Holding out for a hero – science, silence, #climate and communication #Manchester

The tl:dr? MCFly editor Marc Hudson blunders further into the debate about what (climate) scientists “should” and “shouldn’t” be saying. They should be doing more, not less. But activists can’t keep expecting scientists to do all the heavy lifting!

What duties do scientists owe to society? According to Professor Kevin Anderson, interviewed by Manchester Climate Monthly a couple of weeks ago, “[Scientists] may think we’re doing this neutrally, but we’re not at all. That silence is an advocacy for the status quo. So there are no such things as scientists that are not political. Scientists by their nature are being political, whether they engage or do not engage in the wider debates. And I would argue that the ones are who are the least political are the ones who engage in it.”

This portion of the full interview attracted comments. One of these – from “And Then There’s Physics” – was uncharacteristically (1) (cough cough) misinterpreted by the editor of MCFly and led to a brief and happily since resolved flame war.

Declaring sympathy for ATTP’s position, Brigitte Nerlich on Nottingham University’s “Making Science Public” blog wrote

“it does seem unfair to suggest that those who choose not to engage are advocating for the status quo. There are many reasons why people may choose to engage or not and we should be willing to let people do what they think is best. That doesn’t mean that they’re beyond criticism, but a blanket judgement seems unjustified.”

I think a blanket judgement IS justified for (at least) three reasons.

I believe that power brings responsibility. And even if it didn’t, these are special circumstances (the civilisation/species is under a frog’s backside at the bottom of a coal mine, after all). I’ll return to this second point at the end of this post.

Finally, scientists are, by and large, intellectuals (well, at the very least they are academics!). And, as the anonymous quote goes, “it is the responsibility of intellectuals to expose lies and tell the truth.”

Meanwhile, Judith Curry pitched in. Well, I’ll pass over it in, um, silence for the most part. Except this; Curry writes

“Nehrlich’s article points discussion of a recent workshop took place at Imperial College London entitled Silence in the History and Communication of Science . From the Workshop’s web site:

Silence is often construed negatively, as a lack, an absence. Yet silences carry meaning. They can be strategic and directed at particular audiences; they can be fiercely contested or completely overlooked. Silence is not only oppressive but also generative, playing a key role in creative and intellectual processes. Conversely, speech, whilst seeming to facilitate open communication, can serve to mask important silences or can replace the quietude necessary for insightful thought with thoughtless babble.

Ah, yes, hermeneu-bloody-tics. Well, there’s another meaning silence can carry. Orwell nailed it, as he did so much else.

Silence can be a signal of acquiescence, of self-censorship and fear of rocking the boat. Qui tacet consentit (“Who is silent consents.”) and all that…

Still, while I think more scientists should be using their privilege in the public sphere, I also think that “the public” is…

Asking too much of the wrong people

Everyone wants “the planet” [i.e. their current and future standard of living] to be saved, as long as it doesn’t personally inconvenience them. Everyone wants someone else to do the heavy lifting.
Activists, many of whom have either an arts degree or no higher education, often feel they lack the social standing or the knowledge to explain science. And so they look to scientists to not only “do” science but also to explain it to the “unwashed masses”.

What activists don’t generally understand about scientists is that

  • they generally haven’t received training in public engagement (not that training helps much…),
  • they don’t really get that many career brownie points for doing it (for the purposes of the RAE or whatever it’s called these days, it’s better to be talking to policy-makers) and in fact
  • there can be significant risks attached (I’m not thinking about the odd death threat or endless email attacks, but rather the raised eyebrow in the staff room, and the mutterings about ‘dumbing down’.)

Rather than train themselves up, develop and hone their own communication skills and scientific knowledge (that’s all time-consuming and tricky stuff, trust me), activists by-and-large want the scientists to do the job for them.

Still and all…

It happens to be an emergency, some things don’t come for free

When I was growing up, I went to Mozambique. It was a country that had been on the receiving end of a form of colonialism that was towards the very brutal and very rapacious end of the spectrum.(4) When it won its independence in 1975 there were very very few Mozambicans with even complete secondary education. Seventeen years later the covers of the school exercise books still had an exhortation (placed there by the Marxist-Leninist government, Frelimo” which said (in Portuguese).

“Let us study and make of our knowledge an instrument of the liberation of the people.”

