Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.


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Transformational Climate Science – the future of climate research

On 15-16 May a diverse group of climate researchers gathered at the University of Exeter to discuss the state of climate change following the publication of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report and the future of the field. In a previous post I discussed some of the key themes. Here I’m going to summarise some of what went on at the conference in terms of how we should proceed with climate research in the future. It will be biased towards physical science, since that’s my personal area of interest.

What are the outstanding challenges in climate research? What are the areas that need further investigation? Should the IPCC process function as a driver for new research efforts?

Science & policy panell (left to right): Thomas Stocker, Saffron O’Neill, Georgina Mace, Andrea Tilche, Asuncion St Clair, Chris Field. Credit: University of Exeter via Flickr.

I think the final question there is an especially interesting one. The role of the IPCC is to bring together diverse research findings and assess our state of knowledge. And yet, sometimes it is seen as an end in itself. One of the speakers at the conference noted he sometimes sees research justified as ‘important for the IPCC assessment’, and that this is a big turn-off. If that’s the best thing the researcher can say about their work it’s probably not going to be that interesting. Of course, it might be that the research is fascinating and yields new insight into some of the big challenges of contemporary climate science. In that case the authors should say so. The challenges of contemporary climate science are not challenges because the IPCC says so; they are challenges because there are scientific and policy questions that need answering. Thomas Stocker, in his remarks, noted that one of the most important things to do in future climate research is to continue with ‘curiosity-driven research’. There are many examples of pure research that did not have any obvious application spawning major advances, often with great commercial success.

I’m no science policy scholar, so I won’t discuss where the balance should lie between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ research, but this conference provided some food for thought. Some speakers emphasised both equally, generating a tension which isn’t easily resolved. Indeed, the majority of the ‘challenges’ identified at the meeting fell on the ‘applied’ side in the sense that they were suggestions to make climate research more policy-relevant. Perhaps that is unsurprising at a meeting structured around the IPCC, with its strong emphasis on policy-relevance.

One of the main challenges identified during the meeting was moving from the robust aspects of climate theory to those phenomena which actually matter to people on the ground. Robust aspects of climate theory are largely thermodynamically driven, argued Stephen Belcher. We understand that the accumulating energy balance of the Earth will lead to warming, and that the land will warm faster than the ocean. We understand that surface warming leads to greater evaporation and consequently, on average, greater precipitation. But the things we really care about are rather smaller in scale. We experience climate through weather events, and these are influenced as much by dynamic as thermodynamic factors. Unfortunately, we have much less confidence in our understanding of these dynamical processes. They have smaller spatial scales and shorter temporal scales, and so they are much more computationally demanding to model. They involve processes which are not well understood. Ted Shepherd has spoken similarly about the need to focus on the climate dynamics of global warming. It certainly seems like a fertile area for future research, though also a very challenging one.

On the subject of things that people actually care about, Mat Collins and David Stephenson both discussed moving from simplistic averages to the broader statistics of climate. We experience climate through weather, and we care about it most of all when it’s extreme. It’s the ‘tails’ of the probability distribution of weather events that we care about. Unfortunately, said Mat Collins, we don’t really have a good idea about how to assess this. Our current batch of climate model simulations are a statistically questionable sample – they have known deficiencies, biases and interdependencies. We need to address this or develop techniques to deal with it.

On the theme of translating our physical understanding into more relevant information, there was also some discussion of modelling of the politico-economic systems. Integrated Assessment Models attempt to do this, but there is no coordinated intercomparison of these models like there is for climate models. Some at the meeting objected, saying we don’t have good enough theory to be able to credibly model economics. Perhaps that’s true, but just because something is complicated and uncertain doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to model it; in fact, perhaps it means we should! An intercomparison would at least help us know where we stand.

A final note: this continued emphasis on relevance seems to me to require a greater role of values in presenting stories about what humans care about. Simon Caney spoke about the major breakthrough of including ethicists and philosophers in WG3. More broadly, I think a move to greater policy-relevance would need everyone involved to be crystal clear about what is factual and what it normative (value-based). People were mostly good at that in this meeting. A productive discussion on climate change needs good-quality factual basis and a wide range of normative viewpoints. There was even some discussion about how it might required new forms of collaborative decision-making.

