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Don’t Play Numbers Games

Among my top-five most-hated science communications tactics: let’s write a letter to X journal and get Y number of people to sign it. That’ll get their attention and change things!

Sadly: while Y might get their attention (briefly), it’s never nearly enough to change things.

Jon Timmer of ArsTechnica provides us with (as usual, he’s excellent) a great summation of the big nothing that is the recent Bioscience essay, signed by 11,000 scientists (or is it 15,000 now? I can’t keep up) declaring that the planet is in a climate emergency.

The essay (“World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency”) got a ton of media coverage, but Timmer shoots some pretty big holes in its claim to emergency as well as its anti-commercial tone.

It’s clear “Climate Emergency” isn’t a scientific exercise. It’s a communications one, designed to take advantage of growing public receptivity to climate activism and action.

It’s also clear the point was to get thousands of signatories and lots of media attention.

But what will be the outcome?

“World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” got lots of headlines. But so did its predecessor from 2017, “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice,” which declared a generalized environmental emergency and was signed by more than 15,000 scientists. As did the original, 1992 “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” from the Union of Concerned Scientists, signed by 1,700 scientists and a majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences.

You could say we’ve been warned. A lot. We might want to take another tack.

As Timmer points out, “it’s not clear that overwhelming people with the sheer number of scientists who signed on is the right way to handle being right”:

After all, there’s already a competing petition that claims 30,000 scientists are saying that climate change is nothing to worry about. It’s wrong, and its “scientists” include the Spice Girls and Star Wars characters, but that hasn’t stopped the petition from being discussed during congressional testimony. (There’s also a similar petition that claims that evolution is wrong, which is a nice indication of why petitions shouldn’t settle scientific issues.)

Three scientists with the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science explained two years ago why they didn’t sign the 2017 Warning. Among their points: playing numbers games in high profile journals “lends an air of unanimity to the message, almost suggesting it is unchallengeable—which can then be mobilised inappropriately by campaign and advocacy groups”:

the number of scientists that believe in or advocate something should be secondary to the evidence which underpins the arguments being put forward. What makes the scientific consensus around the reality of climate change so impressive is that it is based on clear and well-researched facts, not that it is so dominant.

We now have a climate science communications climate (say that fast five times) in which blame and pushing panic buttons is back in style, after we were warned for years that science communication that blamed and pushed panic buttons wouldn’t work.

Maybe they will now, for a year or two. But science does itself no favors by playing that game, especially with numbers. When I checked some of the signatories, I quickly found among them titles one wouldn’t normally associate with a rigorous ecological analysis: retired preserve managers for land trusts; pediatricians; research technicians; astronomers. And, as if on cue, the signatories page for “Climate Emergency” is closed to the public while the authors check each and every signature’s validity.

Would they’d done the same for their communications concept. Effectiveness in thought leadership is about argument and POV and fresh insights and solutions. Not numbers.