Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.


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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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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Climate policy is a question of values as much as it is a question of science

There has been a lot of discussion recently about how climate scientists should engage with climate policy, sparked mostly by Tamsin Edwards’ post on the Guardian’s Political Science blog. I didn’t intend on jumping in because I’m not sure I have much new to add, but perhaps I should put it on the record anyway.

Stick to what you know

I would encourage scientists to speak out on what they know (i.e. science). The claims of climate ‘sceptics’ who deny basic greenhouse theory are easy to refute, and we should be doing that. In fact, by and large we are doing that.

But it’s really not clear to me why a climate scientist should use their position of authority to argue for specific policies. Policy is a democratic process. Scientists shouldn’t abuse their position to give their values the loudest voice. Those on the left who call for them to do so might not always like what they hear. What if a climate scientist proposes using natural gas from fracking as a bridge fuel? What if they come out in support of market-driven responses to climate change, like a cap and trade system? These are views they are entitled to have, of course, but they are outside their area of expertise. They are views partly based on values.

The question of what should be done about climate change is a policy question and should be debated as such. Of course, ‘what should be done’ is influenced by what we think we know about future climate, but that is by no means the only influence. The response to climate change encompasses so many other factors, each as important as the physics of the climate system: engineering and technology, spending and taxation choices, international diplomacy, and democratic representation of values and priorities of the population.

A question of values

The fact is, it is not obvious what to do about climate change. Assuming we have a finite pot of money to spend on a range of policies, it’s not obvious that climate change is top of the list. What about improving energy access to the billions without it? Even if we assume climate change is top of the list, how do we go about reducing our emissions? Taxation, perhaps? How should that tax be designed? How progressive should that tax be? What kind of ‘energy mix’ should that taxation system be striving towards?

These are all important questions which have little to do with climate science, and everything to do with value judgements. In an ideal world we decide on a policy through a mix of democratic discussion (including everyone) and expert input (recognising that some people know more about policy options than others). Most climate scientists cannot claim to be policy experts. As citizens it is their right to engage in the discussion about what should be done, but it’s irresponsible to place themselves as experts when they’re not. It helps no-one.

A crystal-clear separation of science and policy would prevent them from hiding behind ‘but the science isn’t settled’ and force dissenters to articulate why they actually object.

Some object because they perceive calls for climate action as a critique of their wasteful, consumption-based way of life, and they simply can’t handle that critique. Some object because they see climate policy as something which can only be driven by the State, which they mistrust. There may be a way to deal with these objections and move forward with good climate policy, but only once we remove the scientific veil and address why they really object.

What kind of world do you want?

For advocacy groups, the science is somewhat irrelevant. They know what kind of world they want to live in already. The Taxpayers’ Alliance knows what kind of world it wants to live in. Greenpeace know what kind of world it wants to live in. Neither of their conceptions of the world is determined by climate science. They will inevitably use scientific conclusions to back up their pre-conceived notions of how the world should be.

For example, an overzealous left might institute climate policy which is inconsistent with the science. Perhaps they assume climate change is reversible (on near-term timescales it just isn’t). Perhaps they waste public money compensating people for extreme weather events despite plenty of scientific uncertainty about the link between climate change and weather extremes. I don’t know what they might do, but it’s important that everyone gets the correct scientific information, because otherwise everyone will just twist what little science they know to fit with how they want the world to be. If scientific errors are highlighted, it is up to the policymaker to justify their choices in other ways. The left could justify by talking about their particular values, but once again, that’s not to do with science.

Policy options are as much a matter of values as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Scientists aren’t policy experts, and shouldn’t pretend to be. If they pretend, they enable dissenters to set up a strawman and dismiss both the particular policy they are pushing and the generality of the science. If scientists (in their professional capacities) stick to describing the consequences of certain policies their credibility as honest brokers is strengthened. Policymakers can then make policy choices based on credible facts and the values and preferences of the citizenry. Climate scientists are free to hold and express policy views, but in my opinion they should be very careful about doing so when they are speaking in a professional capacity.

