by Judith Curry
This past week, two climate scientists have presented different perspectives on communicating climate science: Richard Betts and Gavin Schmidt.
At nature.com, Richard Betts has an article entitled “Widening the Climate Conversation.” From the biosketch at the head of the article:
Richard Betts is Head of Climate Impacts at the Met Office Hadley Centre and a visiting Professor at the Universityof Exeter. He was a lead author on the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report with Working Group 1 (Physical Science Basis) responsible for the assessment of radiative forcing due to land cover change. For the Fifth Assessment Report he is a lead author, assessing impacts on terrestrial ecosystems. Richard was also a lead author on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
But climate science is not a single-issue subject. It is not carried out solely to see whether cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are needed or not. A further and increasingly important issue is to understand the changes and variability we are seeing in order to help us live with the ever-changing weather and climate. Also, of course, it is important simply to increase the sum total of human understanding simply as an end in itself. Like art and music, gaining deeper insights into how the world around us actually works can enrich our lives and bring enjoyment.
Unfortunately, these other aspects of climate science are rarely seen outside of the scientific community, giving a skewed impression of the science. Public discussion of the science mostly focuses on the implications for policy, and also increasingly on attacking or defending the integrity of the science rather than on its intellectual content.
The difficulty comes when those responsible for gathering the evidence feel under attack and respond in a defensive manner themselves. If they perceive themselves as opponents of those challenging the evidence whilst being allies of those defending the evidence, and start behaving accordingly, this only reinforces the perception of bias from the opponents, and positive feedback sets in. Climate scientists have consequently become perceived as being part of the debate on a single policy issue, rather than as just scientists seeking to advance knowledge.
This leads to the risk of loss of trust in scientists as objective advisors. If climate science communication remains focussed on a single policy issue then of course the science can be perceived or presented as being part of the policy and not merely informing it. Despite repeated protestations that the science is objective, the constant framing of it within a narrow policy discussion does nothing to back this up.
What to do about this? I think the only solution is to talk about the science as science, in the context of all its implications and also for its own academic interest – and talk about it to everyone irrespective of their position in the policy debate. This includes talking with sceptics, and not in defensive mode but as scientists willing to talk around the issue. It used to be the received wisdom that climate scientists should not engage with “sceptics” beause, it was said, it only wasted time and gave credibility to arguments that had already been countered many times before. In my view this is no longer a helpful strategy, if it ever was.
Importantly, such discussions need to move on from being anchored in the usual one-dimensional policy debate. Scientists need to be willing to discuss uncertainties, controversies and technical challenges (ie: the interesting bits!) rather than just feeling they need to defend themselves against attack. Only by scientists being clearly seen to operate as scientists will trust be maintained – and this means being seen to explore the issues, challenge each other and not worry about how this will be seen or presented in the mitigation policy debate.
He said he believes that telling people about how scientists work is a key to communicating the science of climate change.
Give us a sense of what’s really happening with climate change on our planet right now.
I think it’s far more important that people get a sense of the science as a work in progress, rather than one particular message or piece of content knowledge getting hammered home.
Most of the science news is concerned with stuff at the cutting edge, stuff at the uncertainty bounds, the edge of what we know. Very few of the stories are telling people what we know quite well. They’re always focused on what the uncertainties are. And that’s because that’s where scientists are focused. But it isn’t necessarily where the public sees the need for information.
So there’s a huge need for the context. What was the process that led to these climate change science stories coming out?
What have you found that works in communicating science to non-scientists?
Telling people about scientists, not just about science. People respond very well to narratives, to stories involving people. Science is not just a dry, computational effort. It is, in fact, one of the greatest, most successful human endeavors that we’ve ever embarked upon.
We can spend a lot of time looking at graphs and talking about equations, but people don’t have a visceral response to equations, unless you actually are a scientist (sometimes.) But people do have a visceral response to images of how glaciers have retreated over the last hundred years. They have a visceral response to changes in landscape. They have a visceral response to seeing scientists at work, from the South Pole to the middle of the Pacific to the top of some mountain somewhere. People empathize with that.
I think that one of the roles for science communicators is really to showcase the depth and breadth of experiences and work that’s going on in all parts of the world, from all kinds of different people, but who are all contributing to the body of work that is climate science.
Do you think people today are more informed or less informed about climate change, compared to, say, five years ago?
It depends very much on where you are in the world and what is it you’re trying to convey. In the last few years in the U.S. the discussion about climate change has become more politicized. That’s made it harder to have serious conversations without people taking it to some whole other level very, very quickly in some quarters.
There has been an unfortunate tendency in a segment of the American political landscape to turn away from what the science is saying. But if you talk to the people who are making decisions and formulating policies, you find that people have a much more nuanced understanding of what’s going on than they did five or ten or fifteen years ago. And I think that’s a very positive sign.
JC comments: I agree 100% with Richard Bett’s assessment of the communication problem. I don’t disagree with anything he says regarding the solution to this problem.
I found Gavin’s interview to be rather surprising, I am seeing an evolution in his perspective on communication. My prior view of what he was doing at RC was to set up the site (and themselves) as arbiters of the correct information (with people like me being purveyors of misinformation).
Trying to change the public image of climate scientists and what the do is definitely needed. The image of Machiavellian emailers is not a desirable one; Richard Alley in a parka on a glacier is a much better image. So this is a welcome development.
I found these statements to be telling:
They’re always focused on what the uncertainties are. And that’s because that’s where scientists are focused. But it isn’t necessarily where the public sees the need for information. . . There has been an unfortunate tendency in a segment of the American political landscape to turn away from what the science is saying.
To me, these statements reflect the main problem in science communication, as outlined by Richard Betts.
The emphasis on eliciting a visceral response from the audience seems to reflect Randy Olson’s influence, who discusses the visceral response thing. I am afraid that visceral response is the new buzzword for sounding an alarm.
But overall, I find Gavin’s apparently evolving view of climate communication to be moving in a positive direction, I hope we can look forward to some profiles of scientists in action over at RC.