Mass communication is not a science. How many times do I have to say this? The more you think it is — or even let yourself talk about the science side of it without allocating EQUAL energy to the art side of it, the more you are doomed to take it deeper into the hole of boredom and irrelevance. Such is the state of climate science communication by the large science and environmental organizations who have bought into the magic bullet of metrics and messaging.

AND FURTHERMORE … eh, hem (a colleague at NASA just pointed this out to me) … look at this quote: “Recent advances in behavioral and decision science also tell us that emotion is an integral part of our thinking, perceptions, and behavior, and can be essential for making well-judged decisions.”

“RECENT ADVANCES”??? Social scientists think this is some sort of recent breakthrough — that humans are not robots? The quote comes from a paper in the first volume of the new Nature Climate journal. As my colleague said, “What rock did these guys crawl out from under? Give me a break all you social scientists and quit living up to your stereotype.”


THINKINESS: One more time … What do we get when we only use the brain?


Last week a paper in the new journal Nature Climate Change titled, “The Role of Social and Decision Sciences in Communicating Uncertain Climate Risks” (blech, pahtooey), opened by saying, “Given its critical importance, public understanding of climate science deserves the strongest possible communications science.”

No, it doesn’t. Why don’t you read my book? Why don’t you find out what happens when you get so overly caught up in the information of communication that nobody in the world wants to listen to you? I’m gonna start calling this “The Nerd Loop” — where cerebral people think the solutions to communication lie in being more cerebral. I’m sorry, but in general, the “thinkier” you get, the tinier your audience.

In response to this, I’m sure science people are saying, “Yeah, but the public still deserves the strongest possible communication science.” Sorry, but that’s the wrong approach. The public deserves “the best possible communication,” part of which is science — but good communicators are always quick to point out the science is only a part of it. Too many people get caught up in thinking the science of it is EVERYTHING. Wrong.

Just read the anecdote in my book about writing your slogan on Janet Jackson’s boob — where’s the science in that?


Here’s another way to look at it. Imagine you go to a show at an art gallery titled, “Perfect Art for the Public,” which features a bunch of paintings by an artist. You walk around, taking in the paintings, and find yourself unmoved until you finally encounter the artist who proudly tells you of his “technique.” He says, “I did an enormous poll of 10,000 art lovers asking them their favorite color, favorite shape, favorite scenery and 97 other variables. My paintings reflect the polling results. I’m giving the public the art they want.”

And yet, despite all his data, for some reason nobody is buying his “art.”


“Read my book” is a terrible refrain for an author. But at some point, there’s little more I can say, and I really don’t care if you scoff to yourself, “Oh, there he is again, doing the old self-promotion thing.” You don’t have to buy the book. I’m sure there’s a .pdf copy on-line you can snag. Just see if you can absorb the basic message — that communication is part science, part art. And that there’s a down side to “getting too caught up in your head,” if you’re trying to communicate with the non-cerebral public.

This is the entire lesson of my journey from scientist to filmmaker. I came to Hollywood certain I could read and think my way into making great films. It’s 17 years later. The one thing I learned from my viciously abusive acting teacher, AND from magician Ricky Jay on “60 Minutes” last year (I usually open my talks these days by showing the clip of him saying the easiest audience to fool with sleight of hand magic would be “a group of scientists, preferably Nobel Prize winners”) is that you can’t always think your way out of problems. Effective mass communication just isn’t that simple. And yet I find myself listening to countless “experts” in science communication going on and on about polling data and what it shows us for how to “craft” the message. Here’s what I have to say about that …


One of my favorite guys in film school at U.S.C. was John Syrjamaki who was head of overseeing the logistics of all student films. He taught me what the term, “buffing a turd,” means. He used it in trying to get students to give up on their hopelessly amateur films that were the inevitable result of making “student films.” He would see students who were in the final stages of completing a film that features a bad script, bad acting, bad camera work, bad audio, basically overall bad production, and yet there the student was, cutting and recutting a certain scene, trying to get “the right pacing,” as if that would somehow bring the turd to life. He told me one day, “It’s my job to finally get the student to realize he’s just buffing a turd — you can make it shiny, but it’s still going to be a turd — no point in expending more energy. You’re done.”

