Scared Witless: The New Science Site that Gets the Communication Right

In a recent post we broke the news that a heroic band of scientists was finally making Australia proud. I’m talking about the Scared Scientists, of course.

Sadly, a number of readers have questioned whether it actually takes courage to have the courage to admit you’re scared of climate change.

Er, yes. Yes it does. The great medieval figure Edward “Ed” Stark explained this better than any science communicator could:

Bran thought about it.
‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’
‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.

Speaking of historical dramas, my thirteen-year-old thinks he’s getting the 300 box set for his birthday tomorrow. But I reckon he’ll be stoked when he opens his actual present: a donation in his name to the Scared Scientists!

(The ScS team has finally listened to the demands of ordinary climate mums and dads around the country and added a PayPal button on every single page of their site.)

Denialists are already chuckling at the small numbers of the Scared—and missing the point, as usual.

The Scientists may be just eight—for now—but as my teenager might say, “Are they not therefore so much the more fully sick than that pretty-boy Leonidas, who needed 299 mates to help him lose a fight? To a bunch of Bronze Age illiterates?”

With scientists increasingly convinced that climate change could be even more decisive for Western civilization than Thermopylae, the names of Flannery, Steffen, England, Perkins, Hughes, Ajani, Macreadie and Murray have already inscribed themselves in immortality.

Win or (god forbid) lose, we who survive will remember them.

Besides, standing up for the consensus has always been lonely work.

Lest we forget, it’s only thanks to the insane daring of one scientist—LLNL’s Ben Santer, who single-handedly rewrote the attribution chapter of IPCC 2AR, literally under cover of darkness—that the precious flame of consensus was not extinguished at the very beginning, back in 1995.

That’s what we mean when by the word hero: the one person in a thousand who’s willing to defend the consensus, and to hell with what his colleagues think.

The take-home

If nothing else, Scared Scientists is a study in understatement—as befits the natural reticence of its 8 terrified subjects—so it needs to be read as thoughtfully as it was written.

We did that. Here are our picks for the most powerful messages of ScS:

1. Scientists are finally starting to get it

In 2008 Prime Minister Rudd declared climate change “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time.”

The message obviously hasn’t penetrated the scientific world as fast as we might have hoped. But slowly and surely,  our efforts to raise awareness are paying off. As the call-to-action page reveals,

Nearly every scientist interviewed for this project said voting for greener policies and supporting green initiatives is even more important than recycling.

Sure, it’s a pretty low bar. It would have been nice to read that “all eight scientists” passed such a basic litmus test; or even “every scientist but one”; yet the worst thing we could take away from this would be defeatism.

The real message is this: denial is still out there. Apparently it’s even insinuated itself into the Aussie Eight, with at least two of the supposedly Scared Scientists yet to be convinced that in the scheme of things, climate action ought to trump the feelgood ritual of triaging your trash on Tuesday night!

Let’s be honest: that’s a bit disturbing.

On the other hand, now we know there are 5 or 6 scientists in Australia who do accept the seriousness of the science.

Celebrate that.

In the meantime we’ve urged the team behind ScS to name the deniers among the Eight. After all, the public has a right to know the kind of people we’re listening to.

If and when they’re outed, you’ll read it on Climate Nuremberg first.

2. The credibility is on our side

Not only do the Apprehensive Eight ooze expertise, some of it is actually climate-related.

Compared to the skeptical “authorities,” the difference could hardly be starker. It’s a little embarrassing, frankly.

Deniers have been known to cite thousands of non-climate-credentialled scientists. (Who can forget the Oregon Petition? We certainly can’t.)

By contrast, only three of the Scared Scientists seem to be unqualified to comment.

Professor Flannery, of course, is a fossil macropod boffin; Will Steffen is a chemical engineer; and Shauna Murray, a fresh face in the debate, appears to be something of an expert on “the evolution and molecular ecology of marine microbial eukaryotes and their toxins,” if not on long-term trends in the statistical properties of weather.

That leaves an overwhelming 62.5% of the Scared Eight with prima facie standing to interpret the state of climate science—in other words, almost 65% of them.

It’s a formidable line-up in anyone’s books.

3. That Will Steffen profile

One decision has proven particularly controversial, dominating most discussion of the ScS project. I refer of course to the inclusion of Will Steffen, who was clearly unwell.

Steffen’s headshot reveals, in haunting chiaroscuro, a man who has been too scared of climate change to sleep for several days.

His comments start out unremarkably enough:

The climate is related to many parts of the Earth; the land, the ocean, the ice, the atmosphere.

