Cockpit Resource Management for climate scientists and policymakers

Climate scientists and political leaders could learn a lot from airline pilots.


Really, Bill? …and why tackle this today?

Why today? Because over the weekend, not one, but two influential environmental blogs with big readerships are touching on the subject – at least implicitly. In Dot Earth, Andy Revkin quotes Scripture (sort of) and asks readers to offer instances where they’ve found common ground with those of generally opposing climate-change views. Judging from the comment string, a few of his readers are struggling with his basic concept – let alone its execution. In Climate, Etc., Judith Curry posts on argument and authority in the climate fight, taking as her point of departure a post by that same title on the Council on Foreign Relations blog on Energy Security, and Climate. The CFR blogger, in reflecting on the recent dustup in the Wall Street Journal, is bemoaning scientists’ overuse of authority they’ve earned in their areas of expertise as a substitute for careful argument in other fields.


And because, fact is, if planes were piloted by (climate) scientists and politicians, airports and their environs would be a hellish landscape, littered with the wreckage and debris of crashed planes, awash with jet fuel, towers of flame sending huge plumes of black, oily smoke skyward.

And that’s not just because of any lack in piloting skills…but rather the result of how we scientists and our colleagues seem to prefer to communicate. We place (over)-much value on being right. We will go to great lengths to prove ourselves right. We’ll allow ourselves to be easily offended if someone suggests we’re wrong. We are prone to believe that a record of distinguished past accomplishment in science makes us right in the present, and to believe that distinguished accomplishment in one area makes us the expert voice in other contexts.

These attitudes have been tolerated – maybe even encouraged – for years in the climate-change arena.

By contrast, decades ago, airline pilots – our fellow human beings – recognized that same human frailty in themselves. They listened to the voice recordings from aviation accidents and near-misses. They could hear pilots and co-pilots mis-communicating, losing situational awareness. They heard garbled communications between pilots and air traffic controllers.

They saw this as more than an unfortunate human tendency. They saw it as a matter of life and death.

Driven in part by a survival instinct and in part by vigorous regulation and training, and under rigorous scrutiny by social scientists, especially psychologists, communication researchers, and others interested in organizational behavior, they established and continue to maintain programs of training aimed at stamping out such attitudes wherever they surface.

Want a flavor for this?

Then read this selected material excerpted from the Wikipedia entry on Crew Resource Management:

“CRM is concerned not so much with the technical knowledge and skills required to operate equipment but rather with the cognitive and interpersonal skills needed to manage resources within an organised system. In this context, cognitive skills are defined as the mental processes used for gaining and maintaining situational awareness, for solving problems and for making decisions. Interpersonal skills are regarded as communications and a range of behavioral activities associated with teamwork. In many operational systems as in other walks of life, skill areas often overlap with each other, and they also overlap with the required technical skills. Furthermore, they are not confined to multi-crew craft or equipment, but also relate to single operator equipment or craft as they invariably need to interface with other craft or equipment and various other support agencies in order to complete a mission successfully.

CRM training for crew has been introduced and developed by aviation organisations including major airlines and military aviation worldwide. CRM training is now a mandated requirement for commercial pilots working under most regulatory bodies worldwide, including the FAA (U.S.) and JAA (Europe). Following the lead of the commercial airline industry, the U.S. Department of Defense began formally training its air crews in CRM in the early 1990s. Presently, the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy require all air crew members to receive annual CRM training, in an effort to reduce to human-error caused mishaps.


CRM aims to foster a climate or culture where the freedom to respectfully question authority is encouraged. However, the primary goal of CRM is enhanced situational awareness, self awareness, leadership, assertiveness, decision making, flexibility, adaptability, event and mission analysis and communication. It recognizes that a discrepancy between what is happening and what should be happening is often the first indicator that an error is occurring. This is a delicate subject for many organizations, especially ones with traditional hierarchies, so appropriate communication techniques must be taught to supervisors and their subordinates, so that supervisors understand that the questioning of authority need not be threatening, and subordinates understand the correct way to question orders.

Cockpit voice recordings of various air disasters tragically reveal first officers and flight engineers attempting to bring critical information to the captain’s attention in an indirect and ineffective way. By the time the captain understood what was being said, it was too late to avert the disaster. A CRM expert named Todd Bishop developed a five-step assertive statement process that encompasses inquiry and advocacy steps:

  • Opening or attention getter – Address the individual. “Hey Chief,” or “Captain Smith,” or “Bob,” or whatever name or title will get the person’s attention.
  • State your concern – Express your analysis of the situation in a direct manner while owning your emotions about it. “I’m concerned that we may not have enough fuel to fly around this storm system,” or “I’m worried that the roof might collapse.”
  • State the problem as you see it – “We’re only showing 40 minutes of fuel left,” or “This building has a lightweight steel truss roof, and we may have fire extension into the roof structure.”
  • State a solution – “Let’s divert to another airport and refuel,” or “I think we should pull some tiles and take a look with the thermal imaging camera before we commit crews inside.”
  • Obtain agreement (or buy-in) – “Does that sound good to you, Captain?”

