This is a guest post that originally appeared as a Facebook conversation between the illustrious Drs. Jarrett Byrnes and Scott Richmond. Scott, Jarrett and I met in college theater and our conversations have only gotten more ridiculous since then. This one was so interesting that I asked to share it as a Deep Sea News post. [UPDATE: Check out Chris Mooney’s take on the same article.]
Dr. Jarrett Byrnes is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS). His research on the causes and consequences of complexity in nature. He blogs at I’m a Chordata! Urochordata! and always wears a tuxedo. Really.
Dr. Scott C. Richmond is an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies in the English Department at Wayne State University. He works at the intersection of philosophy, perceptual psychology, and film and media theory. He also rides his bike around Detroit and buys local produce.
CLIMATE SCIENTISTS: NOT JUST LIKE “US”
The conversation kicked off with this tweet from Jarrett, followed by quotes from the paper.
Jarrett: Do we think too big? Personality differences b/t PhD climate scientists and the public: implications for communication http://t.co/Q8CFpLl
Our results demonstrate that the dominant personality types for Ph.D. climate change researchers are fundamentally different from those found in the U.S. population. This suggests that there is a strong potential for inherent challenges in communication between these two groups. As the climate change community continues to move forward with effective communication and education, it is important to keep in mind that it isn’t just “what we say” but, “how we say it”.’
The preference for Intuition by early career climate scientists suggests that this group is likely to be more oriented towards future climate impacts than members of the general public, who generally prefer Sensing over Intuition (Fig. 1). For Sensors, the current situation is more relevant and more easily appreciated, and past experience and concrete facts are more trusted than future possibilities. Thus, climate impacts beyond the present or readily foreseeable future may lack relevance among the general public….
Our results suggest that the climate-change research community may more effectively communicate with the general public by including the personal and local impacts of climate change in addition to more analytical results….
Compared to the United States population, Ph.D. climate scientists also exhibited a strong preference for Judging on the final dichotomy (Fig. 1). This suggests that on average, climate change researchers will prefer to reach a decision or come to closure and ‘move on’ to the next step more quickly than the general population. The general population, with a higher proportion of Perceivers, is more likely to see room for doubt, or want to take more time to explore possible alternatives, especially when outcomes are not likely to be positive.
Jarrett: These are HUGE points for us to think about as a scientific community.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU’RE FRIENDS WITH A FILM SCHOLAR: SCOTT’S RESPONSE
Scott: I’m sorry, but I can’t help myself, but I’m going to be a cranky humanist for a minute, anyway: Did you really need a trumped up Myers-Briggs personality type study to determine that folks pursuing Ph.D.’s in science think better, longer-term, and at a higher level of abstraction than the average American? Or did you really need it to convince you that the general public can think only concretely, about short-term concerns, and without being able to translate that thinking into action? (Just look at your students.) If it’s really a question of how it gets said, then I think perhaps people who study how things get said for a living (e.g. rhetoricians, media scholars, even marketing people in B-schools) might be able to furnish better insights on how to structure communications than can be got out of multiple choice personality sorters? (Also I ♥ you!)
Jarrett: TTTTHHHHTTTPPPBBB!!!! heee. (♥ you too!) Ok, but really, believe it or not this is NOT something we think about. It is honestly baffling to 99% of us as to why communication of climate change often fails outright. Largely this is because we are nose down in the trenches with this stuff – it is our daily reality. That something intrinsic to our _personality_ could be getting in the way of something that seems obvious like a big blinking red light of shiny redness is not something that would occur. The test reported on was part of DISCCRS and for my session, we were all pretty surprised. And then we got it. And then the communications workshops from that point on – from a media relations expert and a public speaking coach – clicked in a way that I haven’t seem them do so in other science comms workshops. So, I think having this paper in the sci literature is invaluable, and I’m hoping it gets widely circulated amongst the climate community. It honestly isn’t something we’d think of. Unless you live with a playwright. Then, well, you may hear a few things…
This is Scott’s “too-long” (his words) response to his response:
Scott: I have to say, I’m frankly shocked that this is something you science people don’t think about. Really. Honestly. Shocked. I can understand an attitude (one that I frequently have concerning my own work) in which the public just isn’t the audience for a particular piece of research or writing, that scholarly work is primarily for the consumption of other scholars. But the moment it becomes a question of publicizing (and not just publishing) knowledge, it strikes me that these sorts of observations really have to be the starting point. And at that point, you really ought to talk to people like me, even if I’m a namby pamby qualitative fake humanist scholar without spurious quantification of the Myers-Briggs sort. I also know that a lot of science moves forward by quantifying things we already know, but the filter by which knowledge only becomes real when it gets quantified excludes a great deal of accumulated wisdom that people like me have to share.
Then again, at the moment, the biggest problems in the way climate science gets talked about don’t lie with the scientists or their communication style (or personality types), but rather in the media and political and economic systems. And the ways in which those systems cause material things to happen (or not happen) in the world, like raising or not-raising the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.
And when it comes to these things, you have to have an analysis that allows you to talk about the ways in which knowledge passes through these systems, and what happens to it along the way. Which means you also have to have an analysis that includes the interfaces between these systems, and between these systems and real-world effects. That is, you need some kind of multisystemic knowledge, which is at its heart unquantifiable (in practice if not in principle). Such an analysis will have to include things like how people fix their political ideas, the nature of affinity group politics, the way money circulates in the political systems, the sorts of convictions that pass for knowledge in the world, the ways in which collective action becomes possible, etc. So much of how humans operate looks like fuzzy logic, willful ignorance, and muddling-through: this kind of multisystemic knowledge is going to have to reflect that.