Given how small the social surpluses were in the 1980s and 90s, there was no way someone with even five years of schooling could pretend that they had no obligations. It’s murkier for us now, here in the West, since we are not living in the aftermath of horrible extractive domination.(5)

Finally, my point is this; our scientists are an elite. With the great privilege of being able to think and explore and use up finite resources, comes – in my opinion – great responsibility. If they have important information about what is happening to the climate that has been pretty damn stable for 12,000 years, then they have a moral duty to speak out. If the waters are being systematically and skilfully muddied, they have a moral duty to speak out.  The lack of training in this is not an excuse. The potential risks to their reputation and career progression is not an excuse. The fact that it will not make a blind bit of difference in the cosmic scheme of things is not an excuse. They are “experts.” If not them, who? If not now, when?

Marc “probably flying home and back this year” Hudson

PS Trolls, please note;  A “moral duty” is not a mandatory one, one that should be enforced by the state. I am saying the scientists owe society, not to the Khmer Rouge regime that you will doubtless smear me with.

(1) And I got it so embarrassingly wrong! For the first time ever, didn’t check through thoroughly enough. I have since apologised privately and publicly to the owner of the Wotts Up With That blog.

(2) I’m acutely conscious that a cynic might say that I’m being inconsistent. After all, when George Bush declared “you’re either with us or against us” I disagreed. Surely such polarisations are bound to lead to more heat than light? Well, we’re not asking scientists to cheerlead in blowing the crap out of peasants and shepherds who’d had nowt to do with September 11th.  We’re merely asking them to expose lies and tell the truth…   Meanwhile, the same cynic might even suggest that I am taking Prof Anderson’s side in part for bad reasons – that I’ve known him for years, he’s a very very nice bloke, very hard working etc. I think not, but perhaps I am.

(3) Politically and morally, if not intellectually or emotionally.

(4) Yes, I think you can argue that there were gradations. Everything else being equal, I’d rather have been in Egypt or India than the Belgian Congo or Namibia. Though none of it was exactly a barrel of laughs.

(5) Actually, given what the species has been doing to other species these last ten thousand years or so, we do. But not at the sharp end. Yet.

Further reading
For very useful thoughts on science communication, see Alice Bell’s “Through the Looking Glass” blog.

For useful metaphors and memes on climate change Climate Bites

For some of the background on the notorious and still virtually universal “Information Deficit Theory” see the following wikipedia page.

An interesting blog (hat-tip to Jonathan Atkinson) on the 7 ineffective habits of scientists


About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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13 Responses to Holding out for a hero – science, silence, #climate and communication #Manchester

  1. Interesting post. I’m going to have to give what you’ve said a little more thought as I’m finding – after various engagements, writing my own post and reading the comment there, and reading what you’ve written – that my general view may be changing slightly.

    I’ll make two quick comments. You say

    I believe that power brings responsibility

    As an academic, but not climate scientist, I don’t quite identify with this. Formally, I do research, publish my research and engage with the public about my research. I certainly don’t feel that I have power and I doubt that most climate scientists do either. The true responsibility, in my opinion, lies with our policy makes who appear willing to ignore the numerous climate scientists, and the various IPCC documents, in favour of think tanks and opinionated non-experts.

    You also say, however, that

    Finally, scientists are, by and large, intellectuals (well, at the very least they are academics!). And, as the anonymous quote goes, “it is the responsibility of intellectuals to expose lies and tell the truth.”

    I do think this is a real issue. Not just within climate science, but in academia in general. I get the sense that academics now see themselves as playing some kind of narrowly-defined researcher role and that they no longer really see themselves as intellectuals who – as you say – expose lies and tell the truth. I think this type of behaviour has been encouraged by governments (who want researchers to simply play a role in driving economic growth) and by universities (who see researchers as people who attract research funding). Universities now largely see themselves as businesses, rather than as a public resource. I do find this quite disturbing since if academics are no longer willing to speak out so as to protect society from those who are not being honest, who will?

    As I mentioned at the beginning of this comment though, I’m still forming/modifiying my views on this subject and so these are just a couple of thoughts I had on reading your post.

    • Thanks!!
      I really look forward to hearing your further thoughts on this. I agree whole-heartedly with your observations about what universities have become, and your analysis of the drivers of those changes.
      I think there’s an important discussion to be had around kinds of power. Certainly academics (especially climate scientists) lack hard “decision-making” power, legislative or executive. I think it’s useful to think of power using the ideas of Antonio Gramsci (hegemony) and I also like Michael Mann (not the hockey stick guy, the sociologist!!!) who talks about four kinds of power – Ideological, Economic, Military and Political (of course, these all mutually influence and imbricate and so on.)

