am not even a climate scientist myself, so I don't know very much how they generally argue.
Anyway, to me it seems brutally wrong to call skeptics on climate science "anti-science" when all they want is for science to make its case in a way that doesn't look exactly like a financial scam.* Is that asking a lot?
This is a hilariously naive understanding of denialism. Sure, everybody everywhere is totally open to argument and merely "want[s] for science to make its case in a way that doesn't look exactly like a financial scam". Financial and political interests or tribal instincts do not exist. Riiight.

So in summary, I am sure that many scientists, me included, could learn a lot more about how to communicate. This post, however, was the equivalent of "hey medical profession, you could convince people not to use homeopathy if only you admitted that magic works, and you should stop all that double-blind experiment nonsense, because that just looks as if you have something to hide".

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