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03.15 Sorry, It's Malignant: Why Scientists Need a New Approach on Climate Change

Monday, March 15th, 2010 | Scott Bittle and JEAN JOHNSON

The world's scientists are struggling with the unsettling feeling that the more they talk about climate change, the less progress they make. In fact, in some opinion surveys they're losing ground. But before we start dumping on the public for its scientific illiteracy or unwillingness to take the long view, consider this scenario:

You're sitting in the doctor's examining room, on one of those absurd benches. The doctor comes in and gives you the worst possible news, that you have cancer.

The doctor takes the time to explain why she thinks you have cancer, and the level of confidence she has in the test results. She explains the biological process of cancer, what's known about how it starts and how it spreads. Don't let your senses deceive you, the doctor warns. You may feel okay now, but this disease will kill you if nothing is done, and we've got to start fighting this right now.

Then she walks out without telling you what your treatment options are.

This is essentially what the scientific community has been doing to the public about climate change. The scientific consensus that global warming is real and caused by humans remains unshaken, but the public consensus is fragile enough that it trembles based on a snowy winter or a set of indiscreet e-mails. Daniel Yankelovich points out, scientists persist in believing that if they just give the public the relevant facts, people will be able to sort them out, think through the policy options, and start making decisions.

In the real world, that's not what happens. Being inundated with information about a problem doesn't help people sort out different ways to address it. The public can and does come to firm, workable decisions, but the process takes a lot more time than most scientists believe. Information matters to the public, certainly, but other things matter too: values, confidence that the people advocating change understand and respect your point of view, a sense of inclusion in the decisions.

All those things aren't part of the classic "scientific" model of knowledge, but they are part and parcel of the way people make decisions about complex, unfamiliar problems.

Or, think of it this way:

You chase the doctor out into the hallway and ask, "But how do we fight this? What treatments are there? What choices do I have?"

The doctor leads you into another room. "Don't worry, the answers are all somewhere in here," she says. "Let me introduce you to the sales representatives of the radiology machine manufacturer and several competing pharmaceutical companies, who will try and sell you their solutions. Those half-dozen people over there are from the insurance industry, and they'll be having a parallel discussion of how much you can afford. We also have a wide selection of promising experimental procedures that will take years to develop. And these folks here are a spiritual healer, who will offer you crystals and a selection of herbs and spices, along with the owner of the largest leach farm in Louisiana. I don't really recommend you listen to either of them, but they'll both be shouting at the top of their voices during the entire process. Plus, they come up first in Google searches."

The scientific community – and the climate skeptics, for that matter – believes this is an information battle, and that with a few more charts and graphs, people will become lay scientists, and everything else will fall into place. That's not the way this is going to work.

So what does the scientific community need to do? We'd suggest three steps:

Connect climate change and the energy crisis. Obviously, these two things are connected, but too few people in the climate science world spell it out. World energy demand is projected to rise 40 percent over the next 20 years, mostly because of rising demand in developing countries like China and India. A billion Chinese buying cars and Ipods has enormous and obvious implications for both oil prices and climate change.

Step up to the plate as a credible, neutral explainer of the choices.This debate comes down to a few practical choices about how we get our energy. What kind of power plants do we build? What do we use to fuel our cars? Those are the choices people can grapple with. They're practical, not theoretical. You can sum up the pros and cons pretty quickly. These are our treatment options. And they're decisions society will have to make. Unfortunately, neither the media not the political leadership has taken on this task. This leaves a void science can fill. The scientific community could serve the nation by helping Americans understand our options for addressing our energy and climate challenges – no spin, no hyperventilating – just lay out the choices with their pros and cons.

Don't ignore economics. Believe us, nobody else is viewing this as a purely scientific debate. "How much will this cost" is a perfectly legitimate part of the discussion. So are the economic benefits of moving to alternative energy, and the potential costs of doing nothing and letting climate change and energy shortages reshape our planet. If there ever was a case for an interdisciplinary approach, this is it.

