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2004-2005 Brown Bag Discussion of "Science's Audiences"
October 29, 2004

Don Barber (Geology)
Interpreting Climatic Catastrophe:
Science in the Media, or, Why Scientists are Afraid of Reporters


Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Powerpoint Presentation

At the end of Kalala Ngalamulume's presentation on medical history in Senegal last week, Don asserted that he would be speaking this week on the same problem, in a different field of science.

That comment reflected the following parallel, in Don's view: an "informed" group (climate scientists or western medicine proponents) thinks they have some helpful ideas to contribute to a broader society. Efforts to convey the scientific ideas are confounded, however, because each person has ideas on the topic that have been shaped by their own experiences with weather/environment/climate or personal health. Further, the climate and health patterns experienced and observed by any individual are likely to be much less clear than the scientists' view based on temporally and spatially averaged climate studies or disease epidemiology.

Additional parallels stem from the typical resistance to the cultural/societal/economic impacts of adopting and implementing the new science. Accordingly, Don invited us now into a discussion of the often-frustrating attempts of climate scientists to communicate their results to the public. This discourse occurs at many levels, from college teaching, to the general media, to Pentagon white papers that serve as briefings to politicians.

Extreme positions tend to be emphasized in many of these outlets. That is, the broadest media attention seems to be associated either with "catastrophic" climate change predictions, or instead to assertions that nothing will happen due to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, or if anything does happen, it will be entirely beneficial to society.

Don initiated discussion by saying that the "vs." in his title did not intend to indicate combat: his topic was climate science, as it was represented through the media, and he is curious about why scientists are afraid to talk to the media, who are so eager to talk to them. The message that science now needs to convey to the public (of which they of course are a part) is that there may indeed be "something to worry about" other than slight increases in temperature. We've amplified some part of the system, brought about some changes which may result in more abrupt alterations. (Climate is an average, a generalization, based on more than individual observations. Climate change could thus seem to be oxymoronic, but it implies a shift in the average conditions over some time interval. Abrupt climate change means either a LARGER shift over the same time interval, or the same amplitude shift, but over a SHORTER time period, i.e., accelerated change.)

It is the work of climate scientists to figure out what makes the climate oscillate, and how it will behave in the future. But it is hard to know, based on multiple variables (such as water depth) and measurements (such as the calving rate of icebergs) just what the magnitude of anticipated change will be. What is the best way to present such uncertainty? How to quantify it? Can we, accurately? (Strong echoes, here, of last year's discussions about What Counts? Measuring Ourselves in the World.) Statistical likelihood is notoriously uncertain; the record is always insufficient for extrapolation. We make predictions about the future based on the past, which is not an adequate predictor, due to the complexities of feedback, and of the many different boundary conditions now vs. then.

Also in play here is human expectation that what has (recently) been will always be (we cannot imagine, for instance, that the city of New Orleans will cease to exist). However, we are near the global capacity, and our adaptability is compromised. Our agility--that is, our ability to handle change (for example, moving New Orleans further inland)--has been compromised by the choices we have already made. We have put too much faith in technology; for instance, the Corps of Engineers has actually reduced our agility and worsened the problem. Our dependence on technology means that we make ourselves more vulnerable, by placing ourselves in circumstances we cannot handle.

The "precautionary principle" is always to hedge our bets, but everyone has difficulty being rational about low probability/high impact events. If change is gradual, it's easy to take in stride. But a series of slow changes may destabilize by moving us toward, or over, a threshold. And if change is gradual, even if we are capable of adapting, we are psychologically unwilling to. This is a human characteristic: we are prisoners of our own experiences, and have a dissonant perception when presented with the inherent variability of life.

There was much discussion about why we worry more about shark attacks than car crashes: in the latter situation (in which each of us is far more likely to be injured), we have a sense of control and familiarity. Our perception of risk follows no rational rubric; humans really do handle probability very badly. Why are our calculations so "inaccurate"? Is it that our unconscious, adapted to different circumstances, has a certain inertia (that is, our brains still make the right predictions for earlier living conditions, which are the wrong ones for contemporary life)? Are we still doing the probability calculus--making choices based on calculated risk probabilities--that were appropriate long ago, but no longer appropriate today?

But where do our wants come from, the wants that drive our decisions? How much role does emotion play in our calculations (for instance, taking the risk of building a large house right on the beach, where it is likely to be washed away)? How evolutionary is our willingness, for instance, to pull a lever, killing one person in order to save a trolley-full, as compared to our emotional refusal to accomplish the same end by actually pushing that one person off the bridge?

Or is it that our unconscious is still adapted to a short life span? Perhaps we can't calculate the probabilities of what will happen because we don't know the history that surrounds and leads to our own experience. People think locally; they are not geared to think about problems in larger terms. Or perhaps we know the history, but our unconscious "doesn't buy it"; the brain over-generalizes and overweighs its own experience. Consider, for instance, our perception of increased risk in airplane travel immediately after 9/11--or the phenomenon of the "defiant ancestor," invoked when the combined risks of living, working and smoking in Kensington are described: "I had a grandfather who, under all these conditions, lived a long life...." Such "anecdotes are always the bug-a-boo."

We also are now the recipients of too much information, and can only be induced to care by being presented with extreme positions. For this reason, in their search for alternative views, the media emphasizes disagreements; they create a debate when there is no debate, but only observations. Because it is so difficult to quantify uncertainty, there is a tendency to play up disagreements, to "pay for skeptics" to present the opposite point of view.

After 1990, we were given a much clearer picture of abrupt climate change, and more reasons why we might care about it. Last spring, a report commissioned by the Pentagon represented global warming (and an ensuing cold period that could occur within decades) as a threat "worse than terrorism." Abrupt climate change, which had been marginalized for many years, suddenly "telescoped" into a serious problem very quickly. There is "some reality" to these fears; the probability that these dire predictions will come true is not zero. But for scientists, who occupy a middle position, the pendulum has now swung too far in the opposite direction. "The media is more non-linear than the climate"; the abrupt change in reporting was not a function of climate change, but of amplification and distortion of the results of scientists who (for instance) are much more adept at making ocean-floor measurements than at communicating with reporters. Why does the media do this?

Pentagon asked several outside consultants to provide them with a worst case scenario. The consultants, Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, specialize in future business scenarios and strategies. Their report proposed a series of events leading to global chaos: if there were a sudden change in climate, there would be mass starvation, which would lead to world-wide strife. The prospect of war is a high-impact result of a non-zero probability: how is that most responsibly reported?

Anyone inclined to brush up on the concept of catastrophic climate change (who didn't see the movie The Day After Tomorrow), will find a concise introduction @ the following website from a Columbia University course (if you get bored with the science, skip down to the bottom to see the Pentagon's take on all this): http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/edu/dees/V1003/lectures/abrupt_change/

There will be no brown bag next week; the series will resume @ 1:15 on Friday November 12, when Paul Grobstein (Biology) and Elliot Shore (History) will hold a public discussion on "History, Memory and the Brain." In the interim, the conversation is invited to continue online.

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