Ever see Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific? Then maybe you remember the Polynesian matron Bloody Mary singing these words of encouragement to the young couple.
In the context of the musical, Bloody Mary seems to be counseling the lovers to ignore horrible realities about the world of the time – a worldwide war, and prevailing ethnic prejudice.
However, it turns out that her advice may be based on solid science. In a recent issue, The Economist reports that Derek Rucker, David Dubois, and Zakary Tormala argue that rebuttal of rumors, however untrue, is unwise. They cite the painful example of Coca Cola, which in its meticulous effort to quash rumors has succeeded only in fanning the flames. The details here are worth the read.
Climate scientists should heed this social science, and be wary of the natural instinct to rebut false claims about their work, even when these claims originate from seemingly widely-followed sources.
Listen to this from that same article: “Instead of denying false rumours, a company should put out a stream of positive messages about itself, reckon Mr. Rucker and Mr. Dubois. This deprives myths of oxygen and also nudges people to doubt nasty things they may hear about the company in question.”
A stream of positive messages? This shouldn’t be too hard for climate scientists! Not a month goes by without a raft of new findings surfacing in Nature, Science, and other prestigious peer-reviewed journals. Scientists can find much to talk about: new understanding of the way glaciers melt, and how that melting can be so rapid; fascinating aspects of carbon chemistry in the oceans; novel insights into the behavior of plants (yes, even plants behave) and animals, and the way this behavior is influenced by weather and climate. The science is intriguing. The way the world works –as a whole and in detail – is breathtakingly marvelous. That men and women can unlock these secrets, and the way they do it, is amazing and uplifting. The list of breakthroughs is endless, and more discoveries are waiting in the wings.
All we have to do is the hardest thing of all – not bother to defend ourselves or our reputations.
This insight, however, is not new. In fact, it dates back at least to Old-Testament times. Consider Proverbs 26, verses 4 and 5:
4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
The juxtaposition of these two adages is no accident. Solomon laments that being in the presence of a fool – someone who won’t listen to reason, or who places little value on integrity versus shortcuts, or the things that matter over the superficial – is a lose-lose proposition. If you and I attempt to rebut the foolishness, it’s hard for bystanders to tell who’s right and who’s wrong. Whereas, if we ignore the fool, he’ll go on causing mischief. A social reality dating back more than 2000 years!
However, it’s not quite lose-lose, is it? A more careful reading shows the asymmetry here, and one favoring silence. Argue with a fool, and we become like him. Who wants that? Ignore him, and the fool persists in his folly. But not anyone else! Not that outside audience watching both of us. We can live with one detractor whom few people respect a lot more easily than we can live with ourselves if we stoop to the inane.
Let’s go back to the Rucker et al. conclusion for a moment, however. Pay attention! There’s an important detail here. They emphasize positive messages. We shouldn’t be putting the science out there in a fashion that encourages the audience to lose hope. We shouldn’t be trying to wrest the title of “dismal science” from the economists. Let them cling tight to that distinction! Instead, we should highlight what’s interesting, even exciting about Earth science, and talking up options for action.
More on how and why in the next post.
 Caution: I tried finding a peer-reviewed source for this report by looking on the authors’ websites, but to no avail.