by Judith Curry
The second installment in Kirk Engelhardt’s series of interviews on climate science communication is with Kevin Trenberth.
I find this interview particularly interesting in context of my recent ‘debate’ with Kevin at the Conference on World Affairs (see blog post Curry vs Trenberth). The ppts for each presentation are linked to on the blog post. I’ve just been informed that there is an audio recording of the entire session, so you can listen along while you look at the ppts. Two very different communication styles and apparent motivations for communicating.
In your view, how has your role in communicating science changed in the past 10 years?
My own role changed radically with “climate-gate” and because of that I decided to get into the fray more. I received hundreds of very abusive and foul language emails in response to one of my emails that went viral. Most climate scientists who publish a visible and important paper get some abusive emails these days, and it turns off many of my colleagues who retreat into the ivory tower. My own obligation to go public more comes from the climate-gate experience, and because I have the breadth to be able to answer all questions in some way, or refer the query to others. Experience counts.
Do you think it’s important for scientists and other researchers to be directly involved in outreach activities? If so, why?
Yes, but most don’t for reasons above. It is not easy for a novice to do this well. Quite a few do try but do not have good experiences as they have not taken courses or they don’t have a mentor to help. It is helpful to learn some basic techniques and reframe questions to consist of parts where you can say something useful, and explain why you can’t say something useful in other areas. Many journalists ask the wrong questions, but most are happy as long as you give them something. Knowing what you know and can say in the right way takes some experience. It is also a question of rewards and whether young scientists get credit for outreach. Having more positive feedback from employers and those who benefit would help a lot. But if you have something to say that is relevant to society, then there can be satisfaction in communicating. Expecting rewards, however, is apt to lead one astray.
Have you ever come across scientific misinformation or misconceptions, online or elsewhere, which you addressed directly? How did you do it, and what was the result?
Yes several times. I have published rebuttals in refereed literature, and this has had some effect, but the latency is too great to have major effect: it takes too long. I have written some rebuttals for RealClimate, which are more timely, and some blogs. But I do not have my own blog and so it is more as opportunity arises. I have also spoken up in meetings openly criticizing some others, and I have been crucified in denier web pages, tweets and blogs by these others as a result. I try to ignore these but I am pretty sure they have hurt me in various ways, such as through funding. The best examples are those vs. Roger Pielke Jr.
Public trust in science is critical. What role do you believe both consensus and disagreement play in building or eroding that trust?
Consensus can help, such as via the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but it is the lowest common factor, and is watered down and weak. It is not state of the art. Lack of agreement confuses the public and science writers though. There is a lot of substandard work that can be misleading. I think disagreements are important, but they have to be very carefully done with a solid rationale and evidence, not just opinion.
Individuals in the scientific community and the public are often labeled and grouped depending on their particular views. What do you consider to be the impact of these groupings?
There are certainly groups who never read the other side’s case. There are many who have opinions locked in and no amount of evidence will sway them. So those are not the ones I try to reach: rather it is the uninformed masses that matter. Some of this occurs through stories written for various media by reporters or bloggers – in newspapers, magazines, online reports etc. However, it is also through public lectures, especially those that include a healthy Q&A afterwards. It often provides an opportunity to correct misinformation.
I also like to talk about not just the science but also what to do about it and different worldviews. It is helpful to acknowledge different world views and value systems, and discuss them out loud. Mostly that kind of thing is hidden and not openly exposed. Recognizing vested interests, the inequities among nations, how much one values the future generations, the precautionary principle, sustainability issues, and issues related to doing nothing, vs. mitigating climate change (stopping or slowing the problem) vs. adapting to it (or living with the consequences). Part of the goal is to get people to think about why they feel about the issues the way they do. Many have a gut feeling but have not thought about it rationally. Explaining why one has the values one does is then part of the challenge.
What do you think the future looks like for science communication/outreach as a vehicle for enhancing public trust in science? What should the path forward look like?
You can bring a horse to water but you can’t make him drink! We have to keep trying but the misinformation campaigns are often very well funded, much more so than any public education efforts. It sure helps if the President is engaged, as he has been more recently. The vested interests, especially in Congress, are major concerns and the dreadfully corrupting influences of money and lobbying in the US are major problems, not helped by the Supreme Court decision related to this issue. I fear that things have gone a long way in the wrong direction as a result.
Some interesting similarity and contrasts with my interview. Interesting that Climategate provided impetus for both of us in terms of public communication.
The main difference in our communication strategies is that Trenberth interacts with the public mainly through the mainstream media and in public lectures (arguably the knowledge deficit model), whereas I am interacting with the public mostly through social media with more of an engagement model.
A few points struck me in particular. The issue of breadth of expertise is an issue that resonates with me. In the hey day of giving public lectures on hurricanes and global warming, I would frequently be asked about the hockey stick (which was the other burning issue in the public debate circa 2005). The most interesting question I ever received in a public lecture was to a group of students at an evangelical university, where I got asked a question about the ‘second coming.’ You have to be able to field these kinds of questions in some way; the simplest way is to say “Good question, but I don’t know how to answer that” or “that is really outside of my expertise”.
Trenberth also makes a valid point about the slowness of the publication cycle in terms of rebutting published papers. Blogs enable a much more timely response.
Interesting also that Trenberth finds the IPCC ‘watered down and weak’. His comments about publicly discussing values are interesting; listen to the audio to the Conference on World Affairs [audio recording] to see how how he actually treats this in his public lectures.