by Judith Curry
Communicating climate science to the public is a substantial challenge, owing to the complexity of the subject, its potential socioeconomic consequences, and the politicization of the issue.
The communication challenge is further complicated by the broad range of scientific backgrounds among the people to which the communications are directed, ranging from people who pay little attention to science and pick up what they know from talk radio to technically educated and scientifically literate people that regularly keep up with scientific developments.
When I first mentioned the issue of climate science needing more effective communications strategies in my building trust essay, I received a lot of pushback on this at WUWT; they don’t want a better way to spin, frame, package the same (seemingly dubious) information, which wasn’t the point I was trying to make but that is how it got interpreted.
Several months ago, I participated in a group interview/discussion on communicating climate science that was sponsored by the Nature Conservancy (Part I, Part II). Among the participants was Randy Olson, proprietor of The Benshi blog, and author of the book Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style (I haven’t read the book). While we disagreed on many things in the interview, he did make one point that I have been pondering:
Scientists carry the big stick in mass communications. They speak with a voice of authority, and if they can be properly used and coached, they are the voice that the public will respond to . . . we need the right scientists as spokespersons.
Al Gore is a very effective communicator, but as a politician he has become a polarizing figure on the subject of climate change. A number of scientists associated with advocacy groups or think tanks have very good communications skills and are adept as pundits in the sound bite environment of TV news (e.g. Joe Romm and Pat Michaels), but there are concerns about their objectivity. But Randy Olson’s argument has definitely made me ponder the importance of the role of scientists that are actively conducting research on this topic.
A current post at Collide-a-Scape discusses communicating climate science to the public. In addition to framing and messaging, the importance of narrative is discussed, including roles for villains, victims and heroes. Whoa. Just when I was being convinced by Randy Olson’s argument, now it seems that scientists should get involved in a narrative that includes villains and heroes. Well the episode with CRU emails certainly speaks to the public interest in the villains, victims and heroes narrative. Exactly who are the heroes, victims and villains in this episode is still being debated, although Steve McIntyre seems to be in ascendance as the hero. Climate science and scientists don’t need any more hero and villain narratives, in my opinion.
So, what should the role of scientists be in the public communication of climate science? How can a scientist be most effective in this arena without jeopardy to their scientific reputation?
I’m convinced that scientists have an important role to play in the public communication of science, in venues ranging from congressional testimony and discussions with policy makers to public lectures to interviews to appearances in science videos and television. And I’m not talking about blogs or print journalism here, but communication that includes actual physical presence (or the image thereof).
Public communication of the general IPCC consensus by scientists has recently lost two key figures: Steve Schneider (owing to his untimely passing) and Jim Hansen (becoming an activist and landing in jail doesn’t help your credibility with the public).
In my Mixing Scientists and Politics article, I wrote:
For a scientist whose reputation is largely invested in peer-reviewed publications and the citations thereof, there is little professional payoff for getting involved in debates that mix science and politics. Scientists becoming involved in policy debates and with the media may put their scientific reputations at risk in this process. Many scientists would rather remain above the fray and not get involved in this process.
Steve Schneider has made an eloquent case for active involvement of scientists in his essay on Mediarology. Two research scientists have made career changes to focus on public communication: Randy Olson and Heidi Cullen (video), both of whom are excellent communicators. However, this doesn’t fill the need for active research scientists to engage with the public.
So given a small population of scientists that are actually willing to engage in this arena, what are the qualities that characterize an effective communicator on this topic? Probably a combination of the following (I would be interested in Randy Olson’s take on this): strong scientific credentials and employed at a leading university or government laboratory, gravitas combined with a congenial personality, strong verbal communication skills, and mastery of the broad range of issues associated with climate change. Sort of a Walter Cronkite persona, with deep knowledge and expertise on the subject of climate change.
Well the IPCC critics/skeptics have their Walter Cronkite equivalent in Richard Lindzen (video). Some prominent research scientists that support the IPCC consensus view that been engaging in public communication include:
- Susan Solomon (video)
- William Chameides (video)
- Gavin Schmidt (video)
- Kerry Emanuel (video)
- Kevin Trenberth (video)
- others? (this list is admittedly U.S. centric)
And that’s the way it is. Different personalities and styles; who do you find effective? Personally I prefer to have a number of different voices with a spectrum of perspectives. Encouraging more climate researchers to improve their speaking and rhetorical skills would be beneficial not only in public communication, but would arguably improve classroom teaching effectiveness also.
A further advantage to the individual scientist is that engaging with the public is like continually taking a pop quiz on a diverse range of topics in climate change. Such an environment requires scientists to be broadly conversant with the whole range of topics surrounding climate change and to keep up-to-date with the latest research and news in these areas, which is generally a good thing also. Blogging REALLY forces a scientist to be knowledgable and conversant in this way.
One disadvantage is the time that public outreach and communication takes from research. But if your employer is a university or government funded institution, public outreach and communication is probably part of your job. The stigma associated with public communication of science (i.e. the Carl Sagan effect) is probably no longer an issue, at least in the climate field. The biggest concern is potential damage to a scientist’s reputation associated with misstatements or statements that the scientist subsequently regrets, and such incidents are most likely to occur in a live radio or television interview environment. I steer clear of such interviews, after learning the hard way that I am just not very effective in this medium.
I think that blogging is a great way for researchers to test the waters of communicating with the public; I hope that some will choose to test the waters at Climate Etc.
I’m interested in hearing to what extent you think the actual physical presence and speech by climate researchers is important in public communication (as opposed to articles and books that scientists write) and whether communication by scientists involved with advocacy groups is a useful substitute here (they tend to have better communication skills than research scientists). Also, for those of you that are research scientists, what is your take on the pros and cons of engaging in public outreach?
Note: on this thread, focus your comments on the actual communication process. The next thread is on the content of what is actually being communicated and how it is framed, which I will argue is a much greater challenge than the persona of the communicator. I hope to have this second thread up Friday morning, with the first climate modeling post on Monday.