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Both Andy Revkin Climate, Communication and the ‘Nerd Loop’ and Randy Olson, in a linked blog post, bemoan the state of “climate communication”, criticizing what they call the “nerd loop”. While I agree with Olson and Revkin that there is much to criticize in the climate communications community, I don’t think that either of them properly diagnose the problem.

Olson sharply criticized conventional climate communication and complained that foundations don’t spend enough money on “experimental” forms of science communication – apparently thinking, in particular, of the contemplated experimental opus of “marine biologist turned filmmaker and author” Randy Olson himself.

I disagree in the strongest possible terms with Olson’s main criticism – that climate communication has been too “cerebral”.

So there’s too much of the cerebral thing going on with climate communication. I wish I could unleash my old acting teacher on the climate community — boy would they regret having been so cerebral.

In my opinion – and here I repeat a point made on many occasions – climate communication has not been “cerebral” enough for professionals and scientists from other fields. Olson, like the academics that he criticizes, distinguishes the world between climate scientists and the “general public”. He observes that the general public is not particularly interested in the science questions and proposes that more “emotion” needs to be brought into climate communication.

However, the term “general public” disguises the wide variety within the audience. One of the first things that any business learns is that there are market “niches”. In my opinion, while the niche of professionals and scientists from other fields is not a large percentage of the total population, it is an extremely important niche for the climate communication business (not simply in its own right, but as potential opinion leaders) and one ill-served by “climate communicators”. “Emotional” messages aimed at the “general public” are not what this community wants or deserves.

As someone who’s interacted with this niche over the past number of years, my recommendation has consistently been that people who are worried about the impact of increased CO2 need to provide an “engineering quality” exposition of how doubled CO2 leads to (say) 3 degree C and thence to problems. More cerebral, rather than less cerebral.

Such an exposition would probably be 1200 or 2000 pages, not 10 pages. Some of it would be material available in textbooks e.g. description of the infrared bands that are affected by additional CO2 – information that is not in dispute, but which any engineer would include in a comprehensive exposition. The main area of scientific uncertainty is in cloud feedbacks. In an engineering quality report, there might be several hundred pages on this topic, describing precisely what is known and what is not known and how the scientific uncertainties might be reduced. In AR4, this important topic was covered in less than two pages.

I’ve raised this issue with climate scientists on a number of occasions. To date, I haven’t encountered a single climate scientist that remotely comprehended what was missing, while professionals from other fields often understand the sort of document right away. (DeWitt Payne, among others, has endorsed this on other blogs.)

Typically, if a climate scientist responds, they provide a link to some little article on climate sensitivity that is not remotely equivalent to an engineering quality exposition, with the citation merely showing that the climate scientist doesn’t have a clue about the form of communication employed in the professional world. (Computer professionals sometimes confuse this issue with properly QCed computer code but the points are different.)

Unfortunately, some climate scientists – Gerry North for example – have even sneered at the idea of such an exposition. BTW unlike some readers, I do not conclude that the absence of such an exposition means that it is impossible to prepare such an exposition.

In the specific area of temperature reconstructions from proxies (which were heavily featured in climate communication following IPCC TAR), the problem is not that the climate science community is too “cerebral” for statisticians who’ve taken an interest in the field. The problem is just the opposite – all too often, scientists from other fields can readily understand the issues and are unconvinced by (Team) scientists and their reliance on repeated use of questionable proxies like bristlecones on the one hand and on questionable methods like tricks to hide the decline on the other.

This is not to say that I disagree with everything that Olson said. Consider the following anecdote:

Two weeks ago I was at event where they held the standard workshop on communicating climate science to the general public (and they were clear about this — their almighty audience was “the general public”).
The speaker, who was clearly a very, very nice person with enormously wonderful intentions, was old, boring, and utterly clueless about today’s mass communication environment. Eventually what was shown were three clips of “excellent spokespersons” for communicating climate science to the public. One of them was the C.E.O. of one of the largest environmental groups on the planet. He was the standard L.L. Bean khakis-wearing, business class-traveling, privileged, preppy white guy, telling us about how grim our future is because of climate change. And all I could think of was a couple video clips I had shown the day before.
I had given my talk which includes a section on the importance of the “voice” of the messenger, based on the 4th chapter of my book, “Don’t Be So Unlikeable.” To make the point I showed portions of two BP commercials from last year about the Gulf oil spill. The first one is Tony Hayward, C.E.O. of BP and with a foreign accent that automatically conveys condescension. The second one, produced after their communications folks realized they had blown their mass communications, is a homeboy from the Gulf coast with a thick suthern drawl, pronouncing “oil” as “all.” First guy terrible, second guy okay. It’s not frickin’ rocket science. People listen to voices they like.
So there I was in the back of the room thinking to myself, “Should I raise my hand and ask, ‘If you’re gonna use that enviro C.E.O., why don’t you go the full distance and get Tony Hayward?’” No one would have appreciated it.
And that’s when I excused myself, quietly apologized to the organizers out in the lobby, got in my car and left.

There are a couple of points of irony here. Olson’s decision to say that he got into his car seems gratuitous, though somewhat American. Was Olson trying to impress upon us that he was not attended by an idling limousine? Or perhaps that he was not such a zealot as to use public transit or a bicycle. Dunno.

But the greater irony was surely his comment:

‘If you’re gonna use that enviro C.E.O., why don’t you go the full distance and get Tony Hayward?’”

Isn’t that more or less what the climate science community has already done at realclimate? Why get Tony Hayward for likability and condescension when you’ve already got Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann?

Olson’s concluding recommendation to the climate science community:

Quit doing the same things over and over again. Surprise us. Break into the climate skeptics computers and steal THEIR emails. Something. Anything. Make it interesting, people. Break out of the Nerd Loop.

To my knowledge, it is far from demonstrated that anyone “broke into” U of East Anglia computers (as opposed to the emails being leaked by someone at the university), a point raised even by the Guardian.

But quite aside from that, it seems to me that there is non-criminal conduct that Olson and Revkin should be encouraging from the climate science community, at least on an experimental basis.

Things like: archiving data when an article is published. Not refusing FOI requests with untrue excuses. Perhaps even not refusing FOI requests. Disclosing adverse data and results. Disowning practices like hide the decline. If an investigation is done, try including representatives of critics.

Climate Audit, 17 April 2011