Regardless, the very necessary shift towards policy relevance will mean the potential for even greater controversies. Sam Fankhauser spoke about the need to develop very clear channels for communication to help get around this: ‘whatever we say will be used in that very emotional debate’. It’s difficult and sometimes downright unpleasant, but I think ultimately we have to embrace that.

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Transformational Climate Science – approaching the problem of climate change

On 15-16 May a diverse group of climate researchers gathered at the University of Exeter to discuss the state of climate change following the publication of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report and the future of the field. In a previous post I discussed some of the key themes. Here I’m going to summarise some of what went on at the conference in terms of how we should approach climate change.

How does the IPCC work? Is climate research doing what it should? Should it change?

Chris Field presents an overview of the AR5 WG2 report. Credit: University of Exeter via Flickr.

The Transformational Climate Science meeting had sessions structured around the three IPCC working groups (The Physical Science Basis; Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability; Mitigation of Climate Change). However, the IPCC is not the bottom line in climate research. It’s important to remember that its main role is to summarise our state of knowledge rather than to do new research (though it does do this as well to some extent). However, the IPCC remains a convenient ‘hook’ on which to hang our deliberations about climate change, which is presumably why the meeting was structured as it was.

As a physical scientist, I was looking forward to learning about working groups 2 and 3. Working Groups 2 and 3 (WG2 & WG3) bring together an astonishingly broad group of people: physical scientists, economists, sociologists, political scientists, philosophers…I got the impression the level of ‘cohesion’ was a little lower in these working groups than WG1. In WG1 everyone has different specialisms, but participants probably understand each others’ way of thinking well, whereas I don’t think that would be the case for people coming from diverse cognitive traditions in WG2 and WG3.

Aside from the need to bring together people with different expertise to cover the subject matter, there’s another benefit to this diversity. In the meeting a number of IPCC authors acknowledged their work could not be completely free of value judgements. By bringing together a diverse group of people, the hope is that at last a range of different value systems can be considered. A number of authors also made it explicit when they were trying to be objective and reporting ‘IPCC opinion’, and when they were talking about their own personal opinion.

One of the challenges faced by the authors of the WG2 report was the tendency of negative impacts of climate change to be reported more than positive ones. Sari Kovats, in her remarks, explicitly noted this and pointed out this was something authors were aware of and attempted to deal with as best they could. She also described what she saw as the problems in writing a report with limited quantitative research. She gave the example of the Russian heatwave and wildfires of 2010. We do not have a good idea of the impacts of this event on human health, economic productivity or food supply. In short, we lack good data. This problem becomes worse in less developed countries, which is understandable but frustrating since we might also expect such countries to be more vulnerable to climate risks.

I thought Sari’s presentation was one of the most interesting at the meeting. It described nicely what the state of the art is when it comes to studying climate impacts. She described the challenges of interpreting small-scale qualitative studies with the goal of drawing conclusions for quantitative assessments of climate risk. Then she outlined what she thought WG2 did well and what she thought it didn’t. This includes the problem that less developed countries do not have the demographic and health data needed to assess climate impacts, and that the report did much better at describing regional inequalities in impacts than it did the socioeconomic inequalities. In a globalised world, perhaps socioeconomic divides are as important as geographical ones.

Chris Field gave some thoughts on the role of WG2. He saw it as a prompt for discussion of publicly acceptable solutions – the start of a dialogue rather than its end. I found this extremely encouraging, and in line with previous discussions of the importance of considering the value systems of different stakeholders.

I admit to finding this surprising. I had rather lazily assumed that IPCC reports didn’t include discussion of normative aspects of climate science and policy. It was encouraging to see Simon Caney talk specifically about this point. For the first time the WG3 report included a section on ethics. He pointed out that ‘dangerous’ is a value judgement, and it was vitally important to consider peoples’ values. He gave the example of people who say ‘we should do whatever it takes to tackle climate change’. They almost certainly don’t mean that. Caney pointed out that different people have different priorities, but that it was unlikely anyone genuinely things climate change is the only priority.

Such perspectives are very valuable. Caney also brought in the view that the ‘right to emit’ is an odd concept. What matters for people is the access to energy to enable them to fulfil their requirements. He argued that Amartya Sen’s perspective on serving capabilities was more relevant than considering every person’s equal right to emit greenhouse gases. The emissions are a side-effect of the requirement for energy, and we should view responses to climate change in terms of serving capabilities rather than picking out such a side-effect.

