The Mix - Climate Scientists and Op-Eds

Far from the Peer-Reviewed Journal, Scientists Confront How-Tos of Op-Eds

Last summer the head of Harvard University’s Science, Technology and Public Policy program, John Holdren, penned an argument on the subject of climate change sufficiently compelling that The Boston Globe and International Herald Tribune eagerly published it. On the morning of August 4, 2008, however, subscribers opened their newspapers and read in the Opinion pages a different version of Holdren’s original viewpoint, “Climate Change Skeptics are Dangerously Wrong.”

Excerpts from Holdren’s
August 5 online memo

Venting about his disappointment with his op-ed and the reactions it was eliciting after publication the previous day in The Boston Globe, Harvard scientist John Holdren voices these concerns among others:

“…. I am being castigated by many respondents for resorting to reference to authority rather than providing substantive responses to the specific arguments of climate-change deniers. I suggest that this criticism is in part based on a misunderstanding of what is possible within the length constraint of an op-ed piece.”

“…. I agreed to a further shortening of what I submitted by the editors at The Globe. I regret agreeing to it because it’s clear (from the responses I’m receiving) that the resulting omission of a sentence about the value of skepticism in science left the impression that I am unaware of the positive role that healthy skepticism has played in the scientific enterprise over the centuries …. I am in fact well aware of its valuable and indeed fundamental role in the practice of science.” (see Holdren’s full posting)

The environmental policy expert’s 700-word column, opposite the editorial pages, had been condensed for space considerations. It was packaged under a different headline, “Convincing Climate Change Skeptics.” Both the editing and the writing of a new headline are standard practice for op-ed articles.

In a follow-up essay Holdren posted online August 5 (see sidebar), he writes that he had omitted from the op-ed column key references to widespread repudiation of arguments by climate change deniers. He wrote in his August 5 online posting that he had abstracted his op-ed from “a longer essay on climate-change skepticism that I wrote in June in response to requests for an explanation of the apparent continuing influence of deniers in the U.S. policy process … The references wouldn’t fit within the op-ed word limit without losing too much else that I thought needed to be said.”

Holdren was not available for comment. But his experience mirrors that of other scientists who convey strong opinions on climate change and invariably elicit a heady public debate. Holdren writes that he was “castigated” due to “a misunderstanding of what is possible within the length constraint of an op-ed piece.”

Personalizing the Message … and Raising the Dander

So how can scientists strategically convey their messages to a broad audience without losing the nuances of their field? One way is to personalize the message.

Donald MacGillis, assistant editorial pages editor of The Boston Globe, who handled Holdren’s piece, says the effectiveness of Holdren’s op-ed lies in its subjective wording. “It received an enormous response because it’s stronger than what other people have done. We have not had as sharp a discussion about any issue as we got after Holdren’s piece,” says MacGillis. “Instead of writing from the Ivory Tower, he went into the various debates, including what goes on in some fairly serious journals, and took on the people who have been questioning global warming.”

MacGillis reads aloud from Holdren’s text and singles out a verb that supplied vigor, infest: “All three positions are represented among the climate-change skeptics who infest talk shows, Internet blogs, letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, and cocktail-party conversations.”

MacGillis says, “That word infest is a great term, but I think a lot of scientists or public policy makers writing about this subject would shrink from using a term like this. It gets the dander up.”

Indeed. On August 8, 2008, The Globe published four letters to the editor written in response to Holdren’s article. The exchange was also featured on the blogosphere, including DotEarth, the blog of New York Times writer Andrew Revkin.

The role of an op-ed article is in part to include subjects or make arguments that have not been expressed elsewhere. Still, topics that emerge as top tier headlines remain the key to garnering space in the high-demand real estate that comprises the editorial pages of most major newspapers.

Think Locally … and With a Time Hook Too

Scientist Waleed Abdalati, for one, believes this is the wrong approach for editorials on climate change. He says a longer view is required.

Director of the Center for the Study of Earth from Space in CIRES at the University of Colorado, and formerly a NASA scientist studying polar ice regions, Abdalati recently penned a sharp argument for supporting a modest increase in funding of NASA’s Earth observing system, which assists climate change research.

“What makes this situation especially disheartening is that tremendous progress could be made for an incremental annual cost that is much less than what Americans spend on coffee each week, or about what our government spends on the Iraq War every 36 hours,” Abdalati writes in the as-yet unpublished op-ed.

One key satellite for monitoring Polar Regions is on its “last breaths,” Abdalati says. ”When it dies, I’ll re-submit the piece.”

