Adam Bly

Reflections and points of view on science + society

Why We’re Stuck on Climate Change: A Hypothesis

In a new survey of 1.5 million citizens in 193 countries conducted by the United Nations to inform the Post-2015 Millennium Development Goals process, “action taken on climate change” is — alarmingly, notes The Washington Post — the least important global priority (out of 16). One could reasonably conclude that the prevailing climate change narrative — of a pale blue dot in peril — is just not hitting the mark.

And so it is a reasonable strategy for the Senators laudably standing up for climate this week to try a data-rich, scientific narrative to make their case to the American public. “When 97% to 98% of the scientists say something is real they don’t have anything pressing them to say that except the truth,” began Senator Boxer. “We stand with science,” she later added. “Scientists entertain doubt… Deniers cannot in good conscience use the scientific process as evidence that doubt still exists,” implored Senator Schatz. “If we do nothing to stop climate change, scientific models project that there’s a real possibility of sea levels increasing by 4 feet by the end of century,” continued Senator Feinstein. “Science has clearly shown that the planet is warming.” Senator Whitehouse went so far as to elucidate the peer review process.

It’s a compelling — even emboldening — narrative to a scientifically literate audience. Except America is scientifically illiterate.

According to the National Science Foundation’s recently released Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, 80% of Americans do not understand what it means to study something scientifically.

“To be classified as understanding scientific study, the survey respondent had to answer correctly (1) When you read news stories, you see certain sets of words and terms. We are interested in how many people recognize certain kinds of terms. First, some articles refer to the results of a scientific study. When you read or hear the term scientific study, do you have a clear understanding of what it means, a general sense of what it means, or little understanding of what it means? and (2) (If “clear understanding” or “general sense” response) In your own words, could you tell me what it means to study something scientifically? (Formulation of theories/test hypothesis, experiments/control group, or rigorous/systematic comparison).”

(Since 2008, this figure has climbed from 77%.)

As America becomes increasingly science-dependent — the output of science affects us individually and nationally on a daily basis, and the complex nature of national and global concerns requires the tools and methods of science to navigate — this stunning illiteracy threatens our national competitiveness, security, economy, and perhaps most alarmingly, the future of our democracy.

And, tonight, it renders America numb to the profoundly important arguments about climate change being advanced by our elected leaders. How can we pass and enact critical legislation based on scientific evidence when the vast majority of the country does not know what science is, how a scientific conclusion comes to be, or what it implies?

Sadly, we probably can’t. And to make matters worse, our scientific illiteracy renders us impressionable to misinformation about everything — including climate change — imbuing national conversations with deleterious counter-narratives (that appear “scientific” for strategic reasons).

In the interest of our competitiveness, security, economy, and democracy, in the 21st century every single citizen of the United States of America should know what science is. All citizens should be able to apply the scientific method — a majority of the country should have the propensity to do so — and everyone should appreciate science’s limits (that is, for example, the very foundational relationship with truth underlined by Senator Schatz). (And a majority should understand basic scientific knowledge constructs and concepts — what we commonly associate with being “scientifically literate.”)

It is important to underscore that knowing what science is and making decisions solely based on science are not the same goal. This is about raising the tide and assuring the honesty of the public sphere. If as a country we choose to periodically reject scientific evidence or thinking — in lieu of an economic, political, or religious lens, for example — at least we will be on the same page when we do, employing and transparently weighing scientific evidence in our deliberations not debating the merits of scientific evidence.

These goals require sustained, post-partisan leadership. This week’s historic all-night Senate session is an opportunity to put them in motion.

Visiting Fellowship at Harvard

I’m very excited to be joining Harvard Kennedy School this fall as Visiting Senior Fellow in the Program on Science, Technology & Society (in addition to my role at Seed).

I will be focusing on the modernization of science’s place in society, specifically along three dimensions: (i) the narrative for science in society; (ii) science-based advice to government; and (iii) science’s role in global governance.

The rise of “Big Data” and the associated cultural movement will play an important role in my research.

I will be updating this blog more regularly with updates on my research and writing.

I’ve long admired the work of Sheila Jasanoff and the STS program and am very much looking forward to having the time and space to immerse into issues that I care so deeply about.