One final thought – Saffron O’Neill pointed out that media coverage of WG1 is greater than either WG2 (one third less) or WG3 (three quarters less). Interestingly, the amount of Twitter activity on the conference hashtag also seemed lower during WG2 and WG3 sessions. It’s interesting to consider why this might be the case. One simple reason might be that the WG1 report is released first. But is there something deeper here? Do we ‘value’ the explicit and factual nature of WG1 more than the difficult, fuzzy, value-laden world of WG3? Perhaps, but I think that’s a shame. It seems especially odd that those who self-identify as ‘sceptics’ focus so much on WG1, when there’s a whole lot more stuff up for legitimate debate in WG2 and WG3.


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Transformational Climate Science – meeting report

On 15-16 May 2014, the University of Exeter hosted an impressive array of climate change researchers from across the world. It was a medium-sized conference discussing the state of climate change research across all three working groups of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, along with goals and challenges for the future.

I found the meeting absolutely fascinating for all manner of reasons, most of which I hope to cover in two following blog posts. This post is something of an introduction.

Conference attendees gathering in the University of Exeter’s Forum. Credit: University of Exeter via Flickr.

One of the most obvious draws for me was that it brought together people from all three IPCC working groups. As a physical scientist I am familiar with the workings and results presented by the first working group, but the other two are rather more mysterious to me. This meeting served as a great summary. In case you’re not aware, the IPCC reports are produced by three separate groups:

These working groups operate rather separately. Once they have all released their reports they are combined in a synthesis report. The synthesis report for the Fifth Assessment goes to governments in October 2014. So, where next?

In the next two blog posts I’m going to discuss two themes which I felt ran through the conference.

The first is: how should we approach climate change? What kind of discussions should we be having, and how should they work? How should decisions be made?

The second is: what is the future of climate research? What information do we need and how can we get that information?

These questions are clearly inter-related. The first question is more of a political one, but the second one is clearly also politically relevant, as ultimately the choice of what information we need lies with policymakers and the public. This is one of the over-arching topics which transcended both of the themes: that climate research and policymaking is a mixture of facts and values. In simple terms: it is a fact that the planet has warmed, will continue to warm to a greater or lesser degree, and that this warming will have impacts. However, what we do about it (or indeed whether we do anything about it) is a question of values. It is a normative question in which there is no single right answer.

Even though facts might be seen as ‘valueless’, many of the speakers at the meeting argued there was no such thing. Asuncion St Clair quoted Bruno Latour: ‘no knowledge is neutral’. The way facts are presented requires the imposition of some kind of value system. Ottmar Edendorfer said at the conference that he sees the role of the IPCC as akin to that of a map-maker. The map-maker doesn’t tell the user which route to take. The map-maker examines the landscape and maps out the features, obstacles and characteristics of all paths. And yet the map-maker can’t just present the ‘facts’. The choice of what goes on the map depends on what the map-maker thinks the user needs. Take, for example, the difference between political and topographic maps. One presents largely artificial boundaries between nation-states; the other presents details of the landscape. Which one you choose would depend on your needs.

Even though it’s not possible to be completely neutral, then, perhaps the IPCC could try to address this problem by providing as much information as possible. Of course, this doesn’t make it very readable and that’s why there are two summaries that attempt to make the make points easier to grasp: the Summary for Policymakers (the content of which has to be agreed to by governments) and a Technical Summary (which doesn’t). But the choice of what goes in there might also be normative.

Given its stated goal to be ‘policy relevant, not policy prescriptive’, and the enormous complexity of its subject matter, the IPCC often makes very careful statements emphasising precisely what we do and do not know. Chris Field pointed out that this leads to something of a problem. He said that some of the statements turned out so vague that they were open to almost any interpretation. Different media outlets could make very different readings of the report and come to sometimes diametrically opposed conclusions!

This raises the issue of framings. ‘Framing is everything in this debate’ said Georgina Mace. What this means is that, given a more-or-less neutral presentation of information there is no single implication that naturally comes out. The implications of the findings of the IPCC depend on how one views the world. At the meeting Saffron O’Neill presented the results of some of her work on media framing of AR5. Common frames included: ‘settled science’, ‘unsettled science’, ‘security’ and ‘morality and ethics’. She pointed out that different frames implied very different policy options.

