Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Communicating Science: Politics

While everyone was out Black Friday shopping this dropped.

The holiday weekend timing of this report surely wasn't accidental. There are great takes out there already on that, and the fact that it's 13 federal agencies agreeing climate change has 1) already wreaked havoc and 2) will have cast economic impact while President Deals shakes his head and "just doesn't trust it." FiveThirtyEight upped a conversation between their own editors' today on the experience on the press call Friday morning and exploring the role of science in a debate (world?) ruled by politics.

It reminded me that the day of my own presentation to USU researchers and staff on communicating science in a social media world -- two days after the release of the IPCC climate change report -- administrators had emailed a warning to staff reminding them of rules on lobbying and encouraging the avoidance of staking out political ground. Since, someone slipped me one of those emails and I was surprised to read this sentence:

"Talk about and promote your research. Let the science speak for itself. The politics of the day don't matter. Your work does."

In my presentation I challenged this very strategy without knowing everyone in the audience had received this email. Afterward I had a chance to discuss the concerns researchers had. Many expressed "walking a fine line" between defending or discussing research that by it's very nature could be construed as choosing a political side. I wasn't sure how to respond then.

From the FiveThirtyEight discussion today:

I think it’s obvious to most people, at this point, that the politics are important. At least as important as the scientific findings. Because we already know the science — “we” being the public, I mean. There’s not a lot in the assessment that is really going to surprise anybody who knows the basics of climate change. What matters most at this point is what we do with the findings. And if the political reality is that we’re ignoring it …
This is a very urgent and legitimate question researchers and entire academic institutions are going to have to grapple with. I get the need for rules on staff and lobbying for policy on the university dime or reputation. But USU also has the Koch funded "Center for Growth and Opportunity" out lobbying, literally, in op-ed pages and elsewhere using university's rep and even official seal advocating for aviation regulation changes. They want an Uber, but for airplanes something. Could this not also be construed as staking out a political policy position? Hell yes it could.

But aviation regs haven't been quite as politicized as climate science. The Republican Party and a vast majority of conservative enablers have reduced climate science to a partisan chew toy so successfully that scientists at Utah State University are afraid to say "Oh, bullshit" when Utah House Rep David Lifferth points and a snowflake and says something ignorant.

At Friday's press conference, NOAA reps were fielding reasonable and predictable questions from the few journalists not off for the holiday like political campaign hacks. Not by their choice, to be sure. But it was clear the science itself wasn't speaking. I'm not sure I agree with the FIveThirtyEight editor consensus that the public already knows all the basics. Not here in my neck of the woods.

But I get what they're getting at. The science has been secondary to the politics for a while now and that isn't going to change. Researchers and schools of science staff are going to be silenced by institutional guidelines seeking an apolitical position. They only way this is going to be achieved is if Universities and their researchers sit it out. But they can't. Rock and a hard place?

Nah. It's just time Universities recognize what the New York Times still hasn't: Kissing the asses of these right wing lunatics gets you no where. You're going to be accused of bias unless you start producing results they agree with. I'm not talking about scientists locked arm in arm blocking the office doors at state legislatures in protest (though I'm not opposed to that and we might get there anyway). I'm talking about universities giving their researchers free-enough reign and backup to communicate, effectively, their research into the public policy environments at the state legislative level.

That's going to be perceived as political because they've politicized the science. There's no putting that back in the tube.

There isn't an alternative.

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