Nobel Prize winner demands more honesty from peers in green debate
Truth before fear
Scientists hoping to educate the public about environmental concerns could do themselves and the public a favor by abandoning hyperbolic scare tactics in favor of straightforward talk, according to a prominent scientist.
Steve Chu, the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and a Nobel Prize winner in physics, chastised some of his peers for presenting speculative worst case scenarios in their discussions on environmental issues. Researchers often come up with gloomy possible forecasts about changes in environmental conditions and talk about them as fact. Such tactics do little to help the public understand the true nature of the "green debate."
"I think more scientists have to explain the risks (of global warming and the like), and do it in a way that is intellectually honest," Chu told a group of venture capitalists and scientists visiting the lab this week.
Rather than trying to incite action through fear, the scientists should be clear about what their data indicates. For example, instead of presenting an extreme change in conditions as an inevitable outcome to the public, researchers should discuss the range of possibilities they're seeing and let Joe Average decide how he feels about the results. As Chu sees it, the public can judge how seriously they take the difference between there being an 90 per cent chance and a 50 per cent chance that, say, Greenland will melt away. Give them that shot instead of presenting Greenland's liquidity as a certainty.
Still, Chu fears that the public has yet to grasp the extent of the challenges facing the environment. He pointed to British Columbia which has "lost 40 per cent of its pines" due to warming. "The Rockies and Sierras are also starting to lose huge amounts of watershed trees." Without trees, you end up with floods and general craposity.
"I don't think the public really knows about this stuff to the extent that they should," Chu said. "You need a steady drumbeat of scientists who are willing to go out and talk to the public. I am doing my share. I'm out twice a week."
In addition, the government needs to take a firmer stance against lobbyists.
The homebuilders association, for example, will go to Washington and lobby against putting new materials in homes that cost a bit extra upfront but pay for themselves quickly as energy savers. Why? Because the materials add "one-tenth of one per cent" to the cost of new homes. "So that is a loss of a competitive edge against already built homes," Chu noted.
"Policy makers have to be told to just forget about these guys," he said.
Chu's comments came during a talk on the work that Berkeley and others are doing to improve energy efficiency in a variety of markets. ®
Regular people can't cope with "percentage likelihoods"
Most people are idiots about any sorts of things that involve a rate, or a relation, or a percentage chance, or a payoff calculation.
They hear that "X is proven better than Y" and they've got to have X. Even if the difference was miniscule. And don't even try asking them what the statistical significance of the study was. ("Small sample size" is when they cut up biscuits and put them on a tray for you to try in the supermarket.)
The Onion said something similar in this one: http://www.theonion.com/content/node/29351
I know people don't understand math because they play the lottery.
Academics and Pines
@Shakje: Thanks for posting that. I can't beleive how we view academics nowadays, atleast in North America. We, and the media, tend to think of going to school as being a waste of time unless it can get you more money. What a bunch of hicks we are over here.
@Anony Mous (and others): I live in the middle of the BC forest and have been watchin the biota for the last 40 years. Just to muddy the waters on the point of the pines, let me point out that there is a symbiotic relationship between the beetles and a certain fungus. It's not so easy to seperate organisms once you start to look closer. Unfortunately mycology is just too abstract for most people and the real world just doesn't translate that well to TV. There is also a beleif in the botanical community that the current problems began many years ago (~100) when we started to control forest fires. Once you meddle with an organism as large and as complex as a forest, there is no knowing how things will turn out. Whatever the factors, there is still no getting around that 80% of the trees where I live are no longer green. It's not a pretty sight and it's obvious that when it comes to forest fires, we are *really* in trouble now! I'm certainly getting an extra pump to protect the house.
As posted above, the pine beetles would be kept in check by a long cold winter, of the kind Canada is famous for but isn't seeing quite so regularly anymore. Admittedly monoculture tree farming plays a significant part, but regardless all that is needed is a good old fashioned cold snap. I live in British Columbia, and it breaks my heart to go traveling. You can drive for hours here without seeing a building. And you never get out of sight of multi square kilometer patches of red pine trees. They turn red after the beetles have done their business and moved on, so you know that there are plenty more about to die since the beetles are still active in what is left of the green trees. Forest fires were getting bad enough before the pine beetle problem became widespread, it will be a serious nightmare now with all the standing dead wood. But with the collapsed economy in the USA, no more building houses, and the long standing protectionist tariffs on our lumber exports, we can't really sell them anymore anyway. So on to coal bed methane then...