Archive for June, 2011

Earlier this month we heard news that Australian climate scientists were receiving abuse e-mails and phone calls threatening death, violence, and sexual attacks on their family members. Sadly, this is in fact old news, as Bob Beale wrote recently in Uniken:

… our best and brightest climate scientists are being publicly belittled and derided by everyone from top-rating shock jocks to obscure and anonymous bloggers; their research findings are challenged by armies of armchair experts; their motives are questioned and their participation in public debate is portrayed as self-serving and driven by greed for research grants. Even the alternative Prime Minister – Federal Coalition Leader Tony Abbott – infamously dismissed the “so-called settled science of climate change” as “absolute crap”.

Belatedly, less than a week ago, Science and Technology Australia has launched a new ‘Respect the Science‘ campaign to counter the flood of misinformation and vitriol directed at scientists. The Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb even appealed to the readers of a Sunday paper, ‘Don’t wait till it’s too late‘, but it doesn’t look like he’d have the last words, as the paper promised ‘Next week: an alternative view’. It seems that climate science is a bit like the latest TV or movie show, everyone is entitled to an opinion.

Some years ago I wrote an article ‘Globalisation, Reflexivity and the Practice of Criminology‘ in which I discussed the German sociologist Ulrick Beck’s idea of  ‘reflexive modernisation’ that marks the transition from industrial society to risk society. Beck’s analysis points to two developments that seem particularly relevant to the plight of climate science:

  • Demystification of science—Science, whose truth was once respected and accepted unquestioningly by non-scientists, is treated as contestable and open to critique.
  • Non-experts as co-producers of knowledge—The authority of scientific knowledge is established on the basis of political compatibility, media representation and personal ability to persuade rather than factual information. Policymakers, the media and other non-experts are no longer simply consumers, but co-producers of  scientific knowledge.

Criminological researchers have become used to the politics of emotions that dominates law-and-order issues. While I respect colleagues’ attempts to make criminology more of a science by adopting a ‘crime science’ approach, the fate of climate science has confirmed that public policy is rarely determined by rationality and evidence, especially when established interests or norms are challenged.

Is there anything that researchers can do to bring some rationality, if not civility, to public debates about policy?

Last year Ben Newell, a psychologist, and Andrew Pitman, a climate scientist, published an article ‘The Psychology of Global Warming: Improving the Fit between the Science and the Message‘ in which they highlighted the necessity, when communicating complex scientific results, of taking into account the way people ‘process information, deal with uncertainty, and form attitudes and opinions’. While many of the suggestions are sensible and helpful, I’m particularly drawn to the one relating to ‘framing issues’:
Information processing does not occur in an emotional vacuum; processing of the affective content of information or the emotional reactions that information evokes contributes strongly to perception and understanding of evidence (e.g., the effect of increased CO2)
The suggestion was for researchers to:

Use vivid images of global warming (e.g., shrinking glaciers, melting ice sheets) to engage emotional processing, but do so judiciously to avoid emotional numbing or a “despair” response.

The importance of understanding the role of emotions has been recognised in criminal justice policy since the advent of the restorative justice movement almost two decades ago. Nevertheless, many public debates about sentencing and penal policy are still dominated by fear and ignorance.

It is easy to feel pessimistic about the future of science and the politics of policy, but we should take heart from the courage and integrity of our scientists in braving the avalanche of abuse and attack coming their way.

The sad thing is with all the spin and denial in the world, we cannot wish the devastation of climate change away.

Act now, Clever Country, or cry later.


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I have never heard of crowdfunding until my daughter Karen decided to self-publish Kinds of Blue, an anthology of short comics she put together on depression (see her blog on the genesis of this project).

I was aware that she has been working on a ‘graphic’ nonfiction with a bunch of friends and has approached numerous publishers to get the anthology published. It had been demoralising to be met with deafening silence or an occasional rejection note, but Karen is always resourceful.

Plan B is to self-publish, but who will pay for it?

Karen found Pozible, a site for Crowdfunding Creativity, and worked out how much she needed to raise in order to cover printing and postage costs. There were ‘rewards’ for donors (such as a copy of the book, a sketch by one of the artists, or the original artwork of the book cover) who pledge support for the project, but until the funding goal is reached, no one needs to pay anything. The whole book is free for anyone to read online before they make a decision to support the project.

This sounded a bit fanciful at first, but when Karen launched the campaign on 15 June 2011, the response was instantaneous. The social network went into overdrive, with Twitter, Facebook and e-mail messages flying around the globe, being retweeted and forwarded to an unknown number of recipients.

The donations also came thick and fast—the dollar amount went up every time I refreshed the Pozible webpage.

Amazing things began to happen: Scott McCloud, a guru of comic-making, not only decided to become a donor, he also wrote a piece promoting the book on his website. Karen and her friends were delighted and amazed.

It only took two days to raise 100% of the funding goal, and donations are still rolling in. As of this minute, there are 124 supporters and 114% of the funding goal has been raised (see FAQ for what next).

There is no doubt great celebration and rejoicing among the contributors. Very soon, their book will become real.

The crowd has made it happen.

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