This all comes back to one of the fundamental roles of the scientist in society: not just to find out the facts, but to explain what they mean to the rest of us. If the world fails to solve this problem, it won't be because we failed to understand the diagnosis. It'll be because we failed to understand our treatment options. We expect doctors to help us understand and weigh those options, and to respect our right to make the final decision. It's only fair to expect climate scientists to do the same.

Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson are Public Agenda executives and authors of "Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis."

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03.12 "Climate Deadlock" & The Public's Learning Curve

Friday, March 12th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

For much of the past two weeks, there's been a major debate over how the world of science should deal with so-called climate deadlock. Political action on the issue seems to have stalled, a new poll shows the public is worrying less about global warming, and climate skeptics are more vocal in the wake of "climategate." Should scientists push back harder, or stick to the data?

A lot of this debate, we think, misses a key point about how the public grapples with complicated problems. Scientists, along with journalists and many other "expert" groups, have an unrealistic view of how the public thinks about problems, says Daniel Yankelovich, Public Agenda's founder and a pioneering social scientist.

The public has a "learning curve" on tough problems, moving from initial consciousness of a problem, to working through the possible solutions, and then finally, resolution about what to do. Establishing the facts is only one part of the challenge.

There are all kinds of other potential barriers to moving forward, such as wishful thinking or denial, a lack of urgency, or a lack of practical choices. Values, options, and how problems are framed are as important here as information. So is time, because people need time to weigh different alternatives.

That's very different from the classic "scientific" way of understanding problems, and it suggests a different approach, based on helping the public move through the various obstacles they face. For more on this, take a look at the presentations for the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference by Yankelovich and Jean Johnson of Public Agenda, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis. The book is another good resource, along with updates from our Twitter feed, @TheEnergyBook.


03.12 K-12: Do We Need National Standards?

Friday, March 12th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

What should American students learn? And should they all be learning the same things, from Maine to California?

This is an old argument, but it's been given new and relevant life by the "common core" standards released for comment this week. A joint project of the nation's governors and chief state school officers, the core standards initiative is supposed to set out benchmarks for English and math in K-12 classrooms, and could have a huge impact nationwide. All but two states have been involved in the process to develop the standards. Each state would still have to decide whether or not to adopt the final product, however.

There are both pros and cons to the idea of national standards, but two observations stand out for us. Firstly, Public Agenda's research has consistently found that the public supports the idea of standards, broadly speaking (although we haven't asked about national vs state or local standards recently). The last time we looked at this, we found most parents and other stakeholders say standards are "necessary, but not sufficient" to make progress. Social problems and funding were also major concerns.

The second observation comes from our work in Nebraska, where Public Agenda ran Choicework public engagement forums helping state officials and citizens work through the process of setting statewide school standards. We found most Nebraskans in the forums seemed to think setting standards for basic skills like English and math was a common sense idea - it was in other areas, like history, that this proved to be more controversial.

If you want to weigh in, the Core Standards Initiative is seeking public comment through April 2.


03.12 Your Taxes at Work

Friday, March 12th, 2010 | Francie Grace

Kudos to USA Today for an amazing chart on where our federal taxes go. This one is interactive and tells you exactly what's happening to the federal taxes someone with your income level pays, broken down by the amount that you personally pay for budget items from national defense and health care on down to agriculture and international affairs. It also serves up comparisons to previous years, going all the way back to 1940.


03.12 Deficit Tops the Public's Long-Term Worries, But Are They Ready to Act?

Friday, March 12th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

Jobs are still the top problem facing the country today, according to the latest Gallup survey, but for the first time ever, people say the federal deficit will be the biggest problem 25 years from now.

It's no surprise that jobs and the economy top current worries, as they have for the past couple of years. The question about the most important problem in 25 years provides an interesting window into what the public sees as troubling trends for the future. Besides the deficit, the list includes the economy, environment, health care and energy, and certainly you can make a case for any of them as a disturbing trend for the future. But the deficit has seen a big jump, from under 5 percent to 14 percent in the survey.

The most interesting thing is that difference in urgency. Right now the deficit is No. 5 on the Gallup list of most important current problems, at 8 percent, which is significant but still pretty far back compared to 31 percent for unemployment, 24 percent for the economy overall, 20 percent for health care and 10 percent for general "dissatisfaction with government." Yet it leads the list of long-term problems.

