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I might be tempted to restate the title as “Hierarchical confusions in intellectual debate” – but then I’ll be accused (again) of using big words.

However, it is my experience that as climate science engages more across communities and disciplines, increasingly the conversations initially miss their targets, and finding convergence requires iteration.   In my dialogues that range from project team discussions all the way up to strategic research planning in international organizations, the conversations invariably stumble when the participants begin talking on different (and unstated) levels of generalization. This tension is compounded when mixing individuals who think in terms of big-picture framing that spans contexts, with others who are more focused on the details of actions and implementation.

Very often the immediate consequence is either irritation where one person thinks “why are they telling me the obvious as if it is something new”, or another person who might feel a sense of inadequacy and wonders “what on earth are they talking about, why do they seem to think that that issue is so important, and how is that relevant here?”

For example: group discussions in scoping a multi-disciplinary task (e.g. a research task, an assessment report, or an institutional research strategy). Some people might start with the specifics of detailed elements as they perceive them from their context, while others begin with high-level framing and defining concept foci.  Certainly some of this is due to personal experiences which frame an individual’s perspective, but there are clearly many more factors such as individual priorities, agendas, ideals, competencies, and more.

Imagine a committee tasked to develop a national 10 year framework for Earth System Science research. The necessary level of thinking is strategic, laying out the scope and intent in the context of priorities and policy. Yet in being fully consultative in the process, there will be those who are brought into the discussion who see the task through the lens of specific actions and personal priorities, and so put forward details of concern and questions without understanding that the discussion needs to take place at a different level. Similarly, but at the other end of the spectrum, it may be that in a specific research project’s discussion one person will be wrestling with the scientific interpretation of a data analysis (as is appropriate to the context) while another may weigh in with broad brush strokes that stoke a debate of misunderstandings.

We all do this to one degree or another (if you think you don’t, your discussions are probably insular).

Nonetheless, the reality is that we all make (hopefully legitimate) assumptions about where other’s are pitching a discussion. Not least of the challenges in doing so is how we subtly hold critical terminology to encompass different breadths of meaning, and so inadvertently mask the true intent of what we say. For example, one person might say “climate services” which evokes an immediate conceptual picture in the listener’s mind about what this means, with a host of attendant memories, experiences, opinions, and even emotions. Although at the core the term may mean the same for all who are in the discussion, the extent of what each person sees as encompassed by the term may become a source for significant contestation until it is properly examined.

What is left unstated may sometimes be more important than what is stated.

Likewise, one person may enter a discussion on an analysis of data, seeking to draw out a robust communicable message for a specific use. Another might approach the same discussion with a view to letting the data catalyze speculative brainstorming and so put forward less robust but exploratory hypotheses about what may be represented. Unless they understand where each other is coming from, one will be disturbed by the broad sweeping statements of the other, who in turn will struggle with the narrow statements of the first.

Contradicting voices are not necessarily right or wrong, it may only be that they have approached at different levels.

As science moves further into cross-community and cross-disciplinary engagements (let alone treading into trans-disciplinarity), this seems to be becoming ever more a source of confusion.  Nowhere is this more apparent than with climate change, where science is under pressure (rightly or wrongly) to provide messages that are not merely plausible, not even just defensible, but actionable, and where different disciplines are required to work in collaboration to achieve these. This demand in some cases may be irrational, unexamined, or faulty, yet it has catalyzed international efforts that promote a needs-driven research, with results that are often inappropriately or naively communicated into contexts where they are misinterpreted, and for which they are not robust or relevant, while the underlying knowledge foundations remain largely untouched.

Time heals: but the pace of life is fast, the user demand an imperative, and time is a luxury few can afford

This same pressure permeates down through the hierarchies of research institutions all the way to the individual scientist. And here rises a choice: to disengage and pursue fundamental science (and have one’s voice largely ignored), or engage and work with the messy pragmatism of compromised ideals, mistaken actions, and unrecognized errors, all in the commendable intention to bring some measure of expertise and marginally help steer a trajectory that would otherwise be driven by the vagaries of transient intentions and personal preferences.

Our research centre, by choice, has positioned itself in a way that maximally exposes us to potential “Hierarchical confusions in intellectual debate”. Externally we present a voice of scientific expertise in climate science that can communicate across scientific and societal boundaries – and while finding an objective measure of that implied capacity is hard, certainly I would argue that we can do this as well as or perhaps even better than some of the leading international research institutions. Internally we have constituted a collaborative team that has a significant diversity of intellectual, disciplinary, and experiential expertise. This is a strength, but at times we also fall foul of the hierarchical confusions in our own intellectual debate until we pause, listen, reflect, and then re-engage.

At the end of the day the challenge is how to engage on the right level with a relevant discussion; to leverage our capacity to inform action, to be a player in this multi-institutional “game” of climate change and variability, where although we might dispute the rules, we engage nonetheless because the outcome is too important to ignore. The alternative is to retreat to the purity of ivory tower idealism.

Now, of course, the final question is: at what level did you engage with the above? Big-picture, detail, or somewhere in between? And what does that do for your conclusion?

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