Abdalati says editorial page editors need to better recognize that the long-term time scales of climate change don’t fit neatly into the standard breaking news mindset. “Climate change pieces are about what will slowly creep up on us over the coming decades, so the interest is limited,” he says.

So, how does a scientist make a meaningful contribution and rise above the clamor? With a bold statement.

Climate change is a complex topic, so it is problematical for editorial page editors and scientists alike.

“Most self-respecting scientists won’t make firm statements without caveats. In an op-ed, caveats dilute the argument,” Abdalati says. “It’s difficult to be nuanced while making a strong, hard statement. We are trained to say, ‘This is pretty much how it is; the range of research says this; here is the upside; here is the downside; and my analysis leads me to the conclusion that …”

An op-ed with that framework likely would fail to be published in most major news outlets. So, scientists step outside the bounds of scientific discourse and enter their opinion to rouse public debate. According to Paul Epstein, a medical doctor and assistant director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment and public health at Harvard Medical School, scientists are increasingly voicing their opinions as citizens because a call to action now exists: climate change is unequivocal.

“The times are calling for more scientists to be bold about what they have known for years but has not led to inform policies. It’s now important for scientists to step out of that box and take stronger positions as citizens,” says Epstein. “On the subject of climate change, scientists are trying to weigh their work with social relevance.”

Epstein has published 16 op-eds on climate since 2000 in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe (pdf), and many others (pdf). In some instances, he has teamed with authors from other disciplines. His opinion articles address a trinity of health, science, and economic (or other) impacts.

There is no easy way for a scientist or academic to achieve placement of their op-ed in the national media outlets. Much of the success has to do with timing and luck.

Social scientist Matthew Nisbet, a communications professor at American University, who has written extensively on the subject of strategic communications and climate change, says that keeping the reader in mind will improve an op-ed’s acceptance rate.

Think of the audience and tell them a story, says Nisbet, who posts a popular “Framing Science” blog.

Make the story relevant, Nisbet advises, and include individuals in the op-ed, perhaps someone whose experience will capture readers’ interest and help readers understanding the effects of climate change locally.

“We have had record amounts of news coverage about polar regions, polar bears, and threats to animal species. But we still don’t see a sense of public urgency of the issues [of climate change],” Nisbet says. “People care about environmental impacts, but the stories aren’t personally meaningful.” He argues that an op-ed is not designed primarily to inform people about science. It should instead lead to something else, such as a solution or a call to action, which is effective when framed with health, solutions, stewardship, health, or the economy.

Nisbet suggests also that scientists and others involved with climate policy not regard national newspapers as the Holy Grail. The best place, in his view, is the hometown newspaper, where authors reach readers who might not be following national coverage of climate change or getting science information regularly. With a local hook, op-eds can better connect with readers who need to be informed the most, he says.

Tips for Op-Ed Writers

Matthew Rothschild, co-editor of the Progressive Media Project, writes in an e-mail interview with The Yale Forum that “anyone, scientist and nonscientist alike, can convey their views accurately and well in the limited space provided by an op-ed.” His organization has helped distribute 2,500 op-eds that have been published more than 10,000 times in large and small newspapers around the country, including opinion articles written by members of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Rothschild doesn’t think earth scientists face unusual obstacles. But, he believes op-ed writers will do well to follow some basic rules:

  • The “lede” – or opening – sentence should be simple and direct, and preferably 15 words or fewer. It should make clear what the subject is, and what the attitude of the author is, for instance “We must tackle the crisis of global warming before it’s too late.”
  • The argument should consist of two or three main points defending the first assertion.
  • There should be some acknowledgment of the main counterargument, and a brief rebuttal of it.
  • End on a high note, appealing to people’s best shared values.

In a commentary published in the journal Nature, University of Oxford researcher Max Boykoff sums up the situation this way: “Scientists can play a pivotal role by engaging more consistently with journalists and editors to help them understand the nuances of climate science, as well as to better appreciate the pressures that media communities face in communicating climate change … Moreover, scientists must recognize the increasing expectation that they interact with policymakers, media and the public.”

Because legitimate disagreement and opposition have value in sharpening understanding, opinion articles on climate change have seldom been more critical to public and policy makers’ understanding.

Lisa Palmer is a freelance writer living in Rhode Island. (E-mail: lisa@lisa-palmer.com)

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One Response to Far from the Peer-Reviewed Journal, Scientists Confront How-Tos of Op-Eds

  1. Muriel Strand says:

    Expressing opinions is ok. Confusing them with facts isn’t. Unfortunately, most news consumers have a low emotional IQ, and TV news just makes it worse. But can’t journalists say that trashing the planet isn’t a good idea?

    http://www.sustainablesacramento.blogspot.com