Confronting the ‘Paradox of Progress’ (Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media)

A First-Hand Perspective
Google’s Science Communication Fellows

Paul Higgins August 2, 2011

The ‘paradox of progress’ illustrated by climate change prompts a first-hand participant in a recent Google fellowship program to ponder how best to combine scientific and technological advances with improved public understanding for the benefit of society overall.

Scientific and technological advances are creating a challenging paradox for society, a paradox of progress.

Advances in the sciences and technical fields provide our society with tremendous capacity to overcome the numerous challenges we face. But those challenges in many cases are driven by the rapidly expanding scale of human activities, which are made possible in the first place by advances in science and technology.

Circumventing this paradox of progress — reaping the benefits that science and technology bring us, while avoiding the unintended negative consequences — will depend on using those advances more effectively throughout all of society.

Climate change illustrates the paradox of progress extremely well. The social and technological advances that powered the Industrial Revolution vastly improve our quality of life and well-being, but also drive our global disruption of the climate system. All the while, scientific and technological advances help us understand the causes, consequences, and potential risk management solutions to climate change.

It’s a serious concern that these massive advances in scientific knowledge have had little impact on public understanding of climate science, its implications, or society’s risk management efforts.

Given the importance of circumventing the paradox of progress, for climate change and more broadly, I was pleased to learn that Google was initiating a Science Communication Fellowship Program and thrilled to be named a member of the inaugural class of 21 fellows. Still, the question, to me, is this: Can the combination of the technological capabilities of one of the world’s leading IT companies and the expertise of the scientific community transform scientific communication for climate change and, more broadly, for all socially-relevant scientific disciplines?

The fellowship program centered on a workshop held in June at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. There were, in my view, three specific goals of the workshop and the fellowship:

– to promote collaboration among the fellows;

– to develop transformative project ideas that could harness new media and information technology (IT) for more effective communication of the science of climate change; and

– to help develop communication approaches that would be broadly and generally transferable to other scientific disciplines.

The workshop included perspectives from outside experts, presentations from Googlers (the internal moniker for Google staff) on new media and advances in IT, and brainstorming activities designed to generate new ideas.

The Googlers’ presentations were impressive, perhaps even a little daunting. They brought home, in a way I hadn’t realized before (despite my heavy reliance on new technology), how rapidly the IT world is advancing and how much potential IT has to transform society. At times, seeing what these Googlers could do with information technology left me questioning what was left for me to contribute. Fortunately, the brainstorming provided an answer.

I had gone to Google with two ideas for climate science communication and I had two more ideas while there. That seemed fairly standard among the fellows so by the end we were awash in new, interesting, and potentially transformative ideas for communicating climate science.

Of course, with so many ideas and a need to winnow them to a tractable number of actual project proposals, everyone was bound to see some of their favorite ideas end up forlorn and abandoned on the bottom of a white board. I had two ideas that I was sorry to see stall during the vetting but that I intend to pursue separately nonetheless. (At this stage it is appropriate and consistent with the workshop protocol, in my view, to discuss only those ideas that were both my own and that are not moving forward formally within the fellowship program).

The first is a multi-media show featuring leading climate experts. Each show will follow a one-on-one interview format and will showcase the expert’s knowledge and understanding. The discussion will explore what the expert does, why their work is important, what the current state of knowledge is (what is known and understood and with what level of confidence), what key questions remain unresolved or contentious, and the broader implications of their work to society.

The show would meet three critical needs: 1) it would help educate the public about climate change; 2) it would provide a new venue for rapid responses to important events (e.g., ground-breaking research findings and public controversies and misunderstandings), and 3) it would help develop the communication skills of climate experts.

The second idea involves development of an interactive game that would give users a chance to assess and manage climate change risks for themselves. Subjective preferences have major implications, good and bad, for policy choices, and this tool could help reveal and encourage reflection over those opinions. Are you risk averse? If so, how do you balance your risk aversion between policy choices that are too aggressive (e.g., that risk excessive increases in energy and transportation prices) or too weak (i.e., that risk disruption of key life-support services)? How do your answers change as you learn more about the nature of the risk management problem (i.e., with additional information from the physical, natural, and social sciences)?

Breakthroughs in Science and Public Understanding

Over the next few weeks, the 21 fellows will refine project ideas and submit proposals to Google for possible seed funding. Whether these ideas can ultimately transform science communication will take time to determine. Regardless, the process of generating new ideas during the workshop was profoundly successful. That’s a good first step because resolving the paradox of progress will depend on achieving breakthroughs not only in science but also in how society uses the knowledge and understanding that results.

With more effective use of scientific knowledge and understanding, we can make choices with the greatest chance to benefit society overall. So far the massive advances in scientific understanding of climate change appear to have little impact on public understanding of climate science, its implications, or society’s risk management efforts. But perhaps Google’s Science Communication Fellowship Program over time can do for civic engagement of science what Google has done for information technology.

Championing Ideas … Your Own and Those of Others

The combination of talks and brainstorming made for an invigorating three days but also a grueling workshop experience. By the end of each day, many participants were clearly spent and more than a little confused about best paths forward. That is what happens when people’s horizons are expanding and they are confronting new challenges.

Fortunately, by the following morning, I had integrated what I’d learned the day before and found what I thought would be a good path forward.

For me, the most critical breakthrough was to recognize and accommodate two complementary approaches: 1) to champion the idea(s) that I thought most promising, regardless of whether others at the workshop liked my vision or not; and 2) to help, however possible, champions of other ideas successfully implement their visions.

This two-pronged approach for me captures the nature of scientific pursuit at its best. Science relies on personal autonomy, individual incentives, and unique contributions, but also depends on collaboration and cooperation to help make everyone’s work more effective. The first component reflects the importance of individual insight and ability, the second the importance of staying focused on broader, shared goals: the pursuit of knowledge and understanding in the case of scientific research, increased public understanding in the case of science communication.

Paul Higgins is the Associate Director of the American Meteorological Society’s Policy Program in Washington, D.C.