In the early days of the web, it was not obvious that sites like AltaVista (the original full text search site, predating Google and others) would win the “web search” wars. It seemed to me that keyword-driven, manually curated sites—like Yahoo started out to be, if I recall correctly—did a more recognizable thing, classifying and filing everything in the world into neat little categories where you could go and look things up more like the paper encyclopedias I grew up with.
Full text search, by contrast, seemed messy and really like such a terrible solution. How could anyone possibly rely on the actual text of something in a durable way? And yet, what we found was that it was just too expensive to add keyword metadata to content at the pace it was arriving on the web. Orderly, manual curation of knowledge couldn't keep up. The web was destined to be messy, and the tools that would survive had to embrace that messiness.Passing the Baton
There's an important lesson here for those involved in the science and politics of Climate Change, I think.
Bill Nye's recent video about a world on fire, using colorful language to wake people up, has ignited a burst of public conversation about Climate.
But in addition to the simple shock of seeing Nye use foul language, there's another and more important issue in play here: Fixing climate is a relay race. There is much to be done and scientists are not sufficient in number or skill to get us across the finish line. The baton needs to pass from the scientists to regular people.
Until now, we have been relying for a long time on scientists to lead the climate conversation. Science is and will continue to be an important aspect of the conversation, but it must move beyond that. Regular people, people without credentials, need to feel free to speak. We all need to own this discussion, to personalize it, to take responsibility for it. We can't expect it to be done by others.Unchaperoned Climate Debate
The language of science is careful, precise peer-reviewed, cautious. The language of regular people is not. Until this point, we've allowed “others” to talk about climate, but often only with a scientist looking over their shoulder like nervous parents watching a child learn to use a sharp knife. The slightest misstatement might be quickly corrected, but it's a too-slow process to roll out at scale.
And, in fairness, there has been a lot of misinformation out there, so the corrections have been helpful in many ways. There are people who are strongly motivated by short-term profits to introduce misstatements and to see them replicated as memes. So one can easily understand the desire of scientists to watch over the conversation and insist it adhere to standards. They say it's not paranoia when the enemy is real.
But people are finally starting to get it, and as they do, the discussions move faster—much faster than scientists can keep up with. So tactics and norms have to shift to respond. We need people talking all the time everywhere. Addressing climate change is a big problem, and it needs to be at the core of pretty much everything society does. And we don't have enough scientists to chaperone all those conversations.
The language of regular people is coarse, poetic, abbreviated, blurry, emotional, imprecise, and most important unchecked. I often find myself telling people that the Climate problem is about physics, and that physics doesn't negotiate. Here is where I have to push back on the scientists: the Climate discussion problem is about human socialization, about how we build consensus, about how we express our goals and fears, about how we manage trust. These are things that scientists can't negotiate away. In order for public dialog to proceed, scientists need to prepare themselves for sloppy conversations, conversations that frankly will not make them happy at the detail level.
Climate scientists will need to loosen their grip.A Coping Mechanism for Nervous Climate Parents
A thing that bothers me about Climate messaging—makes me terrified actually—is that climate badness is expressed in degrees of global average temperature. This leads to big confusion because within the course of a single day, weather and local temperature varies a lot. Temperatures at any given location might fluctuate ten or twenty degrees in a day and we wouldn't think that anomalous. Sometimes that's just the difference between day and night, sometimes the effect of a storm or a new front moving in. But if the global average temperature went up by ten or twenty degrees, we'd be cooked. We expect regular folks to get that, but I'm not sure they always do.
Temperature is not distributed evenly, so even though the temperature might be spiked high in one place, it might be quite low in another (or vice versa). It only matters that it averages out. Scientists shrug off local anomalies because they understand that the global average is quite different than any one point location. Let me suggest that there is an important metaphorical lesson for scientists there about how to manage conversation.
Just as daily temperature fluctuations outside your house don't tell you much about climate, so too the daily misstatements by individuals also don't matter either, as long as the overall message trends are right. Some will get the data right, some wrong. Some will exaggerate to make things seem worse, some to make it seem better. People will understand and communicate the problem in different ways, but we have to let them do that. That's part of integrating the message into society. It can't be done some other way.
If the public at large, on average, is panicking that we're going to die tomorrow, or in the other direction if the public is lulled into thinking there's not a problem, it's definitely worth scientists stepping in to speak to that general trend in an organized way. But if a given scientist on a given day observes someone who they feel hasn't got the message quite right, they need to be prepared to hold back. Regular people need to feel they have the right to speak freely without being slapped down for it. Also, an exaggeration in some places may add balance to another person being too unconcerned.
Think about the ways we talk about health or war or other big issues. The conversation is not at every point precise, but it isn't always the wrong way to gain consensus.
At this point, I think, it's better to just let people run with it for a while and see what the trend is than to get involved in the microscopic detail of every single conversation, hoping against hope that scientists can, by force of will, make everyone be precise. That isn't the path to the solution.
Climate scientists need to let go, so they can get their sleep and focus on their research and be ready to answer questions. I don't think they have to worry we'll suddenly have no need of them. Their role just needs to change. They are still are trusted advisors, but they cannot be our nannies. We need both permission and pressure to grow up, to take this on ourselves.
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xkcd comic “duty calls” by Randall Munroe used with gratitude under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.5) license.