There’s this fallacy that if I just ride my bike to work instead of driving and buy local produce and eat less meat and use CFLs and turn the heat down and shrink my carbon footprint generally (and of course, I do!), I’m doing my part. But we know that any change that matters must happen at much, much greater scales: individual action is not sufficient (or, really, necessary), given the current organization of our economy, our politics, our built environment, etc. Real collective action is not merely the action of a large number of individuals, but something greater than the sum of its parts. I think there’s a similar fallacy among scientists by which communicating more and better to the public about climate change will, on its own, have media, political, and economic effects that will lead to real change of the form of reducing the rate of increase, stabilizing, or decreasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. It won’t.
Which is to say, while I’m shocked that this sort of thing hasn’t occurred in aggregate to scientists doing research on the effects of climate change, now that I’m more level-headed,I also kind of don’t really care. All the knowledge I need from my point of view is available at this point: climate change is happening, it’s real, it’s bad, and it’s probably worse than our most recent estimates. And also: we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, it is unpredictable given the state of current science, and may be unpredictable given the nature of the thing. We need both to radically cut back carbon emissions, and to fund research into the likely effects and ways to mitigate them. But I don’t get to set policy by fiat. (—And thank god for that. I’m sure I’d fuck it up royally.) The sort of manifold problem that climate change is requires thinking with and across not just multiple systems, but multiple kinds of knowledge: geology, ecology, biology, chemistry, engineering, architecture, economics, policy, media studies, rhetoric, political science and political theory, psychology, even philosophy. Note that not all of these kinds of knowledge are compatible (what counts as knowledge in philosophy vs. chemistry?). And then a much messier problem: what do you do when polls show that climate change denialists are also the most confident in their position, the most confident that they have all the information they need to support their conclusions?
I’m not saying I have a solution, but I do know that you need a theory of the case. What that theory ends up looking like depends on what you think the case at hand is, and your resources for building theories. From where you are, I can perhaps see why the case and its theory look simple: climate change is happening, we can measure it and its effects, they’re bad, we need to stop polluting, mmmkay? But from this side of things, the theory of the case has to be at once fiendishly complex, fuzzy, and partial, since it includes problems from the nature of knowledge (since climate denialists say that they *know* that climate change isn’t real; they’re wrong, but how do you remediate that problem?) to the design of the built environment (since you can’t simply rely on the goodwill of people not to drive) to how to spur changes in aggregate behavior at the relevant scales (since you can’t also simply dictate people’s behavior by fiat), et cetera and ad nauseam. I know you know all this.
So let me put this another way, since I’m going on at length and seem just to be talking around the problem: I think why this hit a nerve for me is that I was shocked that y’all (note the plural) were ignorant (or just ignoring) a problem so small and so obvious to me, I’m a more than just a little worried at the failure to comprehend the problem at scale—a much more difficult nut to crack. And real the problem isn’t the difference in personalities between Ph.D.’s and the general public (although certainly that matters), but rather, I think, the narrowness of how (e.g.) ordinary working-in-the-trenches ecologists and geologists studying the climatic system and its effects understand the nature of the knowledge they’re producing. And that, my friend, is not something that a Myers-Briggs personality sorter can even begin to address.
Jarrett: I think you have just summarized the emotional and strategic development of the climate change science community over the past 15-30 years or so. And, fortunately, these are issues that we are now well aware of, and reasons for which we are thankful for people like Steve Schneider, Jon Krosnick, Susan Hassol and the myriad of organizations that have sprang up to teach us basic hand-to-hand media combat. What is interesting about the survey and the reactions to it is that it was given to a group of recent PhDs. While some of us had begun to become armed for the realm of science and climate change communication, others had not. And none of us connected the changes in our communication strategies pathed on to basic personality differences. Seriously, we are so in this stuff, and it is so obvious to us that what many of us perceive as needing to change is communication style and strategy. The idea that empathy is actually a huge part of the strategy as well – knowing that we need to not just pare out jargon but think completely differently in terms of how someone may perceive the exact same set of information due to something fundamental about who they are – is a little more deep thinking that at least recent PhDs have gone. And, man, was it a game-changer. In fact, it actually naturally helps out in a lot of the other communication barriers we need to overcome in translating science to society.
But, no worries on the failure of comprehension and communication. The communication of climate change properly with full honesty has become a huge thing. The study of it and the training we now receive as scientists falls largely along many of the lines you outline. The problem that you rightly identify is that we may have come to this a little late in the game, as now we’ve gone from something that – with good communication, empathy, and solid facts that are concrete and short term – can be understood and believed by anyone with a brain to a hyper-politicized closed-mind combative place. And so strategy shifts and changes. It makes me thankful for some of the amazing climate communicators we have out there, and hopeful that, given that I have folk like you in my pocket, that I can contribute something useful to the larger conversation.
What do you think? Is this study important to helping scientists understand why no one understands them? Or is it a “kitten are cute” kind of study that only proved the obvious? Most importantly, do we need to hire Scott as our consulting namby pamby qualitative fake humanist scholar?
Weiler, C., Keller, J., & Olex, C. (2011). Personality type differences between Ph.D. climate researchers and the general public: implications for effective communication Climatic Change DOI: 10.1007/s10584-011-0205-7