2010-11-15 13:50:54Advice on engaging the public
John Cook


Okay, basically, I'm using this forum now similar to Dumbledore's pensieve - I can't keep track of all the thoughts and ideas floating past me every day so I like to throw them in here for future reference. Here is an excellent email from Greg Craven which I'm just copying and pasting into here and adding some of my own highlights to pick out key points:

Here's my two cents on engaging the public:

The biggest obstacles you need to understand are that the public doesn't understand the nature of science, they are unwitting victims of serious confirmation bias, they aren't rational decision-makers, and there is a great deal of anti-intellectual feeling out there. (DO NOT tell them any of this.  They'll label you as an arrogant, patronizing intellectual who thinks you're better than them, and stop listening.)

Avoid citing more than one statistic.  Statistics almost never change opinions, especially when the other side is skilled in coming up with countering statistics, with the result that the lay person concludes "Well, obviously they don't know yet what's going to happen."  Instead use stories, analogies, short and clear chains of reasoning.  Evidence does not convince.  Recent research (sorry, lost the reference-it's in a recent Science News) actually indicates what I describe in my book as a result of confirmation bias: once an opinion is formed, examination of the evidence simply serves to reinforce the original belief!

Be aware that the press is very defensive about being called "liberal" by the heartland.  So they will always give a denier equal weight under the guise of "We just report and let the reader make their own decision."  The hell they do.  Ask "When the press does a story on the Holocaust, do they give equal time to the revisionists?  When they do a story on spacecraft or astronomy, do they give equal time to the flat-earthers?  When they do a story on the extinction of the dinosaurs, do they give equal time to the Nessie fans?"  Call them on it. In your interviews--trying to avoid making your interviewer defensive and thus not publish your point--point out that it's their job to evaluate what is credible and what's not, and only give a small acknowledgement to the less credible stuff.

Be willing to sacrifice precision in the interest of brevity.  The assumption that the press is looking for the truth is completely incorrect.  What the press is looking for is a story they can tell, with a hook--and, if they can get it--something provocative (like a manufactured controversy).  I know it grates, but give sound bites:
"This level of agreement in science is unprecedented."  As you can see from the effectiveness of the denial machine, a striking statement-- even a wrong one--becomes truth to the public, even if carefully taken apart later.  The unengaged majority only hears sound bites and headlines.  They NEVER read the careful and thorough rebuttal. They're simply too busy with life to do any research.  Especially since they've heard environmental doomsday stories their whole life, and we're still here, right?  So start taking a page from the opposition--not in their dishonesty, but in their mode of communicating.

Some specific talking points:

Re: Climategate.  Acknowledge that cries of "It was quoted out of context!" always strike the listener as weak excuses of guilty parties because it's always in the context of politicians, and the public distrust politicians.  Therefore the public distrusts anyone who sounds like one.  Instead, highlight how the unprecedented agreement in science about human-caused climate change (avoid fancy-schmancy words like "anthropogenic" because of the anti-intellectual sentiment out there) cannot be undone by a few emails, papers, signatures, or papers.

Re:  "It's a natural cycle."  (Now the most common denier position. If you have any doubt about how serious the public debate issue is, remind yourself that Bjorn Lomborg's "Cool It" is now in theatres.) GHG nature of CO2 is well-established physics for the last 100 years. If you want to demonstrate it's wrong, it will take a revolution in the laws of physics, with thousands of peer-reviewed studies.  Stolen emails, thousands of signatures from non-specialists, or a dissenting scientist or two can't do that.

Re: "How can we predict the climate when we can't even predict the weather a few days in advance?"  At the beach, no one can predict exactly where the wave five minutes from now will break.  But we can predict with great confidence the moment of the high tide 3 months from now.  It's about noise vs. trend, chaotic systems vs. the basic laws of physics.

Ask the rhetorical question "What would it take to convince you?  What would you need to see?"  If the answer is "No single statement from a scientist dismiss AGW," then even if it's true, you'll never get such statement, because science always has some dissenters, even about the most established conclusions!  That's just the nature of science.  So waiting around for unanimity is a lost hope.  Pragmatically, got to go with "This is good enough to go on."

