16 December 2010
AGU, day 3
Posted by Callan Bentley
I took a break yesterday morning from nonstop AGU meeting stuff, and got out into the city a bit. A former student of mine, Alan P., lives in San Francisco these days, and works at a local bike shop. So Alan scored us a couple of bicycles and we went for a ride from North Beach past the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge to several beaches exposed between the eroded bluffs west of the bridge. I’ll have a lot more to share of these outcrops when I get back home to my own computer and can process the photos, but for now, here’s a taste of what we saw there:
That’s serpentinite, exposed gorgeously at Marshall Beach. We also saw graywacke turbidites at Baker Beach.
Alan and I rode back to the bike shop, then I took the Muni back to Market Street, caught a quick shower at my hotel, and then went to the geoblogger’s lunch that AGU’s Maria-Jose Viñas organized to recognize the work of bloggers in the geosciences. It was a nice event, and 4/7ths of the AGU Blogosphere was seated at one table. We were joined by a bunch of other science bloggers, some I was familiar with and others that were new to me. We discussed the technological state of the meeting and what AGU might do for bloggers in the future.
After lunch, I caught some posters and then a discussion with the authors of a bunch of popular press books about climate change, which included questions (and lengthy statements) from the audience. Greg Craven stood out as one of the most outspoken individuals, while I was more impressed with the steady tone and measured reasonableness of Mike Oppenheimer. Naomi Oreskes chose her comments carefully, and was pointedly terse in answering some questions. There were several impassioned members of the audience who went on way too long with their “questions,” in a shrill and alarmed tone of voice, and I found it interesting that neither of them were scientists. Scientists are, it would seem, by temperament more measured and considered in their speech. You could tell everyone in the room was getting uncomfortable with it.
When that was over, I hit a few more posters and again ran into colleagues old and new in the giant poster hall, then went to see Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State talk about his work drilling ice cores in the mountain glaciers of the non-polar regions (Peru, Tanzania, Indonesia, and China). Isotope stratigraphy reveals that these glaciers are losing ice mass from the top down, erasing the historical record of recent times first, and then chewing backwards through time.
I’ve been starting to feel run down, and my throat was feeling itchy, so I swung by the press room for some tea with honey and lemon, and that revived me enough to start grading some final exams which had been administered Tuesday back in NOVA. I did this in the vestibule of Chevy’s Fresh Tex-Mex adjacent to the Moscone Center, where a half-hour later I was joined by a bunch of folks from the two-year-college scene, and we talked about the growing prominence of our institutions in groups like AGU. While we still have a long way to go, we were all pleased with the momentum that seems to have developed in paying attention to community colleges in recent years.
At this point, my throat was really bugging me (even though somewhat assuaged by margaritas), and I headed back to the hotel to conk out. Up now to finish with my exam grading, hack out this quick blog post, respond to the Facebook troll who thinks the planet is cooling, and then stumble back down to the meeting. It’s my last day at AGU, as tomorrow morning at this exact time, I’ll be tens of thousands of feet above the Basin & Range, heading east.
Mia Mega Culpa: an Open Letter from Greg Craven re: Dec. 15th speech at AGU.
So…that was interesting. If you’ve heard about my performance on stage Dec. 15th at AGU’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco, you may regret that you missed what appeared to be a public nervous breakdown. That wasn’t just going out in a blaze of glory. That overshot all the way to thermonuclear self-immolation.
I indeed meant to shock–because I think shock is required at this late stage–but I think maybe I overdid it juuuuust a little.
This letter is overlong, so I will tell you that the most essential part is in the following two paragraphs. The rest is context and my further futile attempt to convey what I was trying to say in my remarks.
I wish to be very clear in setting the record straight: my public comments at the AGU meeting were not endorsed by, representative of, solicited by, or even expected by the AGU, its board, or its members. The AGU is an upstanding and respectable organization that I deeply regret having caused any harm or inconvenience to, and I happily throw myself under the bus for them. Mine was but one of around 14,000 presentations given over the week. The AGU should in no way be associated with my comments or me, and they do not deserve the affiliation that the skeptical message network is already painting on them. (Please see http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/12/16/craven-attention/ which has already been reproduced on several other skeptical sites.) And my remarks have already been mischaracterized and misquoted, to further malign the AGU. In the interests of accuracy and truthful reporting, I will post an audio file and transcription of my presentation as given at http://www.gregcraven.org as soon as I can. Please be patient, as the hard drive containing the only copy of my prepared remarks crashed 11 hours before the presentation (leading to the sharp left turn in my speech), so I am without computer for a bit. Please keep checking back. They will hopefully be up within a few days.
