A scientist and a humanist walk into a bar; or On Myers-Briggs, Climate Science, and Knowledge


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.]

Jarrett Byrnes


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.

Scott Richmond

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.


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.


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

10 Replies to “A scientist and a humanist walk into a bar; or On Myers-Briggs, Climate Science, and Knowledge”

  1. This is my first blog note *ever*. Wow, what have I been missing all my life???? Jarrett, thank you for dragging me into the 21st century. I do think Scott is spot on. This stuff is really obvious once you think about it. But you are right on it too, Jarrett, scientists don’t think about it much. The situation is getting better, but when Chris and I started this (1997?) scientists were so skeptical of “type” that it was completely dismissed as “fluff stuff”. Scientists, even the taxonomists who love to categorize, don’t like to put labels on people. I decided to bring Chris Olex in as a trainer at one of my early symposia as an experiment, because I noticed after organizing my first two symposia that lack of exposure to basic facilitation and team-building skills was making it really hard for the groups to get much out of any discussion sessions. We started doing the MBTI as a way of teaching about group dynamics. Chris was so fabulous that participants became instant converts. Serendipitously we saved our data and after two symposia we noticed that the MBTI pattern was repeating and was different from the general population. This is nothing new, there are whole books written on type and professions (indeed, we cite one of the books in the paper). Still, this kind of thing is not in the literature that we “hard core” scientists generally read. Most of us skoff at it, insisting that no one should be put in a “box” by type. Yes we are unique, but at the same time, there are patterns and to deny it is like saying the climate is not changing….. And, as Myers and Briggs so eloquently state in their books, understanding type helps us understand ourselves, and others better. And that can only be a good thing if the knowledge is not abused. No one type is better than another, and we are not trying to set scientists up against anyone else on any kind of a hierarchy. But if we can understand ourselves, whatever type we are, and try to take into consideration the others around us, that should be a good thing, and help us get our messages across better…..

  2. …one tiny (aesthetic) complaint: information density.

    Other than that, keep up the great work!

  3. Unless things have a certain minimum information density I find them unreadable. The conversation above is eminently readable. (Wonders if “eminently” is unaesthetic.)

  4. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Susan! In my communication efforts, I have found that tasks that scientists take for granted, such as the ability to read and interpret graphs, is not easy for many members of the public. I chalked this up to practice rather than inherent personality type, but nonetheless it is a huge barrier, and one that most scientists don’t think about.

    I’ve also found this chart of what scientists say vs. what the public hears to be extremely useful.

  5. Yikes, I wish that article were in Wikipedia so I could add a [citation needed] to this sentence in the discussion: “Scientists in general are well trained and excellent communicators when it comes to exchanges with specialists in their own discipline.” Am I the only one who’s listened to a specialist lecture in my field with my eyes glazing over, struggling in vain to follow the seemingly random assortment of figures and images on slides?

    You can hire Scott if he acknowledges that the M-B axes are not about some personalities thinking “better” or “worse.” I thought the whole point was to understand that different people think about issues differently, without assigning value to the different styles.

    I’d love to know how scientists in general (not just climate-related) break down into personality types. But that’s neither here nor there. Anyway, thanks for posting a very interesting discussion!

  6. Well I left this comment over at: http://scienceprogress.org/2011/09/could-personality-differences-help-explain-the-realit-gap-on-climate-change/

    Well, this seems a tad strange to me. I have worked as a scientist (geochemistry) a little over 6 years now earlier been involved in politics about 10 and that there is a gap between scientist communication and others is clear however I would frame the culture the biggest factor here. It might be that you need to look outside the US to find the answer to this. If it where personality types that where the problem how come we do not have that problem in Sweden then? I would again bet on cultural issues. I also usually end up an ENTP on the MB test however it can change and I also would suggest that it differs from what I am focusing on… During research I might value other words then when in public… though getting a different result on the MB test.

    But ok say that you bye the culture thing and still want to reach out to the public and bridge the personality type difference. As you say this is just mean values so there are researchers on both sides of the spectrum some would then get it right and some not…. OR both do get it right but to their specific audience. There will never be a way to get scientists to change in a way that all of them would bring out one kind of message. Scientists can be really stubborn so to try to get them to say something a certain way just to please the crowd could back fire. And any way the “political”players will always have the advantage in how to frame the issue.