All the major national academies of science in the world, as well as most all significant scientific professional organizations, have issued official statements saying essentially the same thing:
1) Climate change is real.
2) It's largely caused by us now.
3) It's going to be bad, not good.
4) We'd better do something about it fast.
In the couple instances when the executive committee issued a skeptical statement, the membership rebelled, until the executive committee changed it to be non-committal. There are really only three options for explaining that.
1) All those scientists, whose entire careers have been devoted to understanding the physical world, have got it so horribly wrong that they're not even in the ballpark. [Question for you scientists--is there any example in modern science where there's been this much evidence along so many lines, and turned out to be wrong?  Highlight the rarity of that. -GC].
2) All those scientists are perpetrating a giant hoax to gain control and wealth, a hoax a hundred times larger in scale and complexity than any other in the history of the world.
3) The general conclusions of all those scientists (the weather is going to get more wacky, the seas will rise, and all sorts of systems-- from growing seasons to insect cycles--will be disrupted) are about as certain as we can get about how anything will behave, including predicting the tides.  #1 is unprecedented, and#2 is so unprecedented that it can't be dismissed because of a few emails or scientists behaving poorly.  Which leaves the third.

ALL science is inherently tentative and uncertain.  Nothing can ever be proven for certain.  We haven't even proven the Law of Gravity yet-- we're still running experiments to test it (Gravity Probe B)!  The best we can do is amass large amounts of consistent evidence from multiple directions and calculations, and say "This is good enough to go on."

This isn't a talking point, but perhaps it will serve as motivation to get more scientists out into the fray.  I've long said that the American public will only be convinced of the urgency of the climate change threat when they see large amounts of climate researchers quit their jobs and move to New Zealand to homestead, preparing for the worst.  The CCRT and the AGU 700 aren't quite that, but they are a tremendous (and long overdue) development.  But we need more.

What we really really need is a mirror of the denial machine that Prof. Oreskes so capably details: an established network of blogs, organizations, spokespeople, press-releasers, and media contacts so that when an issue pops up, the rapid-response team pounds out the most effective talking points, and then gets them out into the network, exploiting the exponential nature of address book pointing to address book, to spread a consistent message.  The CCRT can be the source of the talking points, but the distribution network needs to be established beforehand.  This is largely why the deniers are so much more influential than the scientists.  It's time to take a page from their playbook and come out fighting.

Public opinion has nothing to do with rationality or reality.  Like it or not, it's determined by emotion and perception.  We need to stop thrashing against the tide, and instead start riding it.  We are losing the great unengaged majority more and more each day.  That is where the war will be one or lost.

You will have a greater impact if you spend your time convincing scientists to enter the fray, rather than trying to influence individuals of the public.

So let's muster an army.
2010-11-16 19:28:26
Glenn Tamblyn



"What we really really need is a mirror of the denial machine that Prof. Oreskes so capably details: an established network of blogs, organizations, spokespeople, press-releasers, and media contacts so that when an issue pops up, the rapid-response team pounds out the most effective talking points, and then gets them out into the network, exploiting the exponential nature of address book pointing to address book, to spread a consistent message.  The CCRT can be the source of the talking points, but the distribution network needs to be established beforehand.  This is largely why the deniers are so much more influential than the scientists.  It's time to take a page from their playbook and come out fighting."

This fits something I have been thinking for some time, and aligns with comments I have made earlier about the need to 'get inside' people's trust networks. We absolutely need the network Greg describes but it shouldn't be limited to just responding to issues. We need to be initiating the issues. The IPCC, Government, Scientists, the top-down message approach has been an abject failure at motivating people en masse. Too easily undermined by the other side. And the nature of the IPCC; large, remote from peoples lives and ultimately reporting to governments, hasn't been effective at communication. Elucidating the problem yes, but not communicating it. And by being a 'big thing' it is a target. Basic tenet of warfare - mobility is victory. The IPCC, Top-Down approach is immobile. An easy target that can't really fight back 

What we need is a fresh start, and channels of communication to the public that take this right into their living room, into the discussion at the breakfast table. But not through any conventional media channel, On or Off Line. This is too easily blocked by the other side.

And this needs to go right back to basics. Nobody actually sat down with Joe or Joan Public and explained climate change, starting at their level of scientific understanding, which is usually zip, and building from there. If every single citizen could see the graph of OLR with the gaps due to the GH Effect and really 'get it', the battle is half over. And this discussion might have to begin with something as basic as "Consider a rainbow. Do you know what that is?"

