If you want to see why answering questions is a bad idea, look no further than climate science.
For the past decade climate scientists have been trying to answer why global warming has slowed, stopped or even gone backwards. And they have struggled to answer, suggesting all sorts of reasons for the missing warming.
The strange thing is global warming hasn't stopped at all, in fact it continues to accelerate as you can see in this graph of global ocean heat content, sea level or the disappearing ice masses around the world shown in NASA's key climate indicators page.
So, how can the myth that global warming has stalled persist?
Quite simply, it is because scientists have let themselves be framed in their eagerness to answer every question they are asked. That, right there, is a big mistake.
The "global warming has paused" myth is the best long term, persistent example of poor science communication in current times. I hate to do this, but I think it is important to give you the background of this myth and the (simplified) science around it before we get into the meat of this discussion.
About global average temperatures
The whole issue revolves around the long term and very solid record of global average temperatures. Climate scientists have used this record for three good reasons when talking about global warming trends:
- The record is over a century long
- It is robust and very accurate
- The record measures the two metres above the Earth's surface, so it's pretty much the place we live
But here's the rub, it is a record that is incredibly susceptible to natural variation.
This is because around 93% of all the heat from global warming goes into the ocean. Then there melting ice sucking up more heat and finally every bit of lower atmosphere outside of that two metre envelope is being heated as well.
In total, less than 1% of global warming goes into that tiny two metre envelope above the surface of the Earth where we measure global average temperatures. The global warming signature there is very tiny indeed and can be submerged under natural variations.
Don't get me wrong, the signal is still there in the long term "trend" of rising temperatures but over periods as short as a decade to 30 years, it's pretty much useless as a global warming indicator.
Skeptical Science's wonderful Escalator gif shows this variation and the skeptic's view of temperatures perfectly.
If you want to get a broader sense of this, have a look at the period from around 1946-1970, (that's 24 years, folks). Average global temperatures barely budged but the trend has been ever upwards.
How average global temperatures became the most important measure of global warming
The problem started because the reasons for the variations in graphs of global average temperatures were never clearly explained to the public by scientists. The boffins automatically understood the tenuous relationship between global average temperatures and short term global warming. To them it was so obvious that it seemed pointless to explain that average temperatures were only useful for explaining long-term trends of 30 years or more.
To be fair, when these graphs were formulated the public were barely aware of global warming, so no one was interested anyway. Like all good scientists they just got on with their research.
But in the early 2000s, the newly awakened deniers of climate science stormed onto the scene, looked at the recent peaks and troughs in global average temperatures and immediately shouted that this was an indicator that global warming had stopped.
In doing so, the deniers set a false frame and drew a conclusion based on the frame. It went something like this:-
- Global average temperatures are an accurate measure of global warming (not true).
- Global average temperatures have paused (or reversed), therefore global warming has stopped.
Reporters, who we must remember are not scientists but love conflict, looked at the graphs, took the comments to climate scientists and said: "Average global temperatures tells us global warming has slowed (or stopped). What is causing global warming to pause?"
That is when the trouble started because climate scientists tried to answer that question when it wasn't a sensible question to start with. In short:
- The sceptics set the frame.
- The reporters took the frame to the scientists.
- The scientists didn't question the frame for a second they just did what they always do, they tried to answer whatever question was put to them, even when it made no sense.
The upshot of this urgent need to answer the question asked - rather than seeing if it was the right question to ask in the first place - is that for a whole decade climate scientists have been trying to explain that global warming hasn't stopped, or have even missed this obvious point and have said it has stopped but the reasons are... and then ALL THE TIME have kept talking about global warming in terms of global average temperatures.
They have tied themselves in knots trying to reveal the many possible influences on a very easily influenced metric to explain the pause. For a measure that actually tells us nearly stuff-all about the short term progress of global warming, that is the basis for wasting a hell of a lot of time and it is guaranteed to sow further confusion around the science.
Meanwhile ocean heat content, the best metric by far, has a graph that looks like the side of a mountain.
Why breaking the frame in science communications can be a winner
Media communications people should have been across this from day one but it seems many were missing in action for far too long.
The point is, we have to stop the natural tendency for scientists to answer every question put to them. Some even try to answer questions outside of their area of expertise (oh boy, now that's another story for another day).
What the climate scientists should have done and what they should have been advised to do is to reset the frame of the question from day one.
When reporters came to climate scientists and asked about a pause in global warming because of a halt in the rise of global average temperatures, the scientist should have been instructed to immediately break that frame once the communications experts saw where it was taking them.
This is what they should have said: "Actually, global warming hasn't stopped and global average temperatures are not the best measure of climate change and here is why...."
From that moment on we are in a win/win for the scientist and the science.
Here is the beauty of breaking a frame, of questioning the question itself:
- You immediately create controversy by challenging the original frame. It's likely the person who set that frame doesn't know the science as well as they should. A question will quickly return to that person challenging their frame and perhaps even their expertise.
- If you set a new frame, the reporter has to explain that new frame at some point in the article. As a result you not only challenge the frame but more of the report is spent describing your scientist, their work, their expertise and the new frame.
- If this new frame is supported and echoed by others in the field - because it is so bleedingly obvious - the false frame quickly disappears. For climate scientists that approach would have saved a decade of batting away the same rubbish questions about global average temperatures.
Reset the thought processes of your experts
For too long, scientists and other experts have responded to the question, without examining the validity of the question itself.
We need to alert all our science communicators to this because this framing of science by politicians, lobby groups and even other scientists for motives beyond the science is appearing more and more often.
Science is most under attack when it delivers news that will impact areas where huge amounts of money are involved or its findings undermine powerful belief systems.
If we are to avoid finding science being framed and undermined, we need to look past the answers and examine the questions we are asked. Scientists need to be alert to recognise questions that don't make sense. They then need to respond to the foundations of the question and not just blithely answer according to the frame they have been presented with.
Communications people will know their spokespeople have got it when they start a sentence with something along the lines of, "Actually, that is probably not the right question..".
As soon as they have uttered that magical phrase your spokesperson is halfway to taking control of the way a story is reported.