Most climate scientists would acknowledge this as a reasonably good, if banal, summary of the science, at least for a layperson like Steffen.

The first red flag is when Steffen lapses into disjointed speech (also known as ‘word salad’):

If we push the climate too far, if we start losing ice too rapidly, start flipping things like the Amazon, then the internal dynamics of the climate will take over […]

The alarm bells ring in earnest when it becomes apparent that Steffen thinks the climate obeys instructions from humans:

We’ll reach a point where we’ll lose control over the [climate] system.

Mental-health registrars in hospitals everywhere are only too familiar with such ideation. The delusion of ability to control the weather is a textbook sign of the manic phase of schizophrenia. (The annals of medicine are full of such bizarre and surprisingly specific symptomatology, from the stereotyped migration pattern of appendicitic pain to the fear of swallowing water seen in people with terminal rabies.)

Critics have slammed the ScS project as “exploitative” for its warts-and-all disclosure of Steffen’s state of mind.

I disagree. I’ve always supported anything that opens up the national conversation on mental illness.

Climate change is, after all, a mental health threat first and foremost. If we presume Steffen gave informed consent for the publication of his words, should we not applaud him as the bravest of all the Scared Scientists?

4. It’s not as good as we thought

Last but not least, Scared conveys the growing urgency of the problem, and the explosive progress made by recent climate science in describing it.

As recently as 2009 the nation’s Chief Climate Commissioner announced optimistically,

We’re dealing with an incomplete understanding of the way the earth system works… When we come to the last few years, when we haven’t seen a continuation of that warming trend, we don’t understand all of the factors that create earth’s climate, so there are some things we don’t understand, that’s what the scientists were emailing about, you know, we don’t understand the way the whole system works, and we have to find out…. See, these people work with models, computer modelling. So when the computer modelling and the real world data disagree you’ve got a very interesting problem… Sure, for the last 10 years we’ve gone through a slight cooling trend.

A few short years—and a demotion to the position of simple Scared Scientist—later, Professor Flannery now has a rather different understanding:

Climate Science underestimated the pace of climate change, it was too conservative. We’re now having far more rapid change than originally projected.

So what changed in the interim? It’s hard to explain—and only a handful of experts really understand it—but we know it revolves around the discovery of the atmospheric-oceanic interface. This largely-unexplored zone is thought to be responsible for the continuous interchange of degrees Celsius (above water) with Hiroshimas (below the surface).

[American visitors: for Celsius and Hiroshimas, please read ‘Fahrenheit’ and ‘Nagasakis.’]

All sciences are continually improving, but only in climatology can we boast 180 degrees of progress in five years.

Remember when words like ‘catastrophe’ and ‘CAGW’ were just denialist straw-men?

The last thing we expected was that they’d become part of the everyday vocab of the scientists themselves. That’s why it’s so terrifying to read Peter MacReadie’s profile:

FEAR: GLOBAL CATASTROPHE

IPCC predicts that the impacts of climate change will be catastrophic. This affects everybody. Nobody is safe.

The times, they are a-changin’.

Closing thoughts

For far too long our grandparents have droned on about the horrors of the War, demanding that we call them the Greatest Generation. Yawn.

Don’t get me wrong. Standing up to Aryan fascists and Japanese prison guards is all well and good. But standing up to climate change, even if it just means telling the world how scared you are, takes courage to a whole new level.

So let’s not get into a whole debate about which generation is the “greatest.”

That debate is over.

We’re looking at it:

Australia's top 8 thinkers, the Scared Scientists.

Australia’s best, and therefore most frightened, scientists.


If this article or any other discussion of climate change has brought up feelings of hopelessness, impotence or anhedonia for you, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. (Academics outside Australia should contact their university’s counseling service.)

19 thoughts on “Scared Witless: The New Science Site that Gets the Communication Right

    1. Brad Keyes Post author

      Thank you for your kind words, catweazle. However, while I can’t out my finger on it, something about your comment tells me you’re not taking the subject of climate change with all the grave seriousness it warrants!

      Then again I always was somewhat tonedeaf in such matters, so I’ll let it stand on the presumption that your apparent flippancy is all in my head.

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    2. Brad Keyes Post author

      It’s like that poster with the baby orangutan says—you know, the one that enjoyed a brief period of being seen in every second cubicle and office kitchenette in the world sometime in the early ’80’s:

      “If we learned from our pisstakes I’d be a genius by now!”