This is what is missing from the IPCC process. It produces an SPM (Summary for Policy Makers). This assumes the Policy Makers trust the expertise of the scientists and simply want them to 'Tell us what we need to know, what we need to do". But what it hasn't produced is an SC - A Summary for Citizens.  A description of AGW starting at the absolute basics that allows Joe and Joan to understand it enough, starting from where they are today.

And then a means of distributing it to everyone. In every country.

But printing something like this would cost $Billions. So the question is how we distribute something like this. And Greg's 'exponential nature of address book pointing to address book' may be the key to this. Not just linking to an activist army to respond to issues. But actually linking to the whole world. The 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon. Address Books link the electronic world together.  Everyone on-line for anything. Not just Blogs. Porn, Stamp collecting, whatever. And from on-line adress books they connect to off-line 'address books'. Old fashioned snail mail. The guys at the pub. Your hockey team. That collection of old foggies that like vintage cars. Your children's collection of Role-Playing friends. Or Van Halen Tragics.

And one aspect of an addreess book is that they tend to be people you know. And who know you. At least a primitive trust network.

Imagine. A set of documents designed to describe the basics of AGW, starting from the most basic principles, in the language of the man in the street, circulating around the world via the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon. Designed to show the principles in very simple language, show the evidence, rebut the sceptic arguments (but not as the leading point - framing again). And all coming from someone you know, someone who has made a conscious decision to pass this on to you because they thought it was important.

Some recipients will reject what they receive. Friendships might suffer as a consequence - tough. As Bill McKibben said, we tried nice! But some recipients may at least be swayed enough to read or consider or engage. It might be worth creating more disbelievers if that is the price for reducing the number of people disengaged. And each person who is moved enough to then pass it on further is another link in a global chain. Whats the worst that could happen. It doesn't work.

Other things. Lawyers often act Pro-Bono. What about a network of Advertising people, PR & Marketting people who would work Pro-Bono to produce materiel. Every time we get an organisation such as the Scouts, the Masons, the World Ice Skating Federation to start thinking about taking a position on this, that is a win. How do we market to them

Consider George Marshall's videos on the other post. He is absolutely right. We need to Normalise this, we need to make sure this is in everyones compartment. And by giving individuals a pathway to action through passing the message on, their seemingly token act is not actually token, where as buying some compact fluorescent lights probably is.

So my concrete proposal is as follows. The various on-line resources start to collaborate to produce a series of 'documents' that are in effect a Summary for Citizens. It is produced by Citizens. And disseminated by Citizens via the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon. The documents need to be substantive but aimed at a basic level of understanding by people. They need to be written with the best available psychology on how to reach people. They need to be downloadable as a PDF or some such - secured to limit hacking for the purposes of distortion. They need to be freely available for anyone or any organisation to copy, print-off etc. for the purposes of passing them on.

Because that is the whole point. This might be called the 'Pass It On' campaign. Its purpose is not mobilisation. Its purpose is engagement and motivation . Premature Mobilisation (no pun intended - much) is inappropriate. This is the failing of too many 'movements'. They mobilise the committed few, they become strident, passionate, loud. Scary, alienating, threatening. And ultimately ineffectual.

What we need is a movement that builds and builds, then acts.

Obviously John, you can't do this alone. But you have far more contacts than I have and could start a dialogue about it.

Simple question. What strategy should we use to reach people and get them off their arses on this? Answer: Every strategy we can think of, hundreds of them. Try anything and everything we can think of.

We are nearly out of time.

2010-11-16 23:27:48Strategies and collaboration
John Cook

Glenn, I am with you on this and your passion is infectious. So far, climate blogging and messaging has been too passive, too much "pull" tactics where we wait for people to come to us. A great example of "push" messaging is the plan to distribute the Scientific Guide to Global Warming Skepticism to high school science teachers (and possibly members of congress). It ticks a lot of the boxes you mention - explains the science in easy to understand language (at least that's the intent), gets the message out there to the people...

