Words About Words … and Misspeaking; Susan Joy Hassol’s Advice to Climate Scientists

A veteran climate science communications consultant has some practical advice for climate scientists wanting to better communicate “what they know, how they know it, and how sure they are of it.”

Writing in the March 2008 issue of the American Geophysical Union’s Eos, Susan Joy Hassol, director of Climate Communication in Basalt, Co., pointed to an “urgent” need for climate scientists to communicate more effectively. “For people to take climate change seriously and support appropriate responses, they need to feel sure it is happening and is caused primarily by humans,” she wrote. She said public opinion lags climate science on that front, leading to an “understanding gap”.

Hassol doesn’t exempt the media, “disinformation campaigns,” and scientific literacy generally as causes of that gap, but in her
article (pdf) she focused on what scientists in particular can do about it.

Among her recommendations:

  • Forget about “anthropogenic.” Say “human caused.”
  • “Spatial” and “temporal” are so not with it. Try “space” and “time.”
  • Don’t assume the lay public will do the math when you speak of degrees per decade. “Instead, try giving the total change over the full period of time.”
  • Know your audience – it’s Fahrenheit and not Celsius for Americans.
  • “Saying human activity ‘contributes’ to global warming makes it sound like human activity might be only a minor contributor. It would be more accurate to say ‘most of the warming…’.”
  • Using the term “debate” in connection with climate change suggests a debate “about basic issues that are settled science.”
  • Scientists use “enhance” to refer to increasing warming, but to lay folks, the term “means to improve or make better.” So enhancing the greenhouse effect means making it better … just the opposite of the scientist’s intent. “Try ‘intensify’ or ‘increase’ instead.”

Hassol also cautioned in the Eos article that the public understands “theory” to imply “an unsubstantiated hunch, opinion, conjecture, or speculation” … what a scientist might call a hypothesis. She recommends scientists not use the term in reference to “things as well established as the greenhouse effect or human intensification.”

“Be very careful in referring to ‘risk’ and ‘uncertainty,’” she cautioned. “Depending on the context, a ‘risk’ often connotes a low-probability event, something that might happen but is not likely.” She cautions too about terms like “ecology,” which she says the public interprets as environmentalism and not as a scientific discipline.

Hassol’s website identifies her as lead author of Impacts of A Warming Arctic, the synthesis report of the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, published, and as the writer of HBO’s April 2006 global warming documentary, “Too Hot Not To Handle.”

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