Shifting Baselines

It doesn’t get any better than this. My old buddy Ove Hoegh-Guldberg in Australia is the lead author on a paper in Science this past week that basically says we can see the end for coral reefs and its not far away. It says, in relatively simple language, here is the threshold (atmospheric CO2 level of 500 ppm) beyond which coral reefs will vanish, and here’s when it looks like we’re going to cross that threshold (by the end of the century) given current trends.

Very lucid. No hesitating, qualifying, hedging. Just a simple, bold statement. Much like when the late Ram Myers said in 2003 that less than 10 percent of the large fish remain in the sea. In both cases we have major scientists writing major papers in major journals making major simplifications. And THAT is what makes for effective, powerful, important science communication to the masses.

Myers was savaged by the ankle-biters who came along after him and chewed away at the fact that some of the specifics of what he had to say weren’t accurate. Hoegh Guldberg already has his army of detractors who have called him an alarmist for years (though he sounds a lot less like an alarmist and more like a “fact-ist” after this paper).

But the bottom line is that in the midst of all the chaos of the excessively information-heavy communication of science, it is essential that individuals like these manage to stand up and SIMPLIFY the overall patterns for everyone. Jeremy Jackson did this in 2001 with his Science paper about appreciating the history of collapsing marine ecosystems. Daniel Pauly has done it repeatedly for world fisheries. Now Hoegh-Guldberg for coral reefs. The paper is going to cast a long, tall shadow for the next few years, just as the Myers, Jackson and Pauly papers have.

And if one of the great and mighty foundations, who think they are the beacons of wisdom with the leadership they are afforded by laying the path of financial crumbs ahead of scientists, were to wake up and appreciate all this, they would establish a major prize for it. They could call it an award for “scientific simplification in the public interest,” to be given to scientists who are brave enough to face the slings and arrows of the ankle-biters in the interest of helping move forward the broader public understanding of what the hell is going on with the planet.

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Coral reefs: now you see ‘em, by the end of the century you won’t.

Comments

  1. #1 Jon Rusho
    December 17, 2007

    To paraphrase Barbie: Science is hard.
    Especially if we make it hard to comprehend. Simplified communication to get the point across to the masses seems to be much more effective. Face it–people have the attention span of a gnat. We have to communicate simply & quickly to get a point across, or we’ve lost that small bit of attention.

    Not to get off-topic here, but perhaps this also plays into the Evo/ID issue.
    Simple: God made it.

    Science: millions of years of evolution, natural selection, adaptations to the environment, charts, graphs, microscopes, etc.

  2. #2 Randy Olson
    December 17, 2007

    Exactly. In fact, that’s what my buddy Mark Patterson offers up from the poker table at the end of “Flock of Dodos.” He says, “People want a simple story, and intelligent design offers this.”

    It’s one of the basic elements of mass communication — those with a simpler story have an automatic advantage. The question is whether the science world can cope with this constraint.

    And I should have added in my rant the guy who wins the award for greatest job of simplifying environmental science by a non-scientist. Al Gore.

  3. #3 Jonathan
    December 17, 2007

    Jennifer, wow, that statement, “…the leadership they are afforded by laying the path of financial crumbs ahead of scientists…” is fantastic!

    The image of crumbs has always upset me as a metaphor for poverty and need. I remember being a child, and in my family’s Anglican church, hearing “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table” in the prayers and being struck by the pathos of it. Great choice of words, and accurate depiction of science funding these days. :(

  4. #4 Jennifer L. Jacquet
    December 17, 2007

    I’m afraid I can take no credit for the ‘crumbs’ statement–that’s all Randy Olson!

  5. #5 Jonathan
    December 17, 2007

    Kudos to Randy then :)

  6. #6 Erik Hoffner
    December 18, 2007

    Randy, which climate scientist(s) would deserve the “simple” award?

    Erik
    Orion Grassroots Network

  7. #7 Randy Olson
    December 18, 2007

    Erik – I don’t know the field well enough to say, but Al Gore already has deservedly collected his awards for this. He’s the textbook example. HIs movie is full of minor inaccuracies and imprecision, but the major climate scientists have all said, despite the small scale criticisms, he did a good job of simplifying and conveying the big picture with what has to be called the most important piece of environmental media in history (probably more important than “Silent Spring”).

    As for climate scientists deserving such an award, I’m sure the folks at realclimate.org would be able to tell you exactly who has shown such leadership. And again, its not just the scientists who have cranked out mountains of data. It’s the ones who are bold enough to simplify it for the public. Most scientist are afraid to do this. It’s not easy.