New Reality Data

From Fareed Zakaria’s excellent essay, Can America Be Fixed?, in Foreign Affairs:

- It used to be thought that developing countries would have high debt loads… and rich countries would have low debt loads. The average debt-to-GDP ratio for developing countries in the G-20 is 35%; for the rich countries in the G-20 it’s over 3x as high.

- US currently spends $4 on citizens over 65 for every $1 it spends on those under 18. A statement that the country values present more than the future.

The Behavior of the Whole

Today the network of relationships linking the human race to itself and to the rest of the biosphere is so complex that all aspects affect all others to an extraordinary degree. Someone should be studying the whole system, however crudely that has to be done, because no gluing together of partial studies of a complex nonlinear system can give a good idea of the behavior of the whole.

Murray Gell-Mann

Galvanizing Universal Understanding of Complexity

I had the honor of being invited to give the opening talk at Ars Electronica and the video has just been posted. In it, I contrast the movement started by Stewart Brand, Bucky Fuller and others in the 60s to produce a picture of Earth and spur collective understanding of the planet’s fragility with what’s needed today: universal understanding of complexity.

Using Open Data to Tackle Complexity

As we begin 2013, I am worried that we do not have the capacity to deal with the mounting complexity in the world. I worry that we are not set up to systematically connect the dots between the inter-connected issues on the global agenda (e.g. climate change, food security, and political unrest) and that therefore these issues will remain unresolved. Our systems of global governance are not designed to see and fix the world this way. I worry that the speed and self-absorption of the modern era is incongruous with how we once knew how to connect the dots (ie. sit and think) and I worry that that we are incapable of seeing the big picture anymore because the forest is now beyond our grasp. If we do not acknowledge this reality and solve for it, I am concerned that ours will be the generation that lost humanity’s grip on the planet.

I wonder, though, if in the open data revolution we might find an alternate, modern path to resolving complexity.

We have collectively lauded the open data movement for increasing government transparency and modernizing civic engagement, and thereby emboldening democracy. And if this is all that comes from this movement, it will have well been worth it! But I wonder if there’s not another, equal, contribution that could come from the plethora of open data – and that’s spurring and enabling us to literally connect the dots (to link previously siloed data)… and in connecting the dots, to help us see and solve the world’s issues holistically.

I imagine us becoming more scientific – more rational and evidence-based – in our policymaking because we have the data to do science: macro-level analyses, systems modeling, network analysis, simulations, etc. We’ll need to first start thinking about what data is missing, ie. which data sets we need to model a particular complex system. And we’ll need to find a way of communicating that seemingly esoteric need to the agency or company that holds the missing link. (And, we’ll still need to find way of sitting down with all our data to just think!)

Over the past few weeks I’ve met with leaders in the homelessness and sustainability spaces who have a newfound appreciation for the complexity of their systems and are looking to amass seemingly unrelated open data to arrive at a more systemic understanding and to produce truer models. I could imagine NGOs, companies, and global institutions forging new partnership models based on data supply and demand in the near future.

Open data might help us tackle the world’s complexity.

A new model for global decision-making

I have been thinking a lot lately about how Big Data, complex systems, data science, and data visualization combine to forge a new model for decision-making and policy-making on the world stage. Here’s a working diagram that I’ve drawn up that puts these pieces together.


Big Data is at the bottom of the ‘stack’ — made up of Data Exhaust (the data ‘emitted’ from our use of social media, e.g. Twitter firehose), Open Data (the data being released by governments and NGOs), Industrial Internet (the data from sensors embedded in devices, machines, buildings, etc.), and Online Voting (data that we can collect from projects like Rio+20 Dialogues).

This combined sum of data needs to then be coordinated (humans and machines) and aggregated, parsed, munged, etc. so that science and design can follow.

Data science and complex systems science follow with the objective of surfacing insights from the data, detecting changes and anomalies, developing (predictive) models, and constructing useful algorithms. In parallel and in concert, design helps us to negotiate complexity through data visualization and simulation.  Combined, science and design serve to illuminate the events, patterns, trends, etc. of note and provide us with the knowledge and design framework upon which we can develop business intelligence-type software to guide planning and decision-making.

Thoughts on Rio+20

I’ve just come back from an amazing trip to Brazil for Rio+20 and posted my thoughts on the World Economic Forum Blog.


Welcome to my personal blog and website. I’ll be using this site to post lectures, essays, and op-eds, and for the occasional blog post on current issues in science and society. /AB


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