      Donna Haraway (Simians, Cyborgs and Women) wrote very very interesting books about ideology and science and their relationship(s).

      As a physics guy, I assume you’re familiar with the Sokal affair?!

      Best wishes
      Marc Hudson

    • Jonathan Atkinson says:

      The power/responsibility issue relates to privilege.

      In our society some people are more privileged than others, they have access to more resources and more political power. Some might believe this privilege is down to superior breeding, genetics or God-given status, I believe it is down to the fact some people have more access to more wealth, opportunities and learning than others.

      If you believe this, there is an implicit obligation for those more privileged, more powerful than others, to re-distribute this power.

      So in other words, those who have experienced more privilege and have more power have a responsibility to re-distribute it. Power brings responsibility.

      • Jonathan,
        Yes, I would largely agree. The point I was trying to make (maybe not very well) is that – as an academic – I certainly don’t feel as though I have any special power. I feel priviledged that I get paid to do a job that I enjoy and that I get paid alright (but not spectacularly well) and I do think that academics/researchers have an obligation to inform the public (otherwise, why fund research). However, I think one should be careful about assuming that academics/researcher have more power/influence than they actually have. As others have pointed out to me, they do have knowledge which brings with it some power and some responsibility. But, in our society, their realisable power is (I would argue) quite small.

        So, I would suggest, that one way to change this is for the general public to put more pressure on our policy makers to take the advice of professional scientists/researchers more seriously. If the pressure come from the academics it will likely be seen as self-serving. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try but we should be willing to recognise that many scientists have tried and suffered as a result (Gavin Schmidt and Michael Man for example) and others are cautious because of things like the climategate affair. Unless they feel that they can speak out without suffering attacks on them personally, they may be – quite rightly – reluctant to do so. So, we have some obligation to make sure that we support those who do speak out.

        Again, I’m still thinking about all this myself and so these are just some immediate thoughts that may well change with time.

    • Jonathan Atkinson says:

      Good point and one made in the article about activists making space for academics.

      If I have one wish for 2014 it’s for the adoption of evidence-based policy making (I would like to say ‘greater’ adoption but I fear that would be an over optimistic view of the status quo). For some reason it’s acceptable for a politician to base a new policy decision on the basis of public ‘perception’ and unspecified ‘concerns’ rather than on the basis of data and evidence – listening to the Today programme I despair!

  2. Slightly off subject, I have just come across an article about Mozambique, and how it is once again being exploited: http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/12/farmers-mozambique-fear-brazilian-model/.
    I did go to Namibia with the WWF, a few years ago and the country is still dotted with small airstrips. The hardened shelters for aircraft from the South West African’s and South African Forces were still present. The Namibians had a long and painful fight for independence from their white suppressors. The South Africans also crossed into Angola to support the Portuguese forces fight the Angolans fighting for their independence. The west was in Namibia for the copper and now it is oil and gas. As you mentioned, we in the west can continue to enjoy our very comfortable lifestyles and drive cars every where.

  3. Jodiah Jacobs says:

    “Activists, many of whom have either an arts degree or no higher education,” …
    Wow, do you have a citation for this? Cause that statement screams ‘flame on’ to me. It is reminiscent of the way the media treated the Occupy Wall Street movement when they ha had Zuccoti Park.
    Most of the activist that I know are well educated, articulate and brave. They spend a lot of time learning about the issues that concern them. And they don’t sit on their asses contemplating advocacy, they make shit happen. They spend hours calling and organizing folks to lobby their reps, inform their peers and create awareness on difficult issues.
    Instead of marginalizing and alienating activist, maybe you should work to enlist them to further your cause.

    • Hi Jodiah,
      okay, I am going to try and learn a lesson from a few days ago, when I leapt down “Wotts Up With That’s” throat.
      I am not going react in the way that I could.

      To take your points in turn – No I do not have a citation for that. I have 15 years of “at the coal face” experience though, all unpaid. Now, maybe the plural of anecdote isn’t data, but it isn’t nothing either. Btw, I don’t mean arts degree (I have one of those) or no higher education (one of the most valued leaders I know has none) as an insult or a denigration.

