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David Roberts

David Roberts

Posted: March 16, 2007 03:15 PM

A Long Rant About Facts, Persuasion, and Global Warming


I want to tear my %$#@! hair out.

On Wed. night in New York City, there was a formal debate. At issue was the statement, "global warming is not a crisis." David Biello sets the scene:

Arguing for the motion were the folksy (and tall) Michael Crichton, the soft-spoken Richard Lindzen and the passionate Philip Stott. Arrayed against were the moderate Brenda Ekwurzel, the skeptical Gavin Schmidt and the perplexed Richard Somerville. (Note: all the adjectives are mine.)

The hosts took a poll of attendees before and after the debate. The percentage of people who thought global warming is a crisis dropped by about 10 percent, from 57% to 46%. Team Crichton was more persuasive. The audience emerged more sanguine about climate change, not less. (You can get the transcript PDF here; a podcast should be coming shortly.)

What went wrong?

Over at RealClimate, Gavin Schmidt offers a recap, in which he says:

The organisers asked us afterwards whether we'd have done much different in hindsight. Looking back, the answer is mostly no. We are scientists, and we talk about science and we're not going start getting into questions of personal morality and wider political agendas - and obviously that put us at a sharp disadvantage ...

Yeah, that sounds like what went wrong. When Gavin says "questions of personal morality and wider political agendas," I think he just means, "all that stuff that's not science." He knows science, he's trained in science, he's confident in the accuracy of his scientific judgments, so that's what he's sticking with -- even if it means losing a debate, and with it a chance to change some minds.

I think that is a huge mistake, and Gavin is far, far from the only one making it. It's not just scientists who do it, either. Many people in the environmental field -- and I'd even generalize to progressives, broadly speaking -- seem to be operating on a set of assumptions:

  1. The facts, organized and clearly conveyed, should carry the day.
  2. When facts do not change minds, more facts are required, perhaps delivered more slowly.
  3. When facts do not change hearts, more facts are required, perhaps delivered more loudly.
  4. Those not swayed by facts are intellectually, possibly morally, deficient.
  5. If sticking to the facts means losing a debate, well, that's the price of virtue.

On climate change, scientists and greens have been repeating the facts for decades. The facts have been firmly established, and placed clearly before The People. What more do they want?! Clearly this grim state of affairs can be traced to intellectual deficiencies in the media, among politicians, and throughout the general population. Why can't the masses be as smart as us?

Gavin says he prefers the internet, where there's more room, and time, to make a case. His commenters suggest a variety of ways in which Team Crichton could be forced into a venue and a set of rules where only documented empirical facts are allowed. Then we could totally bury their pathetic facts in our fact avalanche!

But listen, once and for all: people just don't f**king work that way. Science is a rarified language, a way of thinking that requires focus and intellectual training. It is unnatural for human beings to think purely in terms of empirical observation, testable theory, and replicable results. We spent the vast majority of our evolutionary history bereft of statistics and probabilities. To think in a completely open and unbiased way, unaffected by tribe or predilection, by emotion or subconscious impulse, is a difficult skill that almost by definition will not be widespread among the public. Many who apply themselves to it fail; most never make the effort.

And that's not a tragedy. It's perfectly appropriate for the practice of science, as conducted in labs, the field, and peer-reviewed journals, to hew to this strict set of rules. But how utterly unbearable life would be if we had to talk and think that way everywhere, in all areas of our lives.

There seems to be a presumption among greens that there's something wrong with the other 95% of human communication. As though narrative, humor, mockery, surprise, outrage, seduction, fear, wonder, envy, braggadocio, love of family and country, physicality, altruism -- as though all of these tools of persuasion are to be clumped under the rubric "irrational" while facts and facts alone qualify as "rational."

It's absurd. It's like fighting with one hand tied behind your back -- in a fight with incredibly high stakes!

What if I was in the debate and I led with a joke about Crichton's conspiracy theories. Said that agents of the environmental cabal were waiting for him out by the car. Time for some reprogramming. Ha ha. Ad hominem? Yes, if you judge by the standards of logic. Beside the point? Yes, if the point is a recitation of facts.

But it's not meant to be logical or illogical, factual or non-factual. It's meant to make people laugh, which is a tribal act of identification. It's meant to establish dominance over Crichton in the social pecking order of the room. It's meant to portray an air of confidence. None of that is about facts, but it is about engaging the full human being rather than merely the frontal cortex.

I mean, the debate was about whether something's a "crisis"! Gavin tries to claim otherwise in the comments, but in this case Roger Pielke Jr. is dead right -- whether something counts as a "crisis" is obviously an undefined mix of fact and value judgment. It's not a scientific question.

To broaden the point a bit: Whether or not anyone wants it to be true, it's just a fact that when you leave the laboratory and communicate outside of scientific journals, you are always and already engaging your audience on the level of affect and archetype, ethics and aesthetics, pack status and pecking order, tone and bearing -- yes, even "questions of personal morality and wider political agendas." You can pretend you're "sticking to the scientific facts," but all you're doing is communicating on all those other levels poorly. You're sending implicit messages you don't want to send, and most of all you're failing to persuade.

This isn't about Gavin, it's about all of us, a movement that has spent so long repeating and repeating facts on the faith that eventually the media and industry and government are going to start playing by our rules and the facts will "get through." Collectively, we lack emotional intelligence.

It's time for us to learn how -- or to find those within our ranks who already know how -- to make people laugh, and cry, and gasp with surprise, and shout with anger, and swell with confidence and hope. Yes, we could stand to entertain people. What the hell is wrong with being entertaining?

If we really believe global warming is a dire problem, we need people to start acting. We don't just need their intellectual assent, we need their sense of responsibility, their passion, their imagination, and their leadership. We need the full range of human engagement, and facts alone will never generate that.

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