What scientists SHOULD talk about: their personal stories

This is a guest post by Dr. Andrew Dessler

Anyone who's dipped a toe into the climate debate knows the water is hot. And much of this heat stems from a fundamental distrust between the sides. Scientists could play a role in bridging this divide if they did a better job explaining who they were and telling their personal story of why they're worried about the climate.

Climate skeptics and those opposed to action on climate change make trashing climate scientists a key part of their arguments. They routinely claim that scientists are (pick your favorite): communists, socialists, fascists, Nazis, ivory-tower liberal elitists, corrupt sycophants feasting at the teat of government research funding, evil masterminds, manufacturing data to push their hidden agenda, or incompetent and sloppy scientists who don't understand any physics.

Like most scientists, I have always ignored these attacks because they're obviously absurd. But that's a mistake. Cognitive research tells us that, if you want people to believe you, it helps if they know you share their values — in other words, people listen to those who are like them.

This reveals the core strategy of these ad hominem attacks: by criticizing climate scientists' personal values, they are telling the audience that the scientists are not "like them". This opens the door for motivated thinkers to ignore the real experts on climate and substitute their own group of experts — a group that ironically includes few who actually study the climate.

Scientists need to start engaging on this argument with their strongest weapon: their personal stories. Why did they get into science? What are the things that concern them about the world? Why are they personally worried about climate change? In so doing, the audience will realize that climate scientists are just like them.

This is hard for scientists, who by-and-large tend to be modest and unassuming. And it goes against the culture of science, which emphasizes the collective and de-emphasizes the individual — there's a reason, after all, that science papers tend to written in passive voice. But it's a skill climate communicators need to learn.

Even if you avoid policy and only talk about science, it is crucial to build trust first by talking about your backstory. After all, there is a lot of science out there and people have the choice of which science to believe. In the end, the audience will listen to scientists who share their values.

So here's my story. My route to becoming a climate scientist started on Wall Street in the 1980s, when I was doing mergers and acquisitions in the energy group for an investment bank. I realized then that I was not particularly motivated by money, but rather I wanted to work on hard science problems. So I went to graduate school, where I studied stratospheric chemistry. By the mid-1990s, that problem was pretty well understood and I began looking around for the next big problem to solve. Having done some work on stratospheric water vapor, I realized that I could apply that expertise to tropospheric water vapor, which is an important player in our climate system. Thus, I was reborn a climate scientist.

At first, it was just a physics problem, but by the mid-2000s, I began to see the potential for human suffering in the equations and data. I never wanted to get into politics, and I still don't, but I also feel that history will one day judge harshly scientists who understood what was going on and did nothing. Even more importantly, I also care deeply about my two kids and the future they will inherit.

As a proud born-and-bred Texan, I am naturally suspicious of the government telling me what to do. But I also recognize that a balance between free markets and environmental protection must be struck, and that past environmental regulations (e.g., the U.S. Clean Air Act) have delivered tremendous benefits for society at low cost and little loss of freedom. So my judgment as a citizen is that we need to begin a decades-long effort to substantially reduce emissions by the middle of the 2050s.

I should also say that I absolutely love having cheap and reliable energy. And I'm optimistic enough to think that, if humans put our minds to it, we can develop the technology to have that energy without harming the climate.

While you may not agree with my policy preferences, I do hope everyone can see that we care about the same issues, which is a first step towards turning down the heat in the debate. And I hope that other climate communicators will realize that they need to be a little more self-centered and start talking about themselves. This could save the world.

Posted by dessler on Friday, 20 September, 2013

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