I have sent my session convener a letter urging that the AGU board immediately disavow me and my remarks, and I urge you to do the same. They must do so with uncharacteristic haste, because you only need look at the article cited above to see that the skeptics have already discovered that getting one’s message out first and wide is the key to public opinion. They no more expected the extremism of my remarks than I did, and they do not deserve to feel any effects of my unfortunate delivery. (And I can assure you that their experience, while unpleasant, was far less unpleasant and surreal than my own, as I watched in horror from within as my unmitigated Papa Bear passion poured forth from my mouth. Please believe me when I say I could not even believe what I was doing, even as I did it.)
For I did what I did out of extreme agitation for my two young daughters’ security. I make no excuses for that. I did not intend it, but the urgency of my last hope at making a difference in the debate prompted a last desperate Hail Mary. And while I regret that the unfiltered stridency of my plea may have done damage to the reputation of the AGU, and that it lessened the likelihood that my message will be heard by those who need it most, I do not regret the message or my passion. I have the comfort that I will never regret that I held back and should have said more. That part was a deliberate decision on my part when considering whether to actually deliver the radical speech that poured forth after the hard drive containing the only copy of my prepared remarks crashed 11 hours before my presentation.
I share this because I fear that the message will be discarded with the messenger. I urge you to consider the message on its own merits, despite the marked absence of any in its deliverer.
The message that I (all too) desperately wished to convey was that the scientist’s power in the debate lies not in becoming better communicators—in which they will never be able to match the skill of the skeptic’s messenging machine–but it would be the public merely seeing the fact that they are participating and that they are concerned, or even terrified. That would have power exactly because scientists have been so averse to doing so. To see that the scientists are now willing to break with their traditional sensibilities would be the only thing powerful enough to get the public’s attention and halt the alarming and continuing divergence between the public and the scientific understanding of climate change. Of the immanence and severity of the threat.
What I ask of the scientists is simple, easy, and does not threaten the purity of the scientific endeavor. I ask only that each scientist recognize that we each wear multiple hats in our lives, and that it is a tragic mistake to insist on wearing exclusively your scientist hat when addressing the public. Instead, go out and tell the public in any forum you can find: “As a scientist, here is what I know. As a citizen, here are my concerns, and my thoughts on what we should do. And as a father, a mother, a grandparent, here are my fears, even my terrors, and my backup plans to safeguard my family.”
This idea has been and clearly still is anathema to the traditional scientific sensibilities, of eschewing any expression of the impact of their knowledge on themselves as people, as citizens, as fathers and mothers. Of actually speaking on policy decisions as a citizen. I am completely befuddled as to why that right–exercised by every other, equally unqualified citizen–is voluntarily surrendered by those who know best what is likely to happen in the physical world.
I suggest this hard-line refusal to share feelings and policy thoughts is dogmatic, and in fact self-defeating. For if the scientists continue to refuse to breach that divide, in their noble defense of the sanctity of science, they may well lose that which they defend so fervently. For if the worst does come to pass—a scenario they themselves warn us of–the purity of science, perhaps science itself, can hardly be expected to endure. It would be the most tragic of ironies if this continuing intransigence of the scientists ends up destroying what they hold most dear.
The talk was my Hail Mary. I suggest that we are so late in the game, with its overwhelming series of inertias, that it is time for the scientific community’s Hail Mary as well. To come down off that comfortable hill they have limited themselves to—being satisfied to give only information, reconassaince–and enter the fray before the battle is lost irreversibly.
Does that sound too radical? Too much? I challenge each scientist to critically ask themselves: “If this situation does not merit me challenging my comfort zone, then what would?” In my fierce urgency to safeguard my daughters’ future, I will impetuously defy each scientist to come up with an operational definition of the criteria a situation would need to posses in order to prompt them to change how they operate. And then apply those criteria to this situation. This is no hippy “If not now, then when” plea. It is a demand for intellectual honesty. Is it possible that even scientists are vulnerable to the denial and confirmation bias inherent to every human brain? Is it worth betting the world that they are immune to it?
If they do that, I ask no more. If they do not, them I will frankly call them out as intellectually dishonest. I know I am offensive. But I believe that when the house is burning, offense is a very small price to pay for saving the family. And especially after learning from scientists at AGU that my worst fears are not only confirmed, but exceeded, I will bear any charge against me to prompt action.
It might surprise, and hopefully disturb you, to hear that in my short time at AGU, I discovered four scientists who are already creating some form of survival retreat for their family, and they told me there are many more. But they are all too scared of being ostracized in the scientific community if they speak of it. It struck me that they aren’t even “in the closet” yet. They still think they are isolated freaks of nature, ashamed to share what they truly feel.