And in this case, the experts would mostly agree. The Committee on the Fiscal Future report warns that action needs to be taken to control the long-term budget problem – but also said the government should hold off another year in order to deal with the current economic crisis. Most budget experts would argue that the current federal deficits, huge as they are, aren't as scary as the long-term projections that show the U.S. public debt becoming larger than our entire economy in a little more than 10 years.

Projections, of course, are a lot like the Ghost of Christmas Future in Dickens' A Christmas Carol: visions of what might be, not guarantees of what will be. The nation's fiscal problems are completely solvable, and there are a lot of alternatives for solving them. But it will probably require sacrifices, and the sooner we start, the easier it will be.

So the question that the Gallup poll can't answer is what's needed to help Americans make difficult decisions now in order to avoid the problem they worry about most 25 years from now.


03.01 The Second Awkward Age: Life At 55 And Beyond

Monday, March 1st, 2010 | Francie Grace

Public Agenda president Ruth Wooden is the moderator of this event Thursday, March 4, at the Urban Institute, co-sponsored by Public Agenda, on evolving roles for older adults, many of whom are approaching or are at what has been considered to be retirement age but, for a variety of reasons, may not be ready to leave the workforce.

Be part of the discussion – in Washington, through our webcast, and online on Twitter (hashtag is #Boomer 3.0) - as distinguished experts explore the labor force, economic, health, and identity issues facing Americans approaching retirement. We’ll look at the diversity of this population and developmental factors affecting older Americans, successful aging, the special circumstances of older minority men and women, policy prescriptions that could improve older Americans’ economic security, and lessons from other nations.

The panelists for this event are: Scott Bass, provost, American University, and founding director of the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts–Boston; Dalmer Hoskins, senior adviser to the Social Security Administration and former secretary general of the International Social Security Association; Richard Johnson, senior fellow, Income and Benefits Policy Center, Urban Institute; and Sandra Nathan, vice president, workforce development, National Council on Aging.

Click here for details on attending this event. For further information, please contact Simona Combi at the Urban Institute ((202) 261-5709) or Melissa Feldsher at Public Agenda (212-686-6610, extension 50).

The Twitter hashtag for this event is: #Boomer3.0

Live webcast (also available as a recording after the event) at:


02.24 Load 16 (Clean?) Tons And What Do You Get?

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

The federal government this week announced plans to push biofuels and "clean coal" technology, in an effort to move forward on energy options even while a more complicated "cap-and-trade" plan stays stalled in Congress. Developing new technology is important to solving our energy problems, but what is really at stake here and what choices do we have?

Americans get half of our electricity from coal, and the pros and cons of it are actually pretty simple. Coal is inexpensive, we have lots of domestic supply, and some 80,000 people work in the industry. On the other hand, coal puts out more greenhouse gases and pollutants than our other options, even other fossil fuels like natural gas and oil. (See our handy chart from Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis to compare different energy sources).

So coming up with ways to use coal without producing greenhouse gases could be a breakthrough. But it's not exactly around the corner -- the Obama administration's plan would create five to 10 commercial demonstration projects by 2016, and if they succeed, widespread adoption would be even further off.

That's why it's important for policymakers to focus the energy debate on the fundamental choices we face. Too often we end up arguing over the complexities of a cap-and-trade plan, or the emissions targets needed to control climate change. But to engage the public, the key questions are more basic: what kind of power plants do we need? How should we fuel our cars? These are questions Americans can and should grapple with – and in a world that needs more energy at the same time it needs cleaner energy, the public needs to be part of this debate.


02.24 The Deficit Commission Is Born: Now What?

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 | Francie Grace

It's official: President Obama today created the bipartisan fiscal commission he proposed in his State of the Union message. Of course, the commission itself is just a step toward a plan – but what are our options for that plan?

The Choosing the Nation's Fiscal Future report has lots of options, and there's additional commentary from the report's authors on what needs to be done at the Our Fiscal Future web site, including from Public Agenda president Ruth Wooden.

