Saturday, November 4, 2017

I Don't Think This is a "Post-Truth World"

I keep hearing about the challenges of science communication in a “post truth world” and I think that framing our challenges in this way plays into a false narrative.  I think simply saying that we do live in a "post truth world" says that on some level we agree.  I would actually wager that on average understanding of science is better now than it’s ever been.  Sure science education in the US needs work.  But it's not like we existed in some Eden where everyone understood statistics and uncertainty and p values and we’ve all been kicked out.  The default truth telling devices for the vast majority of human history have been and still tend to be myths and metaphors (see what I did there with the Eden reference?).  Yes, information moves faster, and misinformation is more readily available but propaganda has always been a tool of the powerful. 

I think that we expect that whenever we're very close to certainty about any scientific finding then everyone should just automatically understand.  I keep seeing references to the idea that people don't question gravity in the same way they do evolution.  Exactly.  Evolution questions belief systems that have existed for thousands of years.  Science doesn't just get to come along and overturn all that in less than a hundred (I'm counting from the discovery of DNA, the real understanding of the mechanisms of evolution).  Gravity is something we all experience every day.  Evolution takes place over generations and isn't something most people actually get to see unfold.  

I do agree that we need to get better at explaining uncertainty and statistics but we cannot come at this from the perspective that if we just explain these things in the best way then suddenly people will be able to understand the world from a scientific perspective.  A lot of the phenomena we're trying to educate people about (climate change, again, evolution) take place over the course of more than one human life and tell stories that run counter to both people's lived experience and deeply held worldviews.  

I think we owe ourselves the chance to revel in the fact that we live at a time where we have the best understanding of the natural world humans have ever had.  We get to look across the universe with the best telescopes we've ever had.  We get to peer inside cells and understand the mechanisms of mass.  We freaking observed gravitational waves!  This stuff is incredible!  And yes, deeply challenging to communicate effectively about.  But I think we ought to stop wringing our hands over a supposed "post truth world" and remember that humans have always been much better at talking in myth.  And I am hopeful that we can collectively find ways to talk about statistics in a way that helps more people understand how they work.  

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Response to "The Uninhabitable Earth" by David Wallace-Wells

To start, I fundamentally agree with Mr. Wallace-Wells.  Climate change is the largest environmental challenge humans have ever faced and we should be deeply concerned.  It's important to keep in mind that we can make change, generally at the town, city or state level.  We can manage our shared resources more responsibly through practical, step-by-step processes.  Your neighborhood probably needs safer cycling and pedestrian infrastructure to help take gas-burning cars off roads.  Your city needs more renewable energy and bigger batteries to generate electricity without fossil fuels.  Your state, most likely, needs to reassess how it trades goods and gets food so we can reduce shipping distances and the carbon dioxide that comes with trucks traveling our highways.  There are a multitude of ways of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere, which adds to the heat trapping blanket that gas creates. By talking to your friends and neighbors, and possibly more importantly, communicating with state and city civic leaders, we get closer to making those possible futures a reality.  These kinds of changes are happening all over the country and the world, like in my city, Boston.  We have become a safer biking city over the last several years and city leaders are currently legislating more renewables in our electrical mix.

OK, now that that's out of the way.  You've probably read or at least heard about the article, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells.  It was published in the New York Magazine last week and since its publication has created a flurry of conversation online and in real life.

A lot of the response has been about how it's OK to talk about how scary climate change is.  I think that's true, but I think the thing that everything I've read in the last few days misses is: it depends on a) who you're talking to and b) what your communication goal actually is.  I think that, again, what I have in common with Mr. Wallace-Wells is that we both care deeply about this issue and want to see more change and at higher levels.  I have had a lot of conversations about what can feel like a very grim future with colleagues.  But my communication with the public is generally never about the impacts.  It's about solutions.  This is something the article never actually gets to, except at the very end leaving a vague notion that some scientists somewhere are maybe working on carbon capture or something.  Oh, and Elon Musk wants to build a city on Mars.  He doesn't empower you, the reader, to know what to do with all this fear you now have.

While I think we agree on some basic premises, there's a lot I disagree with about the article.

1. The premise that we're not afraid.  Research shows that the majority of Americans are concerned about climate change and believe that climate change will harm Americans generally.  The issue is that we believe others are not concerned and that climate change will not harm us directly.  This is a communication issue not a matter of understanding that there is a huge problem that we all face.

Though a lot of the supporters of this article seem to have a very low opinion of social science, there also have been numerous studies done on how fear is generally an inhibitor to taking action, not the opposite.  Here's just one paper and one article from the Guardian.

2. There's a premise that we (all Americans, let's say) need to understand the science better.  If we just knew more about climate science and climate change, then we'd act.  Again, the research doesn't support this and often shows the opposite.  The more science you understand, the more polarized you become about acting on climate change.  There are, again, a  number of resources for this but I think one of the clearest is this video by Katherine Hayhoe.  What the article says is that all the scientists talk about climate change in a way that is statistical and muted and we really need to envision what the world might be like and get freaked out.  This also holds the premise that scientists are the best climate communicators.  They can be, like Hayhoe.  But they're not always.

3. More so in the responses, there has been a premise that when people are exposed to the more measured, hopeful kind of climate communication they're not going home and installing solar panels.  That's true, but not the point.  We should not be inflicting the solution on individuals for two reasons.  One, individual actions do not fit the scale of this global problem.  Two, this can lead to what's known as single action bias: where you buy a reusable water bottle and consider your environmental good deed done and then go back to living your life as is.  We live in a system that runs on fossil fuels.  It's the system that must change, not our behavior.  At the beginning of this post I attempted to show what solutions look like.  Communicating with each other and our civic leaders is currently leading to changes all over the country and the world.  Solar panels at home are great but they are not the solution.