      Also, before snarking that I am “sitting on my ass contemplating advocacy”, maybe you could think about what site this blog is? It’s called Manchester Climate Monthly. The clue is in the name. As you can see from the archive thing down the right hand side, it’s been going since October 2011. Daily posts. Meetings, videos, interviews with activists and scientists etc etc. For 22 issues we put out an 8 page monthly magazine. (Before that I did Manchester Climate Fortnightly etc etc and Call to Real Action).
      We encourage people to lobby their reps, inform their peers and create awareness. If you had spent even five minutes looking along the menu bar at the top of the page, you’d have clocked all that and more.

      I don’t see how being honest about the limitations and difficulties activists face is “marginalising and alienating” them.

      But maybe that’s just me, eh?

      PS Also, if you’d looked at the previous post, that showed a letter I’d had published in the Manchester Evening News, you might have written a different comment, eh?

  4. Thanks Patrick. Yep, Leonard Cohen sings about all this in “Everybody Knows”
    Everybody knows the deal is rotten
    Old Black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton
    For your ribbons and bows
    And everybody knows

  5. Jacobs Jodiah says:

    Ok! It took less than five minutes to learn this blog advocates for policy in a big way. Thank you for your work. I mean that sincerely. Sorry for the snarky attitude. .
    Still, I think this sentence is poorly worded “Activists, many of whom have either an arts degree or no higher education,” …it doesn’t have the same connotation as …”I don’t see how being honest about the limitations and difficulties activists face is “marginalising and alienating” them.”… does.
    Again, I do wish I had spent a moment to review the content of your blog, (excellent work! Truly!) before commenting. I came across it through twitter, read it and commented through the twitter interface on my smart phone. I should have dug a little deeper and kept the snark factor in check.
    Best, Jodiah.

    • Hi Jodiah,
      I am a dinosaur – I do my websurfing via desktop or laptop. I am aware though that smartphones do change the way people experience things – especially if they come via twitter etc.
      If you think that sentence was poorly worded, I have a whole long blog post for you that will get your eyebrows shooting up – it’s this one

      where I give an outfit both barrels. Although my commments/suggestions were constructive, it probably won’t lead to change – tone of voice all wrong.

      Anyway, will be writing more on this in the coming months!

      All best wishes

      Marc Hudson

  6. Rachel says:

    Hi Marc,
    I largely agree with what you say. The only thing I thought needed changing slightly was that “silence is advocacy for the status quo” to “silence is perceived as advocacy for the status quo”.

    It’s not true that scientists who remain silent want to continue with the status quo. Some might, but I suspect most of them want action but for various reasons they remain silent. It is true that their silence is perceived by others as agreement with the status quo though. I agree with the bit about silences carrying meaning and I think people should be encouraged to speak out about things that are wrong. In the case of climate science, I think that there is probably a moral duty for scientists to speak out but I would not go so far as to pass judgement on those who do not but instead encourage them to communicate and make it easier for them to do so.

    • Hi Rachel,

      there’s an old saying I should pay more attention to – “when you point a finger at someone else, you point three more at yourself.” Yes, climate scientists have a responsibility, but all of us have a very very similar responsibility. We in the “West” have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association. These freedoms have been fought for over centuries, and were conceded by the powerful for different reasons at different times. The point is that “we” have them.
      Now, I “got” climate change and its dangers by about 1990, when I was just shy of 20. And how much have I done about it? Well, more than some. But a lot lot less than I could have or should have. That’s painful knowledge, so one part of me likes to say (climate) scientists should do more. But also I know that expecting other people to do the ‘heavy lifting’ is silly. Politicians are clearly averse to this issue, for multiple reasons. We must stop thinking that there is an information deficit thing here, or rather that it is ONLY an information deficit thing. We could sit all our elected politicians down and teach them the basics (Keeling Curves, forcings etc) in not very much time at all. But it wouldn’t change the wider societal forces at play in delaying/deferring action.
      Sure, the denialist lobby is “to blame”, but I like the line that says in a modern democracy some are guilty but all are responsible…
      And yes, btw, I agree that we should be encouraging scientists to communicate and make it easier for them to do so. I will be trying to do that in this coming year in Manchester, and if you have any tips/advice from wherever you are, I’d be very grateful!!

      Best wishes

      Marc Hudson

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