These are often difficult skills to master, as they may require significant changes in personal habits, interpersonal dynamics, and organizational culture.”

Or take a moment to look at this material lifted from a paper by Robert Baron, of the Aviation Consulting Group, entitled Barriers to Effective Communication: Implications for the Cockpit.

“In order to facilitate effective communication, one must understand how the process works. In its most basic model, two-way communication involves a sender, a message and a receiver. In some communications processes, communication might be one-way, but for the purpose of this paper, only the two-way process is identified. The following illustration shows the two-way communication process.

Sender (Encodes) >Message> Receiver (Decodes)> Receiver Becomes Sender and Encodes> Message> Receiver (Decodes)  (Zastrow, 2001)

When effective communication is at work, what the receiver decodes is what the sender sends (Zastrow, 2001). A breakdown in the communication process may occur if the intended message was not encoded or decoded properly. Comments may be taken the wrong way, a compliment may be taken as an insult, or a joke might be interpreted as a put-down (p.130). There may also be barriers in the transfer process; these barriers may include:

  • Noise, static
  • Multiple communications
  • Fatigue, stress
  • Distractions
  • Incomplete message
  • Ambiguous wording
  • Lack of credibility
  • Lack of rapport
  • Think in personal terms
  • Jargon
  • Boring

(Kirby, 1997)

Further examples of barriers to effective communication are extracted from the flight instruction domain. (2004) suggests that misunderstandings stem primarily from four barriers to effective communication:

1. Lack of common experience- The transfer of words from the instructor to the student are often misunderstood or not interpreted correctly. A communicator’s words cannot communicate the desired meaning to another person unless the listener or reader has had some experience with the objects or concepts to which these words refer. Many words in the English language mean different things to different people.

2. Confusion between the symbol and the symbolized object- Results when a word is confused with what it is meant to represent.

3. Overuse of abstractions- Overdependence upon words that are of a general nature rather than specific.

4. Interference- Includes physiological, environmental, and psychological interference.

(, 2004)”

[a quick note: go online, you can find many other references, and in these and other materials you can find transcribed conversations from cockpit voice recorders bringing the problem to life in the most vivid and tragic way. Those cited here just happened to be readily available.]

Might you and I recognize any similarities between the aviation context and the climate-change challenge here? Might we also see that we’re approaching the circumstances differently? In aviation, pilots, the companies they fly for, the airframe manufacturers, the federal agencies, and the flying public make flight safety paramount. All the actors subsume their egos in favor of this greater good. Fail to do so? They’re soon out of a job.

By contrast, when it comes to climate change, we seem instead to be standing on our individual rights. And note that we don’t get a free pass by claiming the problem isn’t real. Those pilots and co-pilots have the same problem. Often their key decision is determining whether or not to believe their instruments. [Is that light blinking because the landing gear haven’t lowered? Or is the sensor defective? Is the fuel tank empty? Or is the gauge faulty?]

Have some time? Then try the thought exercise of going through some of that CRM material and substituting the term climate scientists and policymakers for pilots and air traffic controllers, and make any other tweaks you think might make sense. Do you see parallels?


We usually see the aviation community as a highly-engineering-driven environment. But examination reveals a success story: harnessing social science to achieve a national goal. By contrast, when it comes to public safety in the face of natural hazards, or sustainable development, we’re struggling to replicate such success.

More soon.

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7 Responses to Cockpit Resource Management for climate scientists and policymakers

  1. Judith Curry says:

    Bill, this is another superb essay, I’ve linked to it over at Climate Etc.

  2. Latimer Alder says:

    Hi Bill

    FYI I arrived here from discussions at Judith’s place.

    First just to observe that Bishop’s 5 step-plan to assertive communication looks very similar to the standard – and very effective – corporate sales call technique as taught at, for example, IBM.

    I’ve spent some time over the past five years trying to understand climatology as an outsider ..but with a scientific background. And the with thirty years of technical and sales experience in IT. So I’ve seen a lot of different organisations and sold high-value equipment to many of them. Each organisation has its own culture and its own way of doing things, and one of the salesman’s skills is to quickly identify and understand that culture and present one’s message in a way that goes with the grain of the client, rather than against.