Same thing for most of this climate communication stuff. Most of it is so ill-conceived and limited in voice that it’s the same dynamic. Let me give you an example.

Two weeks ago I was at event where they held the standard workshop on communicating climate science to the general public (and they were clear about this — their almighty audience was “the general public”). The organizers pleaded with me to attend the session. I stepped into the back of the room for about 20 painful, frustrating minutes, until I finally had to leave before exploding and making (more) enemies.

The speaker, who was clearly a very, very nice person with enormously wonderful intentions, was old, boring, and utterly clueless about today’s mass communication environment. Eventually what was shown were three clips of “excellent spokespersons” for communicating climate science to the public. One of them was the C.E.O. of one of the largest environmental groups on the planet. He was the standard L.L. Bean khakis-wearing, business class-traveling, privileged, preppy white guy, telling us about how grim our future is because of climate change. And all I could think of was a couple video clips I had shown the day before.

I had given my talk which includes a section on the importance of the “voice” of the messenger, based on the 4th chapter of my book, “Don’t Be So Unlikeable.” To make the point I showed portions of two BP commercials from last year about the Gulf oil spill. The first one is Tony Hayward, C.E.O. of BP and with a foreign accent that automatically conveys condescension. The second one, produced after their communications folks realized they had blown their mass communications, is a homeboy from the Gulf coast with a thick suthern drawl, pronouncing “oil” as “all.” First guy terrible, second guy okay. It’s not frickin’ rocket science. People listen to voices they like.

So there I was in the back of the room thinking to myself, “Should I raise my hand and ask, ‘If you’re gonna use that enviro C.E.O., why don’t you go the full distance and get Tony Hayward?'” No one would have appreciated it.

And that’s when I excused myself, quietly apologized to the organizers out in the lobby, got in my car and left.


Let’s call it, “The Panacea Syndrome.” I didn’t use this term in my book, but I talked about the basic problem when you look at the history of educational technology. Larry Cuban has detailed it in a number of books — the idea that anyone who invests a lot of money into something is naturally going to promote it as a panacea — whether it’s the development of a piece of educational software or establishing a huge polling data base. People tend to be salesmen for what they’ve created. It’s only natural.

Today it is EVERYWHERE. Nobody wants to do any work. Everyone wants techno-fixes, in all forms (not the least of which are the global warming techo-fixers versus the grim reapers who say we need to reduce our consumption). Here’s a few examples.

I took part in an NIH workshop last fall on obesity intervention. Guess what — the federal government is eager to fund research on drugs and treatment that might “cure” obesity, but they have little interest in supporting work on how to get people to change their behavior to simply avoid over-eating. I listened to amazing talks — one guy told about how just the layout of the school lunch counter makes a difference — if you put the ice cream further back on the counter so the kids have to reach for it, they end up eating a whole lot less ice cream.

All sorts of simple behavioral things. But the government doesn’t want to fund this. They’d much prefer to pay for research to find a magic drug that will cause obese people to shed pounds without having to worry about diet or exercise or a surgical procedure to do the same. This is how our society thinks nowadays.

You want to see one of the most pathetic examples — look at the NY Times front page story about the 68 yr old psychiatrist they profiled as representative of today’s mental health practices. The guy no longer does his hour-long talk therapy sessions, but instead has broken the hours into four 15 minute visits with each patient quickly listing their symptoms, then, instead of asking them to do work and actually think and talk about their problems, he just writes them prescriptions for anti-depression, anti-anxiety, anti-anything drugs. He knows the talk therapy was better. The government knows this. Everybody knows this, but the new way is easier.

Lazy, lazy, stoopid society. Everyone in search of the magic bullet. Don’t give me any work to do — just give me a pill that fixes it all instantly. And by the way, here is a GREAT essay along the same lines by filmmaker Eric Steel who made the unsettling documentary “The Bridge,” about suicide jumpers on the Golden Gate Bridge.