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(Why) I’m a scientist

If we cut down all the trees, how long would it take us to die?
What qualities do you need to become a great scientist?
When is the zombie apocalypse going to happen?

These are some of the questions I have been pondering over the past two weeks as part of the online event ‘I’m a scientist, get me out of here’. The event puts scientists (grouped into themed ‘zones’) in touch with groups of school children around the country. Children can send questions to the scientists at any time, but what’s even better is they can interact with them in scheduled live chats.

Children vote for their favourite scientist, and at the end of the two weeks one in each zone gets £500 to spend on a science engagement project of their choice.

‘I’m a scientist’ is structured as a competition, but I don’t really think that’s the point. I signed up because I thought it would be fun. I signed up because I can imagine getting a lot out of the event as a schoolchild (which wasn’t particularly long ago – I finished secondary school in 2007). When I was at school I hoovered up facts and such quite diligently. I didn’t really need to be enthused in order to learn. Looking back, though, I think I missed the point of it all.

When I was a boy…

To me, school science practicals felt a bit staged. Recording the resistance of a length of copper wire as it heats up is a useful experiment: it teaches important principles of electricity and it demonstrates the scientific method: question, hypothesis, prediction, test, analyse. But it’s not that exciting.

We also spent a long time on a practical about the cooling of test-tubes of warm water. Which cools slower – a single test tube of water or a test tube surrounded by others? The one with the others around it, of course. This experiment was designed to explain why penguins huddle together and was a perfectly reasonable demonstration. But it felt a little ‘play-school’ at the time. I had also been told by my teacher to put a line of best fit through by data points, but that ‘data points don’t go on the line of best fit’ (thus I even added measurement error to my fictional observations). In fact, I confess, in that experiment I made up some data because I knew what the relationship should be between the temperature after a certain time and the number of surrounding test tubes. I was in a hurry and didn’t want to bother repeating the experiment with more and more surrounding tubes.

I took away the wrong message from the practical. I was fixated on matching my results with the information I had already absorbed – that insulating with additional tubes reduces cooling – rather than carrying out a correct, valuable experiment. The scientific process seemed like a rigid set of arbitrary rules back then. I didn’t appreciate that an experiment done incorrectly is valueless (I should stress that I do not make up data now, of course).

Why was I a rubbish scientist?

But why did I miss the point back then? I think it’s because I couldn’t quite see the purpose of it all. It was quite obvious to me that additional test tubes would stop the cooling rate. I just wanted more information to absorb, not to waste my time confirming what I already knew. Essentially, I completely misunderstood the point of learning and the point of science. That is no reflection on my teachers. It just reflects how children often greatly misunderstand why they are at school, and consequently don’t get as much out of it as they should.

What’s the point then?

Which brings me back, after a very lengthy aside, to why I signed up to ‘I’m a scientist’. I am now coming to the end of my PhD and I think I know a little about the scientific method (at least, I know enough to understand why it’s unacceptable to make up results!). I ‘get’ it now. I find it thrilling to be doing science when no one knows the answer and the results are new and puzzling. That’s what it’s about, and that’s what I tried to get across to the kids when presented with their common question ‘what do you like about science?’.

I came second in my zone, behind the excellent Simon Holyoake. To tell the truth, all the scientists in my zone – Hannah Bentham, Laura Roberts Artal and Christian Maerz – were excellent and gave engaging, exciting and thoughtful answers to the kids’ questions. I think we all had a lot of fun chatting to the kids, and deciphering some left-field questions. Some of the questions made me think quite a bit, and explaining things simply really helped me work out how well I understand some basic scientific principles.