Being in the closet would be a positive step for them! For then they could at least acknowledge each other, and share strategies for dealing with their need to prepare for dire circumstances. I pray for a day when all of those that I’ve heard of, that feel this visceral concern for the safety of their family, would come out of the closet. Not just because it would be useful for them, but because it could be the thing that turns the tide.
Imagine the impact if the public saw a significant number of scientists come out and speak of how their knowledge has them so concerned that they feel like preparing survival retreats in the mountains! Now that would be powerful in a way that no amount of improved communication skills could ever match.
I’ve long joked that the only thing that would wake up the public at this point would be to see the climatologist all quit and move en masse to New Zealand, to homestead high above sea level. Imagine my horror to discover it was not complete fantasy.
I have come away from the meeting shaken to the core. Especially after seeing in the panel discussion that there is still absolutely no felt need to change how they operate, though such a small, easy, non-threatening change could turn the tide of the debate.
Instead, to my horror and dismay, what I saw was even the encouragement to hold the line harder, with the incredibly influential Michael Oppenheimer telling the audience to be sure they continue to assiduously stick to avoiding any discussions of policy.
To date, the scientific community has made the understandable but flawed assumption that providing the public with facts will result in the public making a rational decision. It boggles me that the scientific community, of all people, would disregard so completely the long-established finding of psychological research that people on the whole simply don’t make decisions rationally, as the divergence between public and scientific opinion demonstrably shows.
So perhaps you can understand how deeply distressing it is to see the scientific community this late in the game doubling down on a strategy that has already been demonstrated to be woefully ineffective. Isn’t one definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome? Has the scientific community become insane in refusing to see their strategy is doomed to fail—has failed already–yet they press on harder in the same direction, even as they call for a change in tack?
And as a lifelong fan of science–having idolized scientists for so long as the paragons of rational thought, in defiance of the base human inclinations–you can perhaps understand the sense of betrayal I feel to hear what I did in the panel discussion. To realize with dawning horror that scientists are just as human, just as capable of dogma, unconscious assumptions, and irrational decision-making as the rest of us.
Given that I know—with the confidence gained from my experience of reading tens of thousands of comments online—that such a strategy is doomed to failure, and that an alternative, successful strategy is so easy to enact, I am filled with despair. As a result of my time at AGU, I’ve decided to retire completely from continuing to pursue making a difference in the debate, and for my family’s sake I will focus instead on building our own lifeboat. And leave the debate to others.
I know that may confirm to many people that I have indeed gone off the deep end. And I grieve if the many people who have respected and helped me in spreading the videos and writing the book now feel betrayed. So be it. But, given the fact that those four scientists I mentioned were paleoclimatologists, with access to the newest and best data, and with their position of knowing more than any other discipline what the global climate is capable of doing, perhaps you shouldn’t assume I’m crazy. Or that my message has no merit.
What I ask is simple, easy, and does not threaten the purity of the scientific endeavor. Simply be willing to wear different hats at different times, and speak forthrightly to the public of what effect your knowledge has had on you. Of your hopes for policies, and your fears for your children.
THAT would shift the debate. Giving more of the same will most definitely not.
Please, I urge all of you to consider that possibility. After all, whatever decision you make is—by default—wagering the world.
Again, I emphasize, none of what I write above or said in my presentation is at all affiliated with the AGU, its board, or its members. It is my delusion—my visceral terror for my daughters—alone. And I deeply apologize if it has done any damage to the reputation of the AGU.
So, in short…sorry about that, Chief.
And for the record, I know that I never shut up. It’s almost pathological with me. (Imagine the hell it is from the inside.) For that, I do apologize.
Please spread this letter as you see fit. The AGU deserves it.
Most Sincerely (and Sufficiently Chagrined),
>>It boggles me that the scientific community, of all people, >>would disregard so completely the long-established finding >>of psychological research that people on the whole simply >>don’t make decisions rationally, as the divergence between >>public and scientific opinion demonstrably shows
This is hilarious. Aside from the appalling grammar, which is somewhat disturbing when one realises the guy is supposed to be a teacher. So people just make irrational decisions then and psychology has proven this. I wish this meeting had been video-taped. I would have paid good money for it. What a scream.
[…] faculty from two-year colleges run by Katryn Wiese of San Francisco City College, and (3) a bike ride to the west side of the San Francisco Peninsula with my former student […]
[…] to the AGU10 blog post mentioned and to Greg Craven’s […]