New Job Assignment for Climate Scientists: Better Communications with Public, Media

Yale forum logo Lisa Palmer analyzes the growing trend of climate skepticism particularly around the issue of scientific consensus. Palmer suggests that some scientists are using this occurrence to push for better communication of climate issues to the public. Despite some interest from the scientific community on being better messengers, there remains a group that believes it isn't a scientist's job to translate the issues.

Posted Mar. 30, 2010
By Lisa Palmer, The Yale Forum on Climate & the Media

Climate science can be about as complex as it gets, so it’s not
surprising that the public at large is often confused about the subject.

Even with broad international scientific agreement on much of the
evidence surrounding anthropogenic climate change, public concern has
dropped sharply in the past two years – leading some to lament that
public concern has decreased while scientific evidence has increased.

Researchers at Yale and George Mason universities (PDF), at Gallup, and at other polling
organizations all point to findings of less public concern over climate
change and its impacts, and to more skepticism about what many consider a
scientific consensus. Add to the turmoil resulting from last fall’s
unauthorized release ( “stolen” is the term preferred by those
scientists involved ) of some scientists’ e-mails a confusing error in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change Fourth Assessment Report, and some in the public seem ready to
believe virtually any contrarian argument.

But it’s not too early to ask if the current confusion in the end
might amount to a Eureka! moment for science communication.

To better inform policymakers, the media, and the public to important
climate science findings – and to head-off unreliable claims lacking in
scientific evidence – some scientists are expressing new interest in
learning to communicate more effectively about their work. Workshops,
lectures, and webinars offered by professional organizations, such as
the American Association for the Advancement of Science
and by the National Science Foundation, are on the rise.

Coverage Sad for Science … Dangerous for Democracy

Stanford University’s Stephen H. Schneider long has been a vocal and
committed advocate for the need for scientists to better communicate
with the media, public, and policymakers about their work.

“In the last few weeks, climate coverage has been outrageous,” said
Schneider in a recent telephone interview. “It was the warmest January
since records have been kept. Yet, the skeptics are exploiting bits of
information out of context in order to support an ideology; and they are
counting on the media, who has fired their specialists, to give them
equal billing.”

“It is not just sad for climate,” Schneider said, “but I believe it
to be dangerous for democracy.”

The author of Science as a Contact Sport (National
Geographic
, 2009), Schneider frequently urges climate scientists to
take a proactive approach with the public and the media. “Many
scientists run from the process …. We have an obligation to tell people
what we know and tell it well,” he said.

“If people are going to distort it, then scientists should get out
there and duke it out with them and insist on the correct framing.
However, most scientists are not good at that.”

The solution? Schneider says he believes scientists must make greater
efforts to explain their work in simple terms, avoid jargon, and
develop effective metaphors to describe their work. His aggressiveness
on the issue and his sometimes in-your-face debating style have made him
a favorite target for those opposing mainstream climate science
evidence.

“People must be informed on how to send value signals to elected
officials. If they are completely confused about everything, because the
scientists are inarticulate and bury their leads, and the media believe
that all claimants of truth are equally credible, then it puts an
unbelievable burden on the public to look everything up. Who’s going to
do that?” Schneider said.

Two years ago the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and
Technology began teaming with the National Science Foundation to create
new resources for scientists, including in-person professional
workshops, on the art of communication.

Through 12 regional workshops and two online webinars, 983 scientists
and engineers have been trained, and more remain on waiting lists. More
than 70 percent of the participants are considered early-career
scientists.

Scientists ‘Think It is Beneath Them’

Still, for every scientist trained in communications, dozens more
aren’t interested in joining the ruckus.

“There is good evidence coming out of the Royal Society to suggest
that it is not as easy as it should be to communicate science,” said
Ginger Pinholster, director of the AAAS Office of Public Programs, in a
telephone interview. “The punch line to the Royal Society survey two
years ago was, scientists don’t like to do this. They think it is
beneath them.”

Pinholster makes it clear that AAAS is not interested in having
scientists make policy. “We hope scientists will be able to provide
authoritative unbiased science and technology information to guide the
people who have been elected to make policy,” Pinholster said.

So, why is it important for scientists to inform public policy,
anyway? “If not us, who?” asks Eugenie Scott, executive director of the
National Center for Science Education.

“Who should be informing the decisions of policymakers if not
scientists?,” Scott asked in a phone interview. “Scientists are the ones
who have the accurate information about what is happening. We want
decisions based on accurate information.”

Scott cautions scientists newly engaged in communications with
non-scientific audiences about problems they likely will face when
working with policymakers.

“Scientists don’t realize they are stepping from the realm of
academia into the realm of politics, and it is a very different
universe. You may be right, but that doesn’t mean you are listened to,”
said Scott.

Not wanting to discourage scientists from playing their rightful role
in policy considerations, Scott nonetheless urges them to realize they
need to effectively frame their messages. “What does the decisionmaker
or policymaker want or need? How can your information help to accomplish
that?” she said, adding that the rule of the day is “simplify.”

“Most of the time when you are communicating with policymakers you
are doing it in written form. You better have your testimony in written
form, the auditory form is quickly forgotten,” she said. She recommends
that scientists dealing with policymakers have available a one-page
overview with bulleted points, with an appendix for more information.
“Make those bullets crystal clear,” she urges.

Despite having more climate scientists learning ways to communicate
effectively to the media and to policymakers, many have spent the last,
and in particular the past several months – wringing their hands on how
best to defend their body of scientific work against what they consider
unwarranted, and sometimes personal, condemnations.

Schneider says some of the responsibility undoubtedly lies with
reporters and editors: By using traditional journalistic rules of
providing “balance” on technical subjects, some in the media persist in
“misrepresenting the nature of knowledge, and dangerously so,” Schneider
said.

“I’d like it if they brought journalists who are specialists back,”
he said, pointing to thinning of newsroom staffs and expertise in a
withering journalism economic climate. “I would like it if they had
reporters who know the north end of a south bound horse with regard to
technically complicated material.”

Many in the media world might also share that hope. But in the
current economic climate, and amidst declining advertising and
circulation revenues for many mainstream news organizations, it’s not
clear how realistic those hopes might be.

Author
Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and writes for
magazines, newspapers, and online media. She studied climate change as a
fellow at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the
University of Maryland. (E-mail: lisa@yaleclimatemediaforum.org)

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