Climate, Communication and the ‘Nerd Loop’ (N.Y. Times, Dot Earth)

April 14, 2011, 9:46 AM – By ANDREW C. REVKIN

Randy Olson, the marine biologist turned filmmaker and author who’s about as far from the label “nerd” as can be, had his Howard Beale “mad as hell” moment over climate miscommunication last week on his blog, The Benshi.

The piece, “The Nerd Loop: Why I’m Losing Interest in Communicating Climate Change,” is a long disquisition on why there’s too much thumb sucking and circular analysis and not enough experimentation among institutions concerned about public indifference to risks posed by human-driven global warming. He particularly criticizes scientific groups, universities, environmental groups and foundations and other sources of funding. Randy summarized his points in a short “index card” presentation (in lieu of a Powerpoint) and followup interview on Skype (above). [Stephen McIntyre of Climateaudit has posted a response, entitled "The Smug Loop."]

In our chat I admitted freely that I’ve stepped aboard the “nerd loop” on occasion on this blog, exploring humanity’s “blah, blah, blah, bang” habit when it comes to confronting certain kinds of risks. This goes for financial bubbles and tsunamis as well as long-term, long-lasting changes in the climate.

I agree with Olson, utterly, that there’s not enough experimentation, too much fear of failure and also far too much fear and misunderstanding at scientific institutions, from America’s universities to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, about the obligation and responsibility to engage the public in a sustained way. As I’ve put it here and elsewhere many times, it’s particularly important as traditional science journalism becomes a shrinking wedge of a growing pie of communication portals.

I encourage you to watch the video and/or read Olson’s provocative essay. You won’t agree with all of what he says. I don’t, and in fact I think that research revealing the human habit of embracing or ignoring information based on predispositions and emotion, not the information, is vitally important to convey (and needs to be conveyed more creatively, too!).

But I hope you’ll recognize the merits in Olson’s argument. Here’s the summary of the “Nerd Loop” essay:

Mass communication is not a science. How many times do I have to say this? The more you think it is — or even let yourself talk about the science side of it without allocating EQUAL energy to the art side of it, the more you are doomed to take it deeper into the hole of boredom and irrelevance. Such is the state of climate science communication by the large science and environmental organizations who have bought into the magic bullet of metrics and messaging.

AND FURTHERMORE … eh, hem (a colleague at NASAjust pointed this out to me) … look at this quote: “Recent advances in behavioral and decision science also tell us that emotion is an integral part of our thinking, perceptions, and behavior, and can be essential for making well-judged decisions.”

“RECENT ADVANCES”??? Social scientists think this is some sort of recent breakthrough — that humans are not robots? The quote comes from a paper in the first volume of the new Nature Climate journal. As my colleague said, “What rock did these guys crawl out from under? Give me a break all you social scientists and quit living up to your stereotype.”

Honestly.

Here are some relevant posts and links. Beware, you’re about to enter “the nerd loop” (which I, personally, see as important, even as everyone loosens up and starts experimenting):

The Psychology of Climate Change Communication” (The Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, Columbia University)

Climate, Mind and Behavior” (a series of symposiums at the Garrison Institute)

Communicating Climate Change” (The Pew Center on Global Climate Change)

Knowledge of Climate Change Across Global Warming’s Six Americas” (Yale Project on Climate Change Communication)