Speaking with one voice: identifying pre-existing accord

“Recent” LOTRW posts have dealt with our desire to “speak with one voice” as an Earth observations, science, and services community, however tightly or loosely defined. On July 29 (an eternity ago, as measured in blogosphere years!) we agreed on the starting point: to speak with one voice it’s first necessary to be of one mind[1].

Straightforward enough, on the face of it. But how do many thousands of people, distributed geographically and busily engaged in a wide range of separate pursuits ever discover that they (we, in this case) are of one mind? How might communities such as those in Earth observations, science, and services identify areas of agreement or accord?

Here’s one approach. Suppose, hypothetically, that the community in question, though largely self-organizing, and populated primarily by essentially independent actors, has some structure, such as that often associated with scientific and professional societies. Let’s suppose further that said society is a form of representative democracy… that is, it has a governing body, elected by the members and empowered to make a limited set of decisions on their behalf (as specified by agreements or a constitution of some kind). This smaller governing body, through its connections to the larger group, and through the insights its members have regarding the larger context in which the society or community operates, can readily identify issues, subjects, and topics that of concern to the fuller membership. Some may be essentially technical and of concern only to the members. Some may stem from a desire to build public awareness of scientific or technical advance. Some may be views or perspectives concerning larger societal issues that the professional society is uniquely qualified to offer by virtue of its niche of expertise.

The leaders could announce intent to develop a consensus statement, and invite interested members of their community to volunteer. The leaders could develop a draft writing team drawn from the self-identified volunteer/experts and perhaps the leadership itself. The governing body might then circulate the resulting draft, giving the entire membership an opportunity to comment. The writing team could then reconvene and make appropriate revisions. The revised draft could again be circulated, offering members a final chance to comment before putting the draft to final leadership edits and a vote. The resulting product could then be promulgated.

Something like this happens (please don’t hold me to the details!), for example, with the development of American Meteorological Society statements. Other societies have similar practices. In truly exceptional circumstances, other societies will even adopt another society’s statement verbatim. For example, for several years the American Geophysical Union was content to rely on the AMS statement on geo-engineering.

This process for identifying group consensus works reasonably well for most circumstances. It does suffer limitations. Here are three.

Labor intensive.Taking the AMS as an example, the process of identifying topics meriting statements requires a lot of thought and discussion among the leadership. Depending on the subject, the writing teams can spend many hours in drafting text, winnowing down the material to something short (usually less than 1000 words), identifying the salient points and the areas of agreement. Council and some fraction of the membership can spend considerable time individually and as a group in careful study of successive drafts.

Slow. At the AMS the gestation period for a statement is comparable to that for a human birth… about nine months. For many issues, this sloth-channeling pace may suffice, but for others it’s far too slow – positively glacial. This frustrates members and leadership, and leads to a continuing search for shortcuts. Generally speaking, shortcuts don’t identify consensus more quickly so much as they settle for something that only approximates consensus[2].

Works best for issues that matter least. In reality, the same charge can be leveled at the nine-month process itself. The AMS rediscovers this every time the statement touches on contentious matters, especially for statements that are not solely in some technical arena but instead bridge science and societal implications. Climate change comes to mind but is by no means the only topic that poses challenges. The statement process has built-in shortcomings that members willingly paper over on most, but not all, subjects.

Which brings us to the weightier matter of actually building consensus, to be discussed in the next post.

[1]no one wrote in to disagree, and as that post suggested, there should be no non-concurrence through silence…

[2]One popular shortcut involves pre-positioning statements on important topics (much as FEMA pre-positions emergency-response assets prior to hurricane landfall, so that help is able to move in quickly to the affected area). The Society writes letters to selected audiences on time-critical subjects that draw from the wording and conclusion of pre-existing relevant statements. You can find examples of these on the AMS website.

 

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