Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Most Challenging Audience: The Public

Tomorrow evening I will deliver a lecture in The University Lecture Series on Global Climate Change at the University of Kansas. My talk - "Climate Change and the Changing Legal Climate" - will focus on the awkward, and sometimes openly hostile, interaction between law and science in guiding climate change policy. However, this lecture will be very different from teaching my students in class or presenting a paper to my colleagues at a conference. It will be much more challenging and take a lot more preparation, because I'll be addressing the toughest audience of all: the public.

Is the public really so tough? Yes, I think it is. My students are a captive audience, their grades dependent, at least in part, on attending my classes. At conferences, my colleagues usually have considerable expertise in the subject matter I present. Members of the public, by stark contrast, have neither obligation nor expertise. They want to learn something new, interesting, and perhaps even important, and most of them will have significant experience in neither law nor science. Instead, they will judge my talk against the opportunity cost of not watching Wife Swap, Deal or No Deal, or America's Next Top Model. Or, much worse, they will compare my presentation on such crowd-pleasing legal and scientific issues as climatic forcing, albedo, cap and trade, intergenerational equity, the FCC, the IPCC, COPs, and MOPs with that other climate change guy - the one with the Oscar-winning movie, the Nobel Prize, and the compellingly tragic near-Presidential backstory. Unless I'm careful in what and how I present, the audience may think to itself "I knew Al Gore. I, like most people, voted for Al Gore. Professor Torrance is no Al Gore."

So, I'm working hard on a presentation that tries not only to bridge science and law, two fields as disparate as C.P. Snow's Two Cultures, but simultaneously to weave together my esoteric academic interests in clean development mechanisms and oceanic iron fertilization with the quite different, but equally legitimate, interests of the public to learn something new, interesting, and compelling without being pandered to or patronized. Wish me luck. The inconvenient truth is that the public may be the most discriminating audience of all since its members are under no obligation to attend, their expectations of an hour well-spent are impossibly high, and, since I teach at a public law school, they pay my salary. Wish me luck. At least I've got an easier job than the previous speaker on global climate change, Australian author Tim Flannery. He had mission impossible: speaking at KU while everyone was cheering the Jayhawks win the NCAA championship in spectacular fashion. Now that's a challenging climate.

Cross-posted from Prawfsblawg.

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