In the coming blog posts I hope to draw out some more detail on the two main areas of the conference: how should we approach climate change and what is the future of climate research? After all that talk of framings it’s important to say that these are my personal impressions, and not an objective report. If you want to find out exactly what went on at the meeting, you can catch up on the presentations and panel discussions on the website.

Other coverage:


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How do we decide whether geoengineering is worth it?

Citation: A J Ferraro, A J Charlton-Perez, E J Highwood (2014) PLOS ONE, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088849

Some have proposed we take a different approach to climate change and attempt to stop global warming by reflecting sunlight. We have a new paper out today which asks the question: how do we decide whether such geoengineering would be effective?

Maps of climate model simulations using the risk matrix. The simulation uses stratospheric aerosols to balance the surface warming from a quadrupling of carbon dioxide.

Maps of effectiveness of geoengineering using a risk approach. The simulation uses stratospheric aerosols to balance the surface warming from a quadrupling of carbon dioxide.

Does geoengineering have the potential to reduce climate risk?

One way to exert a cooling influence on the climate would be to pump tiny particles up into the stratosphere, where they would reflect a small amount of the Sun’s energy. Should we consider intentionally modifying our environment in this way in order to affect the climate? Some argue there is a chance of unintended side effects, and that such meddling is too risky. Others argue the opposite: that it is too risky to allow global warming to continue.

What are these risks? A basic way to think about it is that people are adapted to our present climate. They are used to a particular mix of warm and cold, wet and dry. As climate changes, this mix will also change, posing a risk to those not prepared for it. For example, a warmer climate might be seen as a risk for healthcare systems not equipped to deal with medical problems associated with heat waves. A wetter climate might increase the risk of flooding. Risks like this could be costly – which is essentially why climate change could pose a problem.

Could geoengineering be used to help? Geoengineering with stratospheric aerosols might pose risks of its own: reduced rainfall, depletion of the ozone layer. It might also produce benefits: reduced warming and enhanced agricultural productivity. We need a way to compare the risks and benefits of geoengineering with the risks and benefits of not geoengineering (here, we are assuming we don’t do a good job of reducing greenhouse gas emissions).

How do we weigh up different kinds of risk?

Consider this: you are diagnosed with a medical condition which may deteriorate in future and cause you difficulty. You are given the option of a treatment which might stop the symptoms of the disease but may also have other side-effects. Do you take the treatment? You have to weigh up the risks.

A matrix showing the different outcomes of geoengineering. On the horizontal axis is the probability of a big climate change under carbon dioxide. On the vertical axis is the probability of a big change in climate under geoengineering.

A matrix showing the different outcomes of geoengineering. On the horizontal axis is the probability of a big climate change under carbon dioxide. On the vertical axis is the probability of a big change in climate under geoengineering. [EDIT: Thanks to the reviewer who suggested this method of presentation!]

In the same way we have to weigh up the risks to decide whether geoengineering is worthwhile. We would want it to reduce climate risk compared to not geoengineering. But there’s another layer of complexity here. Perhaps the reduction in risk happens somewhere that wasn’t actually at high risk of big climate changes in the first place. So perhaps no one cares?

We looked at this by dividing climate risk into four possible outcomes, shown in the diagram on the left. The horizontal axis shows the chance of getting a substantial climate change in the first place from carbon dioxide. The vertical axis shows the chance of getting a substantial change from geoengineering. So, if geoengineering reduces climate risk but there wasn’t much risk to start with (low change of substantial climate change on the horizontal axis). we classify geoengineering as ‘benign’ (it hasn’t really done much). If geoengineering reduces risk where carbon dioxide increases risk we classify geoengineering as ‘effective’. But what if geoengineering increases risk? We classify it as ‘ineffective’ if geoengineering introduces climate risk in a similar manner to carbon dioxide. Finally, if geoengineering introduces climate risk into areas which were not previously at risk from carbon dioxide-driven climate change, we classify geoengineering as ‘damaging’.