Into this landscape falls the idea of messaging/framing. Yes, it’s valuable and important to give thought to knowing your audience — that’s the essence of the “likable voice” element I just talked about. But it’s not like there is a guarantee that this stuff will lead to success. Somehow this fallacy has been propagated by people like Frank Luntz and George Lakoff — that there are magic bullets out there in the form of words and slogans and metaphors.

I began seeing this with my movie, “Flock of Dodos,” where I talk about the anti-evolutionists’ powerful slogan, “Teach the Controversy.” In the movie I asked an evolutionist if there’s an equal and opposite slogan for evolutionists. There isn’t. But that doesn’t stop people in the audience during the post-screening Q&A’s from pushing further — believing there is indeed such a magical slogan, we just haven’t found it yet. Yeah. Well, maybe. But in the meanwhile, don’t you think it’s a good idea to get to work on other approaches as you wait for the magic bullet to appear?

It’s become the refuge of people with no natural instincts on how human beings work. I saw it twelve years ago when I did my short film, “Talking Science.” I interviewed at least five U.S.C. faculty each from the Cinema School and the Communications School. The Communications faculty knew all the theory behind how to communicate, they just weren’t good communicators. The Cinema faculty knew nothing about theory. They only knew how to make movies that reach inside of people and make things happen — i.e. they knew how to actually communicate.

This guy could get the public interested in climate science if he wanted to. He has the chops. He just doesn’t want to right now. Probably because the people trying to communicate the issue to him are so caught up in their heads they can’t even connect with him.


Let me finish this by using our President as the ultimate example. His 2008 election campaign ended up being the ultimate demonstration of what I’m talking about. On March 18, 2008 he faced the greatest fork in the road of his entire political career — and really one of the most dramatic challenges ever faced by a Presidential candidate in recent memory.

Obama had been tied to controversial remarks made by his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. It became clear the controversy wasn’t going away. And so in a decision that distinguished him from (hate to say it, but it’s literally true) loser Democrats like Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, who shied away from controversies hoping they would go away (Lee Atwater for Dukakis, Swift Boaters for Kerry), Obama showed he had the courage and communications savvy to meet the issue head on.

In what became known as the “A More Perfect Union Speech,” he reached deep inside himself to distance himself from the comments of Wright, but NOT disown the man. Scholars called the speech, “honest,” “stirring,” and “frank.” In an interview Obama said he crafted the speech himself, calling it’s overall tone a “gut decision.” And I think even the right wing respected the fact that he had the guts to take a chance on not disowning Reverent Wright. Conservatives do actually respect courage.

A few things that were NOT said about the speech were that it was, “calculated,” “played to his demographics,” or “had good messaging.” Those are the things that get said after a politician delivers a speech that was clearly put together by his speech writers in conjunction with the pollsters. Obama didn’t do that. He spoke from his heart and his gut. I couldn’t believe the speech when I first heard it — it was so unlike what you expect from a politician. The scandal subsided, and today he’s our President. Case closed.


So there’s too much of the cerebral thing going on with climate communication. I wish I could unleash my old acting teacher on the climate community — boy would they regret having been so cerebral. I was deeply impressed a month ago when I spoke with the three scientists behind the Climate Science Rapid Response Team. They have no money (the money all goes to the big polling projects). They only have passion. Which is what you find at the grassroots level. Which is why I’m such a supporter of such groups.

But these endless, giant “Communicating Climate Science to the Public” workshops and conferences and symposia and blah, blah, blah … they all need to quit buffing their turds. It is a tragic waste of resources. It’s not working. Start over. Do something new. Take some frickin’ chances for Christ sake. Quit doing the same things over and over again. Surprise us. Break into the climate skeptics computers and steal THEIR emails. Something. Anything. Make it interesting, people. Break out of the Nerd Loop.

One Response to “#124) THE NERD LOOP: Why I’m losing interest in communicating climate change”

  1. #301) My Two Books: First was Problem, Second is Solution | The Benshi Says:

    […] into our heads in film school. I’ve done my best to follow it with this new book. With my “nerdloop” essay a couple of years ago I implored the science world to quit moving so much in the cerebral direction […]