    Too succeed at getting a message across you need practice and researchers do not like something that takes time of research. Now your plan might be to just focus on what kind of personality that usually just rejects science so thous who focus on communication can address it. But then why would the researchers be the once investigate on personality type? The biggest problem looking at for example the US and Sweden seams to be other things like how often is it communicated how is the media landscape sorted etc… (fair enough it is much easier in a small country)

    So what to do? Make it worth while for the researchers that are good communicators to be that, (hint to researchers it might not be the same ppl that are good at communicating at conferences.) one of the biggest problems is lack of founds and prestige for researchers to communicate and in media to have a working science section with ACTUAL scientists in it…

    So sure investigate what makes people to ignore facts but I doubt that scientists can ever out communicate PR-firms and thinktaks who actually do the pulls on what message to bring out there. It seams more important to get ppl and journalists to understand the scientific process and make place in science for communicators.

  7. This is a little late in coming. I got distracted by my research life, and by an out-of-town wedding: I feel like I move more slowly than the internet, always.

    On the still-active Facebook comment feed, Jarrett posted links to researchers who working on communicating climate science (e.g. Jon Krosnick: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/09/opinion/09krosnick.html). This is my response, lightly edited, which I was not going to post here, but am doing so, albeit belatedly, with the encouragement of Miriam and Jarrett:

    Scott: Now that the DSN post is up, I feel like I should be posting this there, somehow. I don’t see how [to make it fit in context], though. Jarrett, I feel like I must not be putting what I mean into words as well as I should: I feel a bit like we’re talking past one another. But also that’s why conversations like this are really, really crucial. Also, I’m sorry for being so very longwinded.

    I assumed that there is multi- and interdisciplinary work on these sorts of things—although I didn’t know it, so thanks for sending it my way. But if Jon Krosnick is right, then it turns out that communicating to the public and outreach have already done their work, and something else is at issue: if more than 70% of Americans believe (a) that government should regulate carbon emissions, and (b) that it has not done so because of industry pressure, then it strikes me that the communication style of scientists isn’t really an issue, nor is public outreach, at least not in any straightforward sense. That is, his quantitative information is both necessary and clarifying, but the best it can do is tell us what we don’t yet know.

    The information about climate change exists, it has shaped public opinion, and it has penetrated just about as far as it’s going to. So you need a story about why the beliefs of the public aren’t getting translated into concrete action (and you might also want to ask why higher gas taxes are off the table but cap-and-trade is heavily favored), why Rick Perry can get up and claim that global warming is a conspiracy of scientists and not be laughed out of the room, etc. Which is not also to say that we don’t need more research on climate change. It is just to say, in addition to [more research], that we need to include in our analysis the quality and quantity of the profound dysfunction of our political, media, and economic systems (and their dysfunctional interactions).

    From a more humanistic perspective, you might go another route and think about the ways the time scales of media events and climate change make climate change a singularly difficult event to get people to care about. Since humanists tend to publish in books rather than journals, I can only give you a reference (or scan the article for you if you’re really interested), but you might also look at Mary Ann Doane’s “Information, Crisis, Catastrophe.” (References: in New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, edited by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan (Routledge 2006); or, in Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, edited by Patricia Mellencamp (Indiana: 1990).) Doane teaches us about the different time scales at work in television. And I think the understanding you get from Doane would lead you to want to figure out a way to design communications about climate change for the multiple time scales of different media. Understanding the form and effects of (moving image) media is what I do for a living, and what I’m telling you is that this sort of knowledge is necessary (but not sufficient!) not only to understanding where we are, but also to grasping some of what we need to do to get where we want to be (although I also want to say that I’m certainly not the person to be designing things, just helping to understand those who do what the issues are).

    What I think I was trying to say boils down to three points: (1) I was trying to say is that whatever knowledge gets produced by scientists in this domain is, of necessity, going to end up very far afield, and that scientists need to think about that process better and with more sophistication; (2) that tackling the problem of anthropogenic climate change, at this point, is not really about scientists communicating well (outreach), nor the production of new knowledge (research), but rather an issue [of] the forms in which that knowledge is expressed or made manifest, and the effects those forms have (a problem of media, politics, economics); (3) that this second point is actually a problem not particularly amenable to quantification, and that media theoretical knowledge is very well equipped to make sense of this problem—and that scientists need to be find ways of being open to the sorts of things people like me (and not merely Jon Krosnick with his reassuring numbers) have to teach them [about, e.g., point 1].

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