I have a few thoughts following on from your post. It will be really interesting in a few weeks (or so) when we release the guide as Scott mentioned a range of other possible ways to disseminate the guide. So that is a good starting point to an effort to outreach more proactively, something we can build on. You mention 6 degrees. Already, just in emailing the guide to a few friends, one forwarded it to a friend who passed it onto some skeptic friends, one of whom read the guide and was convinced by the evidence. Their response, "what can I do to help?"

I think a forum where we discuss "push strategies" might be in order. For first of all, monitoring developments with the guide, then branching out into different, new ideas.

re using the best psychology, I'm meeting with some cognitive scientists this weekend in Perth and we'll be discussing these very issues. Hopefully I can recruit some people in that field to our effort.

lastly, we may need to create the ability to grow this author community. What d people think of adding an invite function that let's authors invite others to become authors. Not invite anyone willy nilly but only people you know who care deeply about climate. Would help expand this group but also risk the danger of diluting the quality.

anyway, plenty to think about. What we've done here at SkS is a pretty amazing achievement with all the rebuttals but with this fantastic author community we now have, we should seek to take it to thenext level and have an even great err impact.

2010-11-17 03:55:44

The idea of having three levels of rebuttals is that we can cover different levels of understanding. I agree that it is a good idea to go beyond the blog and try the push strategy. Now, definitely the more critical level is the lowest both because people in this level tends to be passive and because we should not overlook that in the end we need to convince the "average voters". Here is where the push strategy could give the best results.
We may also consider the next step. If you get more people involved or concerned, they will go one step up and will be in contact with higher level skeptics that might confuse them. Although now they will hopefully know SkS or similar online resources, I think it could be usefull to have short thematic guideson a few broad topics, not focusing on the rebuttals but on what we know. An exaple could be the temperature record, the various datasets, comparison with lower troposphere, urban vs rural stations, etc. Another could be Arctic and Antarctica, sea ice, ice sheets, temperature.
In a few words, I'm proposing a whole set of SkS guides, the beginners guide being the first.

A side (partisan) note. It could be nice to launch the guides already translated in as many languages as possible.
2010-11-17 11:07:41
Glenn Tamblyn



The idea of a forum on Push Strategies as absolutely a good one. As to inviting additional Authors, yes with caution. We don't want any trolls in disguise. Perhaps the first people to invite to the forum, particularly on strategy, would be the people behind the other major AGW sites - RC,DeepClimate, DeSmogBlog, Tamino, Greg Craven etc.  They will in turn have a core of loyalists. And they are all part of a potential Push distribution network.

Interesting that just that small email experiment of yours had that effect. How much more effective would it have been if the message was actively, Please Read This. And if you agree, Pass It On.  And a small point wrt converting sceptics to believing this. Like people who finally break free from a cult, they may become very angry at how they have been deceived. If you place your trust in something/someone and then discover you have been conned, it hurts and you are outraged. Ex-Denialists could be powerful forces against the Denialists.

To Riccardo's last comment. Yes, lots of languages, and preferably simultaneous release. And important languages to have on board -Mandarin (Possibly local chinese dialects like Shanghianese), Hindi (and other indian dialects), Russion, Spanish & Portugese; not just for Europe but all of Sth America.

To Greg's original point about using stories etc, particularly Analogies. This is the opening to my advanced rebuttal to the 'CO2 was much higher in the past' argument (still very much in its infancy):

"A friend comes to visit your home and says to you: 'Some times your heating system seems to be set on high but it is cold in here. Other times its set low but it is quite warm inside. I don’t think your heating system works.' Is your heating system not working? Or has your friend missed something important? The temperature inside your house depends on what the heating system is doing AND how cold it is outside! Isn’t your friend falling into the trap of looking at only two parts of a situation that actually has more than two parts?"

As I thought about what this achieves, it isn't simply a nice anecdote. It is actually an invitation to the reader to become complicit with you. They can see the fallacy and now have a small connection to you. Like an in-joke, you and the reader share the joke with the hypothetical 'friend' being the butt of it.  You have possibly established a small rapport with the reader. When you then convert the analogy to the sceptic argument, you may have converted the reader, unconsciously, into an ally against the sceptic who is painted as being a bit foolish. All without actually saying anything of the sort. Whereas if I led with the scepetic point then tried to rebut it, the reader is already starting to identify with the sceptic instead.

It will be interesting to see how the current guide does.  Good luck & well done.