5 December 2011

AGU 2011, day 1

Posted by Callan Bentley

I got to San Francisco on Saturday afternoon, flying in on the same flight from DC as Rob Simmon and Maria-José Viñas.

MJ and I took the BART downtown, and then met up with Jess Ball for Thai dinner and a yummy dessert of banana wrapped in roti with Nutella and coconut ice cream. Then, jet lag informing me it was time for rest, I went to bed. I had trouble sleeping, and think I felt a small earthquake that occurred south of here during the wee insomniac hours of the morning. Though it’s a small quake to feel at that distance out in California, the timing’s about right: I felt a small clunk and then a diminishing vibration.

I rose early and worked from my hotel (the excellent Villa Florence) and then moseyed down to the Marriott for the “Communicating Your Science” workshop that AGU sponsored. Waiting in line for coffee at the Starbucks there, I ran into Bill McDonough from the University of Maryland, who I hadn’t seen in a year – he and his wife Roberta Rudnick had been on sabbatical in Tanzania last year. It was good to catch up.

The morning session of the workshop featured four speakers detailing different takes on the “science communication” issue (where the issue is essentially that it’s a challenging thing to do effectively). Of them, the last one, Dan Kahan of Yale, gave the most fascinating talk – a sociopsychological look at how people perceive information and sources thereof. He basically took a quantitative (or perhaps pseudoquantitative – it wasn’t clear to me if we were looking at real data or just made up graphs to illustrate his points) approach to the inherent tribalism of the human mind. He compared “hierarchical independent” to “egalitarian communitarian” personalities and what ends up happening to these two groups’ perception of climate risk when they get more information. Surprisingly, the facts didn’t bring them closer together; rather they became more entrenched in their “it’s awful” or “it’s a hoax” points of view. Essentially, they fortified their mental position by engaging with the issue, and political polarization increased as a result of the science communication effort. Uh oh: that’s not what was supposed to happen! While I got the sense Dan could have gone on all afternoon (he’s a very enthusiastic speaker), lunch was calling, so he wrapped up with one more tidbit: when the science communicator paired a discussion of (a) biodiversity loss or (b) geoengineering with the climate science information, two different results emerged: the “bad news” of the biodiversity loss led to an intensification of the polarization, while the “hopefulness” of the geoengineering angle reduced the overall polarization, and brought the “hierarchical independents” and “egalitarian communitarians” closer to a common perception of climate risk. In summary, Dan’s point was that there is some deep, wacky psychology at work in people’s minds, and your rational presentation of data may not only fail to convince them of scientific validity — it may actually drive them further away from the science!

After lunch, John Cook of Skeptical Science and I ran two iterations of a ‘workshop’ on using social media. I talked about my experience writing this blog, and John shared the inspiring story of founding a climate denialist myth-rebutting website. There were lots of good questions from participants for both of us, and I found myself feeling very energized by the exchange.

After the workshop concluded, I walked over to officially register for the meeting and got my press pass (that’s right: this blog means I’m a member of the press!) and thence to the opening “Icebreaker” reception. No ice was actually on hand, but there was plenty of cold craft-brewed beer from a bunch of different quality breweries, including New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam, and 21st Amendment. I talked with one of the participants from the workshop, and a former student from my 2005 GMU structural geology class. Then I met up with two other students from a more recent vintage of the GMU structure class (one now a grad student at Stanford, the other employed at the USGS) and we went off in search of food. I was initially craving cioppino, the iconic San Francisco seafood stew, but the Tadich Grill is shuttered on Sundays, so we took a taxi to North Beach, and ended up at the Stinking Rose, a restaurant where they famously “season their garlic with food.” We partook liberally of both garlic and house red, and had a fun, far-reaching conversation. I’m so proud of these students – it’s great to see their success.

To bed, then, and awake this morning early so that I could hack out this narrative before a shower and then the walk down to Moscone for the first day of talks and posters. My apologies in advance to anyone unfortunate enough to sit in proximity to my garlicky aura today at the meeting! 🙂