This way of looking at things can be used to classify climate changes. The maps in this post give an example: temperature and precipitation from a climate model. The ‘global warming’ case involves a climate with levels of carbon dioxide four times what we have now, and a climate about 4 degrees C warmer. The ‘geoengineering’ case uses stratospheric aerosols to counterbalance this warming. So as expected, if you look at temperature, geoengineering is largely effective. But rainfall looks rather different. Geoengineering is not effective in quite large parts of the globe.

Trade-offs

We have made some subjective choices here, and different choices would give quite different results as to the effectiveness of geoengineering. To further complicate things, I would expect different climate models to paint quite different pictures of regional changes.

Geoengineering isn’t necessarily good or bad. It involves a trade-off between risks. These risks are different for different aspects of climate. As these (and many previous) results have shown, it might not be a good idea to use geoengineering to counterbalance all warming, because this would produce large rainfall changes. Approaches like the one described here could be used to find what the optimum level of geoengineering is that would minimise changes in both temperature and rainfall.


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Impact of geoengineering on rainfall could be greater than we thought

Citation: A J Ferraro, E J Highwood, A J Charlton-Perez (2014) Environ. Res. Lett. 9 014001 doi:10.1088/1748-9326/9/1/014001

Aerosol layer (grey stripe in centre) produced by the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo.

I have a paper out today (with my PhD supervisors Ellie Highwood and Andrew Charlton-Perez) which suggests that the impact of geoengineering on rainfall in the tropics could be greater than we thought.

Geoengineering is a proposed response to climate warming driven by greenhouse gases. Basically, the idea is to mimic the effects of a large volcanic eruption on the Earth’s climate by injecting tiny particles called aerosols into the stratosphere. These particles would reflect a small amount of the energy coming from the Sun, cooling the planet. The basic idea makes sense, and from observing the climate following volcanic eruptions we know it could provide some cooling.

It’s also well understood that using geoengineering to counteract the warming effects of greenhouse gases and bring the surface temperature down would reduce global rainfall to levels lower than those we would get if there was no geoengineering or enhanced greenhouse gas levels. This is because the reduction in solar energy reaching the surface means there is less energy available to evaporate water, so the atmosphere has less water available to fall as rain.

Temperature changes from carbon dioxide and geoengineering

Tropical temperature changes from carbon dioxide and geoengineering

But my research suggests there’s another effect stratospheric aerosols have on rainfall, especially in the Tropics. Here, rain is mainly produced by towering convective clouds which transport heat energy up from the surface to the atmosphere.

Our paper shows that aerosols in the stratosphere emit radiation down into the troposphere below, interfering with this convection. Geoengineering aerosols emit energy (in the form of radiation, as shown in the picture above) downwards into the troposphere, which causes the upper troposphere to warm up. In essence, the heating from the aerosol increases the stability of the tropical troposphere.

We don’t see in the increase in stability when geoengineering is represented by just turning down the Sun (right-hand panel in the picture above) because there isn’t any aerosol in the stratosphere to emit radiation downwards*.

This effect could be quite important depending on how strongly aerosols interact with radiation in the way I just described. In my climate model simulations I used one particular type of sulphate aerosol with specific radiative properties. However, it’s possible that aerosols in the real atmosphere could behave rather differently. This research shows its important to get the aerosol properties right if you want to correctly predict the effects of stratospheric aerosol geoengineering on the climate.

It’s very difficult to know what the properties of geoengineering aerosols in the real atmosphere might be. It’s not clear how much the aerosols would ‘clump’ together, which would increase their size and increase the amount of energy emitted into the troposphere. This is important because the more energy emitted down into the troposphere, the weaker tropical convection (and rainfall) becomes.

Geoengineering isn’t a ‘quick fix’ to the problem of greenhouse-gas-driven climate change. We’ve know that for a long time. This research shows that there are some important side-effects of geoengineering which should be taken into account when thinking about whether or not it’s a viable option. How important these sides effects are depends on the size and properties of the aerosol, which, as I’ve said, we don’t really know. In order to work how what geoengineering does and doesn’t do, we’d have to crack the tricky problem of understanding how the aerosols behave in the atmosphere.