The leaders of the new deficit commission are: Democrat Erskine Bowles, a North Carolina banker and former White House chief of staff, and Republican Alan Simpson, the former senator from Wyoming.

The panel, which is to deliver its recommendations by Dec. 1, will have less authority than would that in the recent Conrad-Gregg proposal that failed to win Congressional approval. Announcing the commission, the president emphasized that the accumulated weight of the deficit could hobble the economy and said "everything's on the table." At the same time, Obama pledged that in the short term, taking steps to encourage businesses to create jobs will continue to be top priority.

A sampling of react and related stories from around the web: thoughts from the economics blog Capital Gains and Games and The Wall Street Journal on the naming of the GOP members of the commission; Catherine Rampell of the New York Times, putting the panel in context, with a look at other entities bent on fiscal prudence; Time Magazine, on stimulus spending and deficit danger; and rumblings from Kathleen Sebelius that the Democrats will come together and post a single health care reform proposal by Monday, in advance of Obama's Feb. 25 bipartisan health care summit.


02.24 An Opening To Comment On Open Goverment

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

The world of public engagement and e-democracy has been watching the Obama administration's Open Government Directive closely, debating whether it will really bring more "transparency, participation, and collaboration" to the federal government. Now you have your chance to weigh in.

Government agencies are accepting public comments until March 19 on their plans to comply with the directive (you can find a full list of agencies and links here). Each agency has its own plan, from Agriculture to Veterans Affairs, so whether you're interested in the field in general or in how a specific department deals with the public, it's worth a look.

Our Center for Advances in Public Engagement has done a lot of thinking about the best ways to get the public more involved in decision making. Check out our papers on Promising Practices in Online Engagement, Reframing Framing, and Democracy, Growing Up.


02.16 A Wobbly Three-Legged Stool: Science, Politics, And The Public

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010 | Francie Grace

With science more and more an issue in public policy, and the public unsure about many scientific subjects, what should policymakers do to involve the public more in this kind of policymaking, given the fact that big changes in a democracy don't happen easily or smoothly without public participation in the choices that we face?

Social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich, chairman and a founder of three organizations including Public Agenda, and Jean Johnson, Public Agenda executive vice president and co-author of public policy books including "Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis?", spoke on this subject Feb. 19 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Our Energy Learning Curve™ research on what the public knows and believes on energy issues and climate change was be a part of the discussion. Yankelovich's presentation will examine "Redefining What "An Informed Public" Means On Science & Technology Issues" and Johnson will speak on "How to Advance the Public's Energy Learning Curve."

The theme of this year's AAAS convention, in San Diego, is Bridging Science and Society: a call for every scientist and engineer to make their work both beneficial and understandable. AAAS president Dr. Peter Agre, in setting the tone for the meeting, points to this quote from President Obama, in a speech to scientists:

"Science, technology, and innovation proceed more rapidly and more cost-effectively when insights, costs, and risks are shared; and so many of the challenges that science and technology will help us meet are global in character. This is true of our dependence on oil, the consequences of climate change, the threat of epidemic disease, and the spread of nuclear weapons."

The challenge we all face then, is involving citizens in public choices – even in cases where the underlying science may be complicated. That's a mission close to the bone here at Public Agenda, where our research and public engagement both focus on closing gaps between experts, policymakers and the public, empowering democracy as citizens make informed choices as part of the policymaking process.

In addition to being on the panel for the Feb. 19 AAAS panel discussion, Johnson was able to take part in two other events: the AAAS' Promoting Climate Literacy Conference panel discussion on "Public Knowledge & Attitudes" on Feb. 17 and a National Academy of Sciences Feb. 18 panel discussion in Irvine, Ca., on "Challenges to Public Trust in Science: Lessons from the University of East Anglia/"Climategate" Incident.

We've posted the Yankelovich and Johnson PowerPoint presentations online for the benefit of the Public Agenda community. You can find out more about the AAAS meeting on its web site and on Facebook.

Editor's Note: this blog posting was updated after the AAAS meeting.


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