So, to any scientists out there, I highly recommend applying to participate in the next ‘I’m a scientist events’. To any teachers out there, I highly recommend getting your class involved. I think events like this are a very effective way of allowing young people to understand why they are learning all these equations, why they care about the difference between igneous and sedimentary rock, why it’s important to put error bars on graphs, and why they’re in this damn classroom on a nice sunny day. Because science is important.

There are plenty of questions science cannot answer, and there are plenty of other valuable forms of knowledge. But science is a great way of learning useful things about the world, and is pretty special because of the quality of predictions it makes and the level of detailed understanding it gives us. That’s why I’m a scientist.

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Global warming or climate change?

Sometimes the terms ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ are used interchangeably in everyday conversation. I don’t think there is too much of a difference if one is talking generally about the human-caused increase in global average temperature and its associated impacts. Nevertheless, they do describe different things.

Global warming. It’s a warming that has to be global. Obviously. It doesn’t have to be a year-on-year increase in temperature. We have no more reason to expect every year to be hotter than the last than we do to expect every month, or every day to be hotter than the last. There are other causes of variation in temperature. The rising and setting of the sun, the changing of the seasons, the switching of the tropical Pacific from a heat-absorbing La Nina to a heat-giving El Nino, and so on. But the central point here is that it strictly describes just the temperature of the Earth.

Climate change. This is a little harder to define. ‘Climate‘ is the average conditions in the atmosphere (‘what we expect’). It is not limited to temperature. Sure, temperature is important, but so is rainfall. So is the wind. ‘Climate change’ encompasses all these. The climate is never entirely stationary. It can change subtly over time or it can undergo wild swings such as those the Earth saw during its Ice Ages. No climate scientist claims that climate change can only be caused by humans.

I think ‘global warming’ is a better term to use unless one needs to explicitly include non-temperature effects on climate. Granted, it does imply (incorrectly) that it includes year-on-year warming. But it also encapsulates the problem more concisely than ‘climate change’, which can feel like a vague buzzword. As I have explained, it’s not vague, it just includes things other than temperature effects. It’s useful because some of the most significant impacts of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels might not be temperature effects. They might be related to droughts, storms, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and so on.

The term ‘climate change’ certainly has its place if you genuinely need to go beyond temperature and include all the impacts of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. If you are talking specifically about sea-level rise, talk about ‘sea-level rise associated with global warming’, not generically about ‘climate change’. That’s because the single best way to get people to understand what you’re talking about is to, you know, tell them what you’re talking about.

EDIT: NASA disagrees with my preference.


My PhD: What happens if we use new ways to stop warming?

Yesterday I attempted to use the Up-Goer Five text editor to summarise what I do. It only allows you to use the thousand most common words in the English language. This restriction often contorts language in odd ways. I struggled because my description really does rely on using certain technical words. Specifically, ‘greenhouse gases’ and ‘aerosols’. I discovered that one can enclose technical words in quotation marks to force the editor to allow them, but that seems a bit like cheating.

In one sense, it doesn’t matter what one calls things. The weakest part of my attempt (below) is the confusing use of ‘stuff’ (which causes warming) and ‘other stuff’ (which causes cooling). I suppose I should have just written stuff A and stuff B. Unfortunately ‘warming stuff’ wasn’t allowed.

We make the air and the ground warmer by burning stuff which goes into the air. This stuff stops the air cooling a bit . It also changes winds and rain. Making the air warmer and changing winds causes problems because we are used to things being as they are. There are things to do to stop warming but we are not good at doing them. A new idea to stop warming is to put other stuff high in the sky. It might make it less warm but not in all places. Also, the winds and rain might still change and so even if we put the other stuff in the sky we still have to deal with changes. This is a problem. I want to know how the changes from burning stuff are different from the changes we get when we put the other stuff in the air to stop the warming. I also want to know whether different types of stuff (which also stop warming) change the winds and rain less. This will help us decide if we want to put other stuff up there to stop warming.

(If this slightly muddled introduction has piqued your interest, click around the blog for more information or visit my website.)