    And when I try to do the same with climatology, I come back again and again to the conclusion that it has many of the characteristics of a religion ..but wrapped up with a bit of science thrown in for good (or bad) measure.

    There is the Fundamental Creed: More Co2 (from people) = more heat = bad things in triplicate = we must stop Co2.

    There is the Big Black Book that contains all Wisdom and Knowledge : the IPCC reports

    There are Sacred Objects : The Hockey Stick, the Polar Bear

    There are High Priests and Prophets and Saints : Mann, Gore, Jones, Schmidt, Romm and all the Boys in the Band

    There are The Followers: Who unthinkingly believe everything the HPP and S tell them and defend their every word to the hilt. Many owe their employment and entire raison d’etre to their adherence to the faith and rarely venture outside the world of True Believers

    And there is The Enemy : Watts, Morano, McIntyre (shudder) etc etc , who dare to question the Truth and the Prophets.

    And so on and so on.

    So it is no wonder that climatology fails to engage the general public. Questioning of authority is most definitely not encouraged. It shows disrespect to the HPP and S. Since they truly believe that they have already analysed all the earth’s problems -whether by the application of science or by revelation from god – then no further discussion or debate is needed. It is down to us mortals merely to obey our instructions.

    And up until a few years ago, they seemed to have succeeded. To swap analogies, they had seized control of many of the aircraft’s controls and were setting the course they wanted…with the cockpit door firmly locked shut, the radios switched to transmit but not to receive and the course set without recourse to anybody else.

    But even the most dedicated hijackers eventually run out of in-flight resources. They must land to refuel. And in so doing their security is breached. External forces are introduced. People start to ask awkward questions about the provenance and practicality of their flight plan.

    And merely asserting ‘I am the Captain and what I say goes’ does not adequately prevent mutiny by the passengers and unrest among some of the crew.

    This is the essential problem. Climatology has grown up with and views itself as having a one-way communication method.

    From Them to us. No listening. Suppress/eliminate all dissent. No backsliding. You are either with us or against us. We Are Climatologists ….We Have Spoken.

    and it just doesn’t work.

    • William Hooke says:

      Thanks for this extended and wide-ranging comment. Darwin (per his quote on the blog home page) would have loved it. You’ve built on the post, and built on the cockpit metaphor in an interesting and stimulating way. I guess I find it easier to see climate scientists of whatever stripe and policymakers of whatever political persuasion as pilots, co-pilots, and air traffic controllers struggling to rise above dysfunction than to view them as hijackers. 🙂

      • Barnes Moore says:

        Hello Bill – I too came here from Judith Curry’s site and am finding your site to be quite interesting.

        My view relative to your reply to Latimer is that it may be easier to take the view you provided, (that is – all climate scientists and policy makers having the best of intentions to rise above the dysfunction – at least, I think that is what you mean) but as with hijackers, there is rarely an easy way out short of the hijackers simply surrendering, which in the case of the climate debate analogy, is not likely to happen. The issue is as much about ego as anything else. It appears that part of the process of CRM is breaking down the barriers related to ego – like a person of authority’s willingness to be questioned by a subordinate. In the case of the airline analogy, breaking down ego barriers may be a little easier given that everyone is likely more interested in survival in the face of a very real and imminent threat, than holding fast to a position of authority at any cost. The threat to survival caused by AGW is neither very real to many, and clearly not as imminent a threat.

        As a skeptic, I find Latimer’s point well taken. While it may not have actually started with Gore, IMO, he is largely responsible for the vitriolic state of the climate debate by applying and popularizing terms like denialist and flat earther to skeptics. With the revelation of climategate, the subsequent “clearing” by 5 separate panels, followed by the accusation of whitewash as documented by McKitrick; the apparent lack of warming in recent years contrasted to the (somewhat controversial) published findings of BEST, AGW supporters and skeptics have become even more vocal, and more dug into their views – as evidenced by the comments on the WSJ Opinion piece. Somehow, we need to figure out a way for everyone to gracefully back away from their positions. Maybe it needs to start with an appeal to the 54 (the 16 and the 38) scientists to come together with a common statement that provides a start to a reconciliation process. Personally, I view the efforts of Judith Curry and Roger Pielke to be exceptional forums and starting points for some type of reconciliation process – so far, I find their sites to be the most rational in providing information regarding climate change.

        I applaud the goals of your project – we need to find some way to a common set of realistically achievable objectives and eliminate the vitriol from both sides of the debate. Good luck!

  3. hunter says:

    The dysfunction that the communication skills were developed to solve are running rampant as seen in the climategate e-mails.

  4. Pingback: Argument and authority in the climate fight | Climate Etc.

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