AAAS Weblog Panel of Four Weighs ‘Overcoming Skepticism after “Climategate”‘

So a climate research scientist, an environmental advocate/climate scientist, an author/writer, and a communications academic gather around a table to discuss “Climate Change & the Public: Overcoming Skepticism after ‘Climategate’”?

You haven’t heard this one? Read on.

The research scientist, asked the impact of the nearly year-old hacked e-mails brouhaha, points to adverse effects on public perceptions of climate scientists while insisting their science itself remains unscathed.

“It’s not what is ordinarily seen in text books,” NASA/GISS scientist Gavin Schmidt acknowledged of scientists seen behaving “like people.” Author Chris Mooney was perhaps a bit more targeted in his judgment, saying the experience and its aftermath amount to “a case study in failed communications.” Mooney said the whole ensuing string of unproven accusations showed the climate science community and its defenders utterly unprepared to deal with the resulting blogospheric uproar. “A real black eye,” Mooney said, with perhaps a tad of 20/20 hind vision, of those who should have been better prepared.

A ‘Hinterland’ Devoid of Scientific Excellence

“A big information gap between soundbites and real scientific undertaking,” is how Schmidt, a principal in realclimate.org, characterized the current climate change communications landscape. With an unspoken analogy to what many see as a pervasive polarization of domestic politics generally — with a collapse of the political “middle” or mainstream — Schmidt characterized the information gap he sees as “this whole hinterland.” He said it is populated primarily by those with little technical knowledge on climate science but nonetheless with big Web-empowered megaphones able to make their voices and views, however flawed, heard far and wide. A challenge now, Schmidt and the other panelists on the AAAS weblog agreed, involves how to fill that “hinterland” with knowledgeable science communicators well-versed not only in the underlying science but also in the art of careful and credible communication.

It’s a challenge further complicated, Mooney emphasized, because science journalists are “losing their jobs right now” and the scientific establishment still fails to reward scientists who reach out to non-science audiences. Schmidt agreed, saying science communications somehow needs to be more highly valued by the scientific establishment. As things stand now, “There’s no incentive for scientists to get involved,” he said.

In which case, other panelists suggested more strategic “framing” of climate change communications to address, as appropriate, associated issues of public health impacts, energy conservation, competitiveness, and other important values of interest to various audiences.

Scientists Urged to Avoid Appearing ‘Bearers of Doom’

The Union of Concerned Scientists’s Brenda Erkwuzel cautioned scientists not to get caught-up in frequent telling and retellings of worst-case scenarios, portraying themselves as “bearers of doom.” But proceed with their communications and outreach they must, Erkwuzel emphasized, because scientists “don’t check our citizenship at the door” when they are pursuing their research on policy-sensitive issues.

“The little engine that could, not Chicken Little,” Mooney agreed. Erkwuzel also cautioned about having to deal carefully and sensitively with the “sticky-wicket” of uncertainty.

On the subject of many professional scientists’ preference to work “at the edge” of their scientific disciplines — where there is the most to gain and the most stimulating material to learn — Mooney allowed that that very propensity has been abused by climate contrarians to raise doubts about the whole of climate science. It’s the area of research most rewarding to most scientists, and one they can go on about for hours with their colleagues. The dilemma arises, panelists agreed, when nonscientific audiences inadequately understand the underlying scientific evidence and interpret the give-and-take about “the edge” as indicating widespread scientific uncertainty.

Climate Communications as a ‘Team Sport’

Panelist Ed Maibach, a communications expert with George Mason University, emphasized the importance of seeing climate communications as a “team sport,” one encompassing scientific content experts, those familiar with decision sciences and how various audiences access and interpret news and information, and effective science communicators. His take-home message for climate science communicators? “Give important information that they don’t know,” rather than trying merely to debunk myths, however misbegotten.

Schmidt, using the metaphor of teaching someone to fish “in the scientific lake” rather than giving them a fish for dinner, said it is important for climate communicators to point out expert sources so that curious individuals can “find out for themselves” and reach their own conclusions, based on actual evidence.

Writer and author Mooney chimed in that with mainstream news media “stepping back and not doing its job,” it is important for science communicators to recognize that they “need to work with the media that you have, rather than the media that you may want.”

Maibach: ‘Find the Essence … Say it Simply’

Communications media remain “vast,” Mooney said, encouraging climate scientists to seek out the individual media outlet or outlets that work best for them in communicating their evidence and findings. Mooney emphasized that with different audiences interested in different issues and subjects, there are “many different ways to talk about the same subject responsibly.” He said climate issues can be successfully framed to appeal to particular audiences, notwithstanding their differing passions and preferences.

As a final word of advice for climate scientists, Maibach joined the other panelists in pointing to a growing number of resources available to help them overcome widespread but unfounded viewpoints.

At the end of the day, he said, it is important for scientists and other science communicators addressing general audiences to “find the essence and say it simply.”

The September 27 panel took place as a webinar sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The one-hour video is to be available online as of October 12 at membercentral.aaas.org, according to weblog moderator Kasey White.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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2 Responses to AAAS Weblog Panel of Four Weighs ‘Overcoming Skepticism after “Climategate”‘

  1. Beth Parke says:

    Thanks Bud for covering this session. I was especially interested in this comment “it is important for climate communicators to point out expert sources so that curious individuals can “find out for themselves” and reach their own conclusions, based on actual evidence.” It’s refreshing to recognize that much of society is quietly striving to acually understand and cope with climate and energy issues, and it’s the job of journalists and scientists to help.

  2. Tom Harris says:

    Generally, for science communications, I agree with Maibach when he says, “At the end of the day, he said, it is important for scientists and other science communicators addressing general audiences to “find the essence and say it simply.”.

    But what is “the essence” is not simple, as in the case of the degree to which human CO2 emissions are causing climate change?