4. There is a premise that we haven't seen enough change in the last 30+ years of measured, hopeful climate communication so the whole project must have failed.  However, it's only within the last several years that more concerted efforts to research, test and retest various ways of communicating about climate change have really taken off.  There's Yale, of course, FrameWorks Institute and NNOCCI, Union of Concerned Scientists and others.  Again, the cheerleaders of this article seem to have their minds made up about social science but I'm a firm believer in the scientific method, even when it comes to the very challenging world of human brains and groups of human brains.  Another major reason that we haven't made more change is that the fossil fuel industry is incredibly powerful and it has taken time and concerted effort to find ways to build political capital to oppose them.  It's still a work in progress.

5. The one premise that I do find somewhat intriguing to talk through is that we're missing the forest for the trees.  That is, a fear based communication strategy may cause paralysis in an individual but that if this sentiment, that climate change is real and it's scary, gets accepted on a collective level then this is what will really shift the cultural zeitgeist and create the political will to make change.  I don't want to get into the weeds on this one because I think it's a new argument and I don't have a good sense of its implications.  But, I will reiterate that part of this challenge still lies in the fossil fuel industry itself, and that a million more scared citizens does not take their power away.  I also think that a group of paralyzed citizens is still paralyzed.

I sincerely hope that those that are saying "this is good, people are talking" are right.  I will concede that part of what we need to do is open lines of dialogue and actually get talking about this giant problem that, data show, we are mostly all pretty concerned about.  I'm still not one bit convinced this is the right way to go about it.

Thanks for reading.  I look forward to hearing from you if you have anything to debate or add in the comments.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Through the Pedantic Looking Glass

I realize that since coming back to writing this blog basically all I've written about is the use of technical language and when and how to use it.  There's two big reasons for that: one is that science and words are probably my two favorite things and right there at the nexus is the world of technical language.  The other is that as a science educator science words are integral to my everyday work and I think about these ideas a lot.

As I have voiced in slightly different words before, as I got closer and closer to the looking glass of being pedantic I found myself falling through into a world where nothing quite makes sense and "technically correct" is no longer the best kind of correct.  I'm writing about this again because of two examples that came up for me recently, both having to do, naturally, with cephalopods.

I have discussed many, many times the difference between "tentacle" and "arm" as it pertains to cephalopods. On a squid it's somewhat straightforward: tentacles are longer and have suction discs only on the clubs at the ends while arms are shorter and have suction discs all the way down.  However there are some problems with this.  First when you look outside the cephalopods this distinction no longer makes any sense.  Snails, polychaete worms, star-nosed moles all have tentacles.  They are often chemosensory but not always, they are often used for grabbing or holding food but not always.  Generally the only other appendage that gets called an "arm" are human arms.  So these are not definitions (which in science, technical words are generally thought to have definitions) but rather conventions.  That is, it is convention to call a cephalopod appendage with suction discs only on the club at the end a tentacle but this is not the definition of the word "tentacle."

The other real problem with arm vs. tentacle within the cephalopods is that the nautilidae have "tentacles" but lack suction discs entirely.  So again, these terms, both "arm" and "tentacle" appear to be conventions and not definitions.  That's fine, we use language in this way in colloquial life all the time.  It generally leads to only minor confusion.  The thing is that in science, we have tricked ourselves into believing that the words we use always have a very precise meaning.  The truth is, this is only sometimes true.  Planet, continent, species are all examples of very common terms that really lack a precise definition.  But there's fun to be had here.  The natural world is tenaciously difficult to put into the boxes our human brains want to put it in.  The fun is figuring out what other sorts of containers we can use.  Turns out these imperfect conventions are fairly useful.

The other example around technical language that came up recently was around the word "octopi."  In a lot of the scientific community this is regarded as an "incorrect" plural of "octopus."  This is because the word "octopus"is a Greek route word and not a Latin route word and the -us to -i pluralization is not used in Greek.  So the "technically" correct pluralization of "octopus" is "octopuses."  But here's the rub: a lot of people use the word "octopi."

And this is the argument that I think we all, myself included, need to do better at remembering: if people use a word and you understand it, it probably means it's a word.  If we only obey the "dictionary definitions" of words or the "technical" definitions of words we're saying that a whole section of language is completely off limits: slang.  Even though it might not be "good grammar" you know perfectly well what I mean when I use the words "a'int," "dope," "cool" (I don't mean temperature), etc.

This might be where we all fall into the looking glass of pedantry and "technically" correct:  I'll introduce the character of the Merriam-Webster dictionary.  They include "octopi" among their plurals for "octopus." So does this mean that "if the dictionary says it's a word, it's a word"?  Kind of.  Dictionaries change, words change, usage change and with this example that's the real point.  A lot of us think about the dictionary as being some kind of Platonic codification of our language.  Sorry, though, language refuses to play that game.  So if you understand when someone says "octopi" that they mean "more than one octopus" why correct them?

These rules morph and flex depending on your audience.  Should I use "octopuses" when I'm addressing marine biologists and "octopi" if my eight year old student has just used that word and not "octopuses?"  Yeah probably yes to both of those.

As I was developing this post I came across this graph on Twitter and thought about not even writing this post at all.  As you can see, I did write the post but I wanted to include it here, because, well, I still think it sums up what I just said a bit better than I said it.

click to embiggen.  Courtesy  

As usual I'll invite you to disagree, yell, berate and complain in the comments.