* EDIT: This is important. Solar dimming geoengineering to counterbalance increasing CO2 concentrations decreases rainfall from pre-industrial levels, but globally this is smaller than the increase that would happen from CO2 alone. So in that sense solar dimming geoengineering gets us closer to the pre-industrial ‘baseline’. Including the aerosol effect on tropical rainfall, however, shows that the reduction in rainfall from aerosol geoengineering to counterbalance increasing CO2 concentrations is about the same size as the increase that would happen from CO2 alone. So sulphate aerosol geoengineering to counteract CO2 takes us about as far from the ‘baseline’ as CO2 alone does.


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Paper review: On the misinterpretation of the North Atlantic Oscillation in CMIP5 models

Citation: Davini, P. & Cagnazzo, C. (2013),  On the misinterpretation of the North Atlantic Oscillation in CMIP5 models, Clim. Dyn. doi:10.1007/s00382-013-1970-y.

The North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) is a big hitter in the world of atmospheric dynamics. It’s everywhere, and it (or its close relations the Arctic Oscillation and Northern Annular Mode) invoked in pretty much every explanation of why midlatitude countries get the weather they do. But what is it?

Positive phase of the NAO (image from Columbia University)

In the simplest terms, the North Atlantic Oscillation is an expression of the location of the jet stream, a band of strong winds which circles the globe at a latitude of about 45 degrees. Weather systems form on the jet stream and are steered along with it. The jet stream wobbles north and south (like most fluids, it forms eddies), and depending on its latitude it might send a storm into the Mediterranean or to the United Kingdom.

The NAO is often used as a neat way to summarise the behaviour of the jet stream. In the real atmosphere it describes a specific pattern of variation in its position, but as this paper (and others) shows, this pattern isn’t exactly the same in climate models.

An aside before we begin. It’s not really correct to say the NAO explains why the jet stream and weather systems are where they are. The NAO must be a certain way if the jet stream is where it is. It’s just a description, like saying, ‘we got a storm because we are at the latitude where the storm was’. The reasons for the way the jet shifts north and south are complex and really not obvious, and we’re learning more about it all the time.

So that’s what the NAO is in general terms. When we analyse atmospheric data we give it a mathematical form. This involves a tricky but really rather clever analysis technical called Empirical Orthogonal Function analysis (or Principal Components analysis). I won’t go into it here but it’s basically a way to pull out a pattern according to which something varies. If you think of the pattern of variation of a swinging pendulum, it’s main variation pattern is a back and forth swing. For the jet stream, the main variation is a north and south wobble – the NAO.

Negative phase of the NAO (image from Columbia University)

The convention is, when the NAO is in a negative phase the jet is shifted southward, and when it is in a positive phase it is shifted northward. Generally, it’s also wavier in its negative phase than its positive phase, and more waviness means more ‘blocking’, which is when we get big meanders, producing high pressure systems which hang around for a week or so and give stable, calm weather.

But some climate models don’t have an NAO that behaves like this. For some of them, the main variability includes too much northward wobbling and not enough southward wobbling. Another group has variability which is more like a pulsing of the speed, going from fast to slow and back again, without any wobbling. For some the north-south wobbling is simply too weak.

This paper shows the weakness of the mathematical definition of the NAO – it’s not the same between different models! The examples above represent different physical processes so it’s meaningless to lump them together like this. But, importantly, all the models do have something like the real-world NAO – that is, the north-south wobbling. It’s just that the standard mathematical definition doesn’t always pick that out. This is the peril of using a mathematical construction with no physical basis to define variations in the jet latitude which are the result of specific physical processes.

Obviously it’s better to think of things, if we can, in terms of the physical processes involved rather than this rather obscure mathematical idea. Davini and Cagnazzo end their paper with this recommendation:

…since climate models represent a slightly different world with respect to the real one, special caution must be applied…when the NAO is studied. We conclude suggesting that instead of using the NAO to study the North Atlantic variability it would be better to adopt diagnostics based on jet stream position and strength


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Don’t be Such a Scientist by Randy Olson

Near the start of my PhD I began hearing a lot of buzz around a book by a guy called Randy Olson called Don’t Be Such a Scientist. First off, what a great title! It grabbed me immediately. I find myself saying that exact phrase in my head (sometimes to others, and sometimes to myself!). Time to investigate, then.

