Here’s one of the most familiar narratives in science:
We knew that! We’ve been saying that for years! Why didn’t you know that?
It’s the story of a subculture — a scientific field — so insular that it thinks it’s sufficiently communicated a piece of knowledge to the rest of the world, only to discover (after years, maybe even decades) that the rest of the world didn’t get the message at all. In fact, the world thinks the opposite.
If Shakespeare were writing the story, it would be a comedy. When science writes it, it’s usually a tragedy. Great example: Everyone from the IPCC to agriculturalists to carbon marketeers to wacky soil religionists has taken for granted (and built into their climate modeling) the idea that we can easily ramp up long-term carbon sequestration in soil humus — it’s simply a matter of will, a bit of research and adhering to agricultural best practices.
But according to a new article from Quanta just republished in The Atlantic, most soil scientists have thought for at least a decade that this humus sequestration model is laughably crude. As per the narrative, however, they just forgot to tell everyone else outside of publishing papers.
That’s why, for instance, the IPCC declared in 2018 that “soil carbon sequestration (enhanced sinks) is the mechanism responsible for most of the mitigation potential (high agreement, much evidence)” in agriculture. That’s why Jeff Bezos gave $30 million to a Salk Institute project touting a plant-root molecule that Salk plant geneticists said might someday sequester 20% of excess atmospheric carbon dioxide annually. “There are a lot of people who are interested in sequestration who haven’t caught up yet,” Margaret Torn, a soil scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told The Atlantic article’s writer, Gabriel Popkin, with breathtaking understatement.
This story made me think of a list journalist Matt Yglesias put out recently of the ways people can make change in politics besides activism. For three of the five items on his list — 1) persuading people with arguments, 2) elite persuasion and 3) legislative subsidy (developing a well-crafted proposal that legislation can be based on) — Yglesias basically argues that public experts and their organizations are the very best people to do them.
Why? Because of what Yglesias ironically calls the “unfortunate common thread” among all the items, which is also the competitive advantage public experts have over everyone else when it comes to making change: They know what they’re talking about.
That’s unfortunate for all the other players who don’t. But scientists who aspire to public expertise — who aspire to make change — need first to get their own houses in order.
We despair daily about misinformation, disinformation, lack of science literacy, bad science journalism, political cravenness — the list of obstacles to understanding and living by science grows and grows.
But simply publishing science that contradicts a mainstream meme such as “we can easily ramp up soil carbon sequestration” clearly doesn’t counter the meme. Yglesias talks about what the work of “persuading people with arguments” looks like in the context of one of his own ideas:
Over the past couple of years, the worm has really turned on the U.S.-China relationship, and it’s now deeply unfashionable to believe that economic integration or growth in China will lead to democratization of the regime.
Any time anyone in the country thinks about U.S.-China rivalry, I want them to think “a constructive way to bolster the U.S. side of this would be to grow the population.” I wrote a book about this, “One Billion Americans,” and I want this to become a brain worm. If someone mentions U.S.-China tensions in a casual conversation, I want someone else at the table to say “maybe we should try to grow our population.” I want op-eds and talking heads on television to consider this idea. I want politicians to get questions about it in town halls.
In short — I want to take a fringy notion and make it mainstream.
But simply publishing more science does not, as Yglesias puts it, “take a fringy notion and make it mainstream.” Recognize first that science is now by definition on the fringe — and set your tasks of public expertise from there:
You have to recognize that you are the weirdo who is trying to persuade other people. And you need to think about ways to market your idea to different kinds of audiences, and not just double-down on your own stuff.
Public expertise is very often about being the weirdo trying to persuade other people — marketing their ideas to different audience, and refusing to simply double-down on publishing science as a means of changing the world.