I realised how simple the idea is. The details are hideously (and perhaps prohibitively) complex, but the basics are all there. Writing this summary was a good exercise. In real life I might not be so restricted in vocabulary, but there are times when I am restricted by time and the interest and knowledge level of the person listening to me. Writing something like this is part of the all-important training to clearly put out the required information.

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FameLab: ‘the science take on American Idol’

In my habitual Friday-afternoon wanderings around the Internet I came across an interesting workshop being run at the AGU Fall Meeting next week. It’s called FameLab: Exploring Earth and Beyond. The AGU session page is very brief. It says:

Come listen as young scientists aspiring to be the next Jane Goodall or Neil deGrasse Tyson share their passion for science in three minutes or less at ‘FameLab: Exploring Earth & Beyond.’ This science take on “American Idol” has 10 performers giving PowerPoint-free talks meant to engage all audiences.

FameLab in the USA is a joint venture from NASA and National Geographic. After a bit of Googling I discovered that it’s essentially a national heat for an international competition. It turns out FameLab is an established project which has been running since 2007, encouraging young scientists to develop and use their communication skills to connect with the rest of society.

Initially I was rather sceptical of this project. The name made it sound like an outlet for those seeking validation for their inflated egos. I asked myself whether that would appeal to real scientists. I quickly scotched this train of thought. Scientists are just people. Some people crave fame more than others. It’s a very human thing to seek recognition, though some go to greater lengths than others, and some deserve it more than others. The FameLab website describes some ‘performances’:

Some played it straight, some were slick and a few were downright eccentric. One contestant waved around tennis balls dressed in colourful wigs to highlight his point about polymer chemistry. Another jumped on a chair and performed pirouettes to animate his arcane research on spinning electrons. A third confessed that her props had been confiscated by customs and went on to threaten me with a gun that fires needles (“Yes, it could have been disastrous” she confessed afterwards).

I was drawn in. FameLab seems to be a fine way to encourage innovation in science communication. Some people are well-suited to the role of the entertainer-scientist (or, as I referred to them in a previous post, the celebrity scientist). Others are not, and I think it’s a mistake to think that every scientist can make their work fun and accessible for everyone. Some science is very hard to make appealing to a non-technical audience. Nevertheless, when an energetic and empathetic person combines with an interesting and relevant subject, an entertainer-scientist can result.

I think these people are entertainers first and foremost. They might have scientific credentials, but their primary role is to get non-technical audiences to listen to them, and sometimes that requires quite ruthless abstractions of the science. Brian Cox, Britain’s foremost entertainer-scientist, made this quite clear in a comment about the use of loud music during his TV programmes:

It should be a cinematic experience – it’s a piece of film on television, not a lecture…it [music] lends a lot of emotion and more depth

Here he is not speaking as a scientist. In that guise he wouldn’t allow himself to include the word ’emotion’. He is speaking as a communicator of science. He recognises the importance of ’emotion’ in the way most people think, most of the time. FameLab looks like a fine initiative to bring at least some of the great discoveries of science to the widest audience possible.

If I had one complaint, it’s that this approach to science communication focuses a little too much on the ‘wonder’ and the ‘mystery’ of it all. This is understandable, because these are emotionally appealing concepts. But a real strength of science is its critical, sceptical approach. Science teaches the ability to analyse claims, seek for evidence, test claims against available evidence, and modify opinions accordingly. I think there is a tremendous social benefit to getting people to acknowledge the cultural filters which remove ‘inconvenient’ facts and attempt to circumvent them. Imagine the attitude of a critcally-thinking public to the inherently biased journalism we face every day. People will start to check multiple sources to examine stories through different cultural ‘lenses’ and attempt to get at the facts behind the story, filtering out the noise and the ideologies of those who claim to be presenting the truth. ‘Rationality’ isn’t some kind of panacea for social problems, but I think the scientific approach applied to other areas of life could be very beneficial.