Talk to me (please).

Sunday Judith Curry blogged on public engagement on climate change. She’s  moved on (of course!) to other topics. Difficult for the rest of us to keep up! But the topic is intriguing, especially on the eve of the National Communication Association New Orleans Convention (see Voice).

Judith has written the post around the abstract for an invited presentation she’s giving at the upcoming fall AGU Meeting next month . Here’s some of that abstract: “…In this talk I argue for a shift from scientists and their institutions as information disseminators to that of public engagement and enablers of public participation.

The goal of engagement is not just to inform, but to enable, motivate and educate the public regarding the technical, political, and social dimensions of climate change. Engagement is a two-way process where experts and decision-makers seek input and learn from the public about preferences, needs, insights, and ideas relative to climate change impacts, vulnerabilities, solutions and policy options. Effective public engagement requires that scientists detach themselves from trying to control what the public does with the acquired knowledge and motivation.  The goal should not be to “sell” the public on particular climate change solutions, since such advocacy threatens public trust in scientists and their institutions…”

And here’s the bit added in her post: “…The abstract (written months ago) reflects some thoughts I have on the subject, but doesn’t really outline a talk on this topic.  I haven’t given my talk much thought yet, so I’m throwing the topic open to discussion…”

Bravo! Judith’s modeling desired behavior. She’s saying that scientists should seek input and learn from the public, and she’s throwing open the doors as she prepares this talk, inviting you and me…anyone…to inform her thought process. Only some 300 comments so far! There’s still time and opportunity.

Not only laudable, but at least a little bit risky? She’s also giving up some measure of control. Note she’s not merely suggesting that scientists be polite or deferential to the public. She’s not suggesting that they/we simply shape our message for public consumption – make ourselves and our findings and needs clear. She’s suggesting (a la Stephen Covey) that we seek first to understand, and only then to be understood. We take our cue from others – at least with respect to what it’s appropriate to do with the knowledge we give them.

Some social scientists carry what Judith is doing a whole lot further. Thanks to Peter Park and many colleagues, participatory action research (or collaborative inquiry, or emancipatory research) has been offered as an alternative to the so-called expert science model of research. The social scientist, instead of dividing the world into “social scientists” and “subjects,” brings the “subjects” into the research, so that all parties co-discover truth. [Forgive my ham-fisted paraphrasing! If you want to know more, Google the phrase or any of its substitutes; or Google “Peter Park;” or you might start by looking at a quick PowerPoint presentation here.]

For a few decades now, the community of social scientists practicing participatory approaches has extoled its virtues, which are numerous and considerable. All that Institutional Review Board (IRB) stuff (“no human subjects will be harmed by this research”) becomes more defensible. Societal outcomes – the community/public uptake of that research – tend to be far better. In part this results because the participants buy in to the studies. In part the reasons are more fundamental; participants shape and initiate that research.

Kristina Peterson, a friend and colleague, who is not only a sociologist but a Presbyterian pastor (serving Houma, LA with her husband Richard Krajeski), this past summer defended her doctoral thesis at the University of New Orleans on this topic, with an unusual twist. Her thesis title? “Transforming researchers and practitioners: The unanticipated consequences (significance) of Participatory Action Research (PAR).” In her paper she describes hazards studies following Katrina in partnership with Grand Bayou, Louisiana residents. She finds that the public participation influenced the social science that has come out of recent studies of the impacts of Katrina on their community. But their impact didn’t stop there. Those folks from Grand Bayou transformed the entire research community (academics and their graduate students) with whom they worked.

It was my good fortune to see this process work, at least in part. For years I’ve attended the Hazards Research and Applications Workshop held annually in Boulder, Colorado, and then in Broomfield. Since 2005 a small contingent of these Grand Bayou folks have been attending, giving presentations, joining the discussions, and engaging the academics, as well as emergency managers from all over the country, FEMA employees, experts from the Army Corps of Engineers, et al. But for me a real turning point was watching a nationally televised presentation on the BP oil spill one evening that featured one of the Grand Bayou participants, Rosina Philippe. [Here’s the link to YouTube; if you’re interested there are several clips to choose from.]

When you and I see scientists on-air, we’re accustomed to thirty-second soundbites broken by cutting and editing. That’s the longest time interval over which some of us can be captivating and coherent! But I watched this Grand Bayou resident talk uncut for several minutes (!!) as she went out in a small boat with the reporters to see sites where the oil spill was coming ashore. In that time she gave the background on the economy and culture of the community, its dependence on and interaction with the marine resource that provided their livelihood, and the mix of oil spill science and public policy that was changing their lives forever. Her conversation was not angry, but insightful. It was amazing, compelling video.

Now some might argue that exceptionalism is at work here. That the study was exceptional…or that Rosina is exceptional. Maybe a bit of truth to the latter. But what made the study exceptional was the integrity with which the public participation was carried through. The social scientists gave the process a chance to work. Physical or natural scientists might say, “that’s a bit easier for social scientists to do.” Truthful enough, but also a touch elitist. There are many ways to let the public in…and give exceptionalism a chance to develop and flower.

That’s what Judith is trying to bring to our field.  

Want to make a better world? Are you a social scientist? The next time you’re doing social research, don’t consider those folks you’re with as “subjects.” Are you a natural or physical scientist? Next time you’ve giving a public lecture, don’t think of those individuals out there in the room as a faceless “audience,” mere receivers of information. Take a chance. Learn from them.

Every chance you get, invite them…”Talk to me!”

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