Second thing – this guy, who I had never heard of before, has had a pretty unique career. Starting off in academia and gaining a professorship in marine biology, he gradually transferred to Hollywood where he threw himself way out of his comfort zone, took acting classes and ended up making some rather successful films. Surprisingly, I hadn’t actually heard of any of them before reading this book, but now I’ll be sure to check them out.

Somehow the book sat on my ‘to read’ list for a long time. Finally, now I’m wrapping up my PhD work and my brain is a little less frazzled, I’m doing some more reading for pleasure. So I picked up a copy of Don’t Be Such a Scientist from my university library.

What’s it all about?

It’s not immediately obvious what it’s about, actually. Its subtitle, ‘talking substance in an age of style’, drops some clues, but for reasons I’ll come on to I think it’s rather misleading. The back of my edition lacks a blurb – it has a short author biography and some rave-review quotations from various eminent people.

I see the book as a dose of perspective for those who have been closeted in their own intellectual community for so long they believe that’s all there is. It argues that, for scientists to successfully communicate with other intellectual communities, they must learn to speak their languages, and, in short, not be such scientists.

He expresses his position particularly vividly in relation to scientists’ default mode of suspicion and criticism:

You meet scientists who have lost control of this negating approach and seem to sit and stew in their overly critical, festering juices of negativity, which can reduce down to a thick, gooey paste of cynicism.

As you can see, Olson also makes an effort to be provocative, because that sets up tension, and maintains interest, and that’s a crucial part of good communications.

Tensions, tensions everywhere

Talking of tensions, the book repeatedly bumps into the tension between substance and style. Olson argues it’s very difficult to have both. An engaging film generally has to be lighter on information. For this reason, film is more of an engagement tool and a motivational medium than one that’s directly educational. Real learning requires repetition, detail and focus, none of which are particularly entertaining. Scientists generally find it difficult to reduce information content. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard scientists say that they are struggling to condense a talk down to the required time, or to keep a publication below a page limit. A key lesson from the book, then, is to think carefully about what the audience really needs to know, and impose some self-discipline.

This is why I find the subtitle of the book misleading. It claims to be about substance, but really it’s all about the style. I found it never really touched on ways to craft writing or film in such a way to keep maximise actual useful information while retaining the audience.

Making headway in the attention economy

I had one other major problem with the book. If I were to take up all its suggestions it would feel to me a little like admitting defeat. Olson talks about how style of communication completely defines our age because humans are so overloaded with stimuli. There are so many media sources clamouring for attention. He describes an ‘attention economy’ which works on these terms. In the attention economy we must scrabble to glean a few moments of attention and we can’t waste that by imparting information. We can only afford to give off a general impression and hope it sticks.

It left me wondering: when Olson talks about science communication, what is he communicating? His goal is to catch the person’s attention for a moment and implant a seed in their brain that makes them want to know more. That’s the initial ‘hump’ to get over with communication – arousing interest.

This is excellent practical advice, but it made me a little sad. Personally I think the ‘attention economy’ is troubling. I feel like some communications barely communicate anything at all and are just stimuli devoid of meaning. I feel like the search for attention amidst fading attention spans favours a simplistic approach which doesn’t reflect the nuances of the real world. We see this every time a politician says…well…anything. I do my best not to fall into the trap of the attention economy, but feel it every day. Often at work I find it difficult to concentrate because the Internet is luring me in: Twitter, Facebook, superficial arguments on online fora, YouTube videos, banal rolling news…for me, it’s a bad thing which encourages lazy thinking. In that sense, I think non-scientists would benefit from a little scientific thinking. Or at least some scepticism when it comes to the claims of those in powerful positions in our society. But making the public think like scientists is a harder task than making scientists think like the public.

It’s not a manual, it’s a demonstration

In the end, that’s what the book is about. It makes a case for scientists learning how other people think. It does so in a light way focusing on a simple message delivered in an engaging style. One might be able to make the case by reviewing the sociological literature on sub-cultures with different psychologies and linguistics, and impeded communications between isolated intellectual communities. Olson does it rather more succinctly with wit, storytelling and occasional overgeneralisation.

I don’t know anything about communications strategy and I’m sure there are all sorts opaque, technical ways to learn about it. Olson sees this and uses this book as a real-life example of communicating technical ideas in an engaging and motivational way. Writing this blog post has helped me understand this. In short, I didn’t realise how much I was learning.

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