      Like

      Reply
  1. tom0mason

    It is indeed laudable that you have conferred on these great and brave academics your just eloquence. Not for them easy words from once great leaders as Woodrow Wilson who said “The only use of an obstacle is to be overcome. All that an obstacle does with brave men is not to frighten them, but to challenge them.”
    No, for they are made from a different metal. They have bravely avoided the challenges by their continuing commitment to make the public fearful, and to propagate their truth regardless of the consequences.

    As Charles Dibdin said
    “Then trust me there’s nothing like drinking,
    So pleasant on this side of the grave
    It keeps the unhappy from thinking,
    And makes e’en the valiant more brave.”

    May these brave soul drink much, but not necessarily wisely.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  2. Michael Flynn

    Woe woe, thrice woe!

    I’m obviously scared witless! I’ll send the experts all my money to save me from disaster!

    Oh wait. Make that all YOUR money. I just looked out the window. Nothing much unusual happening.

    Live well and prosper,

    Mike Flynn.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Brad Keyes Post author

      Tim, I was seeding HBO’s adaptation of JRR Martin’s Game of Thrones novels before it was cool. Or legal. How dare you seek to convey corrective information to me?!

      That’s a form of assault, as you would know were you a (respectable) scientist.

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  3. Stephen Wilde

    Anyone who thinks ‘Game of Thrones’ is a historical drama is unreliable as to anything else.

    It is a fantasy drama with some stylistic features similar to Mediaeval Times.

    That just shows how easily the alarmists confuse fantasy and reality.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
      1. Stephen Wilde

        Yes, it did catch me out at first.

        It didn’t surprise me that [scientists] might be capable of such [erudition] as Brad has [synthesised and communicated] for [the improvement of non-scientists] 🙂

        [Edited for meaning——CN mods]

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  4. hunter

    Yes, the brave climatocrats are here to not only tell us about their science. They got their science just in time to discover that their science is predicting the end of the world. And not only that, their science tells us how laws, treaties, taxes, and even economies should be organized. And in their selfless quests, they are willing to live a grueling schedule of flying to Bali, Rio, Geneva, New York, Cancun, Vale, Sri Lanka, Seychelles and any other resort others will provide a room at and the airfare to.
    And now the brave climatocrats know that if their models had been tuned to what the weather has done these past 17 years and growing, their models would have shown the present pause as well.
    We must stand with hands over hearts, heads bowed respectfully, as these enlightened brave all caring souls walk by. Climate: It’s not just weather. It is a lifestyle.

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  5. AzimuthGlarer

    Let us not forget about other heroes that precedes The Gang of Scared Braves. I’m thinking of Dr Jones, at the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) of the U.S. Department of Energy, that in July 2004 was ordered by a denier thug to hand over his meteorological data, or else …
    Dr Jones refused to submit to his fear and decided to break the old traditional picking order where anyone, anytime, just could demand your hard earned raw data.
    Dr Jones stood up for himself and answered the thug with this crushing reply: “We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it. ”
    And the thug moved on, baffled and confused.
    Dr Jones thereby sat an example for other serious climate scientists to follow!

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  6. KTM

    The true hero is whomever dumped the Climate-gate e-mails and derailed the world drumbeat for a new Carbon treaty at Copenhagen.

    I wonder if we will ever learn who that unsung hero actually is. He had much more real-world impact than Edward Snowden, and only exposed the crooks behind the climate mafia rather than the US government.

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  7. burton

    KTM: you have it the wrong way round. As Lewandowsky has so ably shown, the less certain we are of something, the more reason there is to be concerned. Because of Snowden, we now know that security services just about everywhere monitor just about everything, and so people who were previously concerned — even to the point of conspiracy ideation — don’t have to be concerned anymore. OTOH, with the UEA stolen emails, we see the disinformation engine at full tilt in order to increase uncertainty among people who don’t understand how science works. For example, we don’t know whether it is Mr or Mrs FOIA (or indeed Ms if he/she prefers that styling, or even Miss or Master, because there are some *very* skilled young people out there, or they might not be English). Worst of all, we don’t know just how credulous non-scientsts are in processing anti-science disinformation and that makes me really, really worried.

    In any case, how come you are so sure that the stolen emails are genuine? You can’t rule out the possibility that the few that were seized upon by science deniers were planted in a clutch of otherwise bona fide material, that the institutions and scientists involved were “leant on” by fossil-fuel interests to falsely admit that all the material was genuine. Doesn’t that worry you?

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. Pingback: What else are the lesser outlets saying about Our Scared Scientists? | CLIMATE NUREMBERG

  9. Pingback: Climate Blogger of the Year, 2015 | The Lukewarmer's Way

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