Just the facts, ma’am…

“Get your facts first; then you can distort them as you please” – Mark Twain

Or maybe not.

Of course Mark Twain said this tongue-in-cheek. He was describing more a universal temptation we witness all around us (and not just in others; we have to fight this tendency in ourselves every day).

Let’s start our reflections on this reality by stepping back…

Younger readers of this blog know only one Joe Friday, the former director of the National Weather Service who also had a distinguished Air Force career, as well as a stint with the National Academies’ National Research Council, and with the University of Oklahoma, and in the private sector…there’s more to his career, but you get the idea. Elbert (“Joe”) Friday remains actively engaged with our community today…a perennial source of wisdom. We’re all the better for it.

But older readers remember another Joe Friday, the police-detective character on radio and television hit Dragnet, which dates back to the 1950’s. [He’s the reason Elbert got his “Joe.”] Played by Jack Webb, Friday was one of the most durable and popular characters on the screen in that day. He modeled an unflappable, no-nonsense toughness and integrity that wore well.

One signature line? “Just the facts,ma’am.”  A recurring theme would be an interview with this or that witness or person of interest whose account of matters would ramble all over the place. Detective Friday would keep trying to bring the witness back to the facts of the matter.

We never tired of it. This focus on facts struck a chord with viewers, and with the American people more generally.

The reason for discussing this today? Earlier this week E&E Publishing, LLC’s Paul Voosen interviewed Stanford communication scholar Jon Krosnick  on this subject as it pertains to climate scientists. You can find the interview here.

Here’s a key passage:

“Using a national survey, Krosnick has found that, among low-income and low-education respondents, climate scientists suffered damage to their trustworthiness and credibility when they veered from describing science into calling viewers to ask the government to halt global warming. And not only did trust in the messenger fall — even the viewers’ belief in the reality of human-caused warming dropped steeply.”

“It is a warning that, even as the frustration of inaction mounts and the politicization of climate science deepens, researchers must be careful in getting off the political sidelines.

‘The advice that comes out of this work is that all of us, when we claim to have expertise and offer opinions on matters [in the world], need to be guarded about how far we’re willing to go,’ Krosnick said. Speculation, he added, ‘could compromise everything.’”

The full article contains much more…discussions with climate scientists such as Richard Somerville, who have learned these lessons and are reaching out to social scientists. Thoughts on the limitations of the survey findings by Krosnick himself as well as Dan Kahan, another communication scholar. Quotes from Roger Pielke, Jr., whose 2007 book The Honest Broker dealt with these issues. [We can all look forward to the day when Mr. Krosnick’s results are available in more detail in the peer-reviewed literature.]

Readers might well say, “Hey, I knew that all along.” Think back on your relationship with your life partner or someone else close. If he/she knows you’re sticking to facts, life is good. When they realize we’re straying from what we know into the realm of how we want to change their behavior…it stops going so well, doesn’t it?

Climate scientists reading this might react in a range of ways. At one extreme, they/we might be depressed and weary. We can allow ourselves to think that we’ve got to change the world’s behavior in order to save it, and the job seems insurmountable. But there’s another option. There’s an invitation here to relax. We can realize that we don’t have to shoulder the burden of choosing options for society. Instead, we can just present facts, and let the power of those facts do their magic.

And facts do have extraordinary power. Consider this example, familiar to our community.

Tornado warnings.

When the National Weather Service puts out a tornado warning, it stops there. Unlike EPA, it has no regulatory power. The next sentence on the advisory isn’t “and residents in the tornado’s path will be fined $500 for every fifteen minutes they remain outside their basements or their tornado shelters.” Quite the opposite. When we hear the warning, you and I can seek shelter in a safe room or underground…but we’re equally free to run out the front door with the videocam.

Just the facts? Feels liberating.

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