My AGU Bucket List: A Personal Memoir of ‘The Community’

Skeptical Science’s John Cook, of Brisbane, Australia, recounts his first trip to North America … and to the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

In early December, 20,000-plus scientists (and a handful of bloggers) descended upon San Francisco from across the world for the American Geophysical Union’s 2011 Fall Meeting. I was fortunate enough to join the throng, thanks to the initiative and tireless efforts of the Editor of The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media.* My role was to be part of several workshops and panels, offering ideas on how scientists can use social media to communicate science based on my lessons learned at Skeptical Science.

My talks boiled down to a simple message — the most powerful feature of social media is community. I learned a similar lesson about AGU. Over a single week, thousands of scientists presented a mind-boggling amount of research in an endless sequence of posters and a multitude of concurrent sessions. The sheer depth of content was staggering. But what I found most powerful about AGU was the community.

I had come to San Francisco with an “AGU Bucket List” — people to meet, talks to see and, of course, parties and dinners I was keen to attend. The fall meeting provided the opportunity to connect with scientists, bloggers, and communicators I’d been corresponding with for years — kindred spirits who shared my passion (a kinder word for obsession) for climate science. This would be the first time I’d meet them all in real life — communicating with actual facial expressions rather than just emoticons.

High on the list was the handful of Skeptical Science contributors within traveling distance of San Francisco. Months earlier, we had begun planning the inaugural Skeptical Science Shindig. In the weeks leading up to AGU, the party swelled from an intimate get-together as in our excitement, we invited other bloggers and scientists. Here, I met Peter Sinclair from Climate Denial Crock of the Week, Jeff Masters from Wunderground, Michael Tobis from Planet 3.0 and many others. The problem with the evening was each conversation was so engrossing, you had to tear yourself away in order to talk to someone else you hadn’t met yet. The consensus at the end of the night was that the SkS shindig should be an annual fixture. Fingers crossed.

Sharing Coffees, Beers … ‘A Humbling Experience’

Next on my Bucket List was meeting all the climate scientists whose research I’d been consuming over the years. This experience was best summed up by a fellow communicator who confided to me “at home, I’m used to being the smartest guy in the room, but at AGU, I’m usually the dumbest guy in the room”. I’m not sure I could relate to the former (there are some pretty smart folk at the University of Queensland) but I certainly could sympathize with the latter. I was sharing beers, coffees, and meals with some of the most brilliant climate minds on the planet. These were scientists working at the very edge of scientific knowledge, making significant and historical contributions to our understanding of what’s happening to our planet. It was a humbling experience for a blogger from Brisbane.

There was a flip-side to brushing shoulders with brilliance. They say organizing academics is like herding cats, and I observed this truism firsthand when a small group of scientists spent an hour of debating, dithering, making phone calls, and consulting maps before deciding where to go for a beer. Scientists are an independent lot (in fact, the most skeptical people I’ve met) and the idea of academics scattered across the world cobbling together a global conspiracy that engineered thousands of lines of evidence to point to a consistent conclusion is quite laughable.

One person who particularly impressed was 19-year-old student, Kate from Climate Sight. She had started her climate blog in high school, was now in her second year at college studying climate science, and was presenting a poster on her research into climate models. Kate was peering under the hood of the world’s leading climate models, disentangling the code and discerning the structures. It’s all the more impressive when I reflect on all the goofy time-wasting activities I had engaged in at her age.

Of course AGU isn’t all beer, parties, and hobnobbing. I attended a number of talks, mostly on communication, collecting a wealth of information highly relevant to the work we do at Skeptical Science. I was also there to present workshops on blogging, a session on climate communication, and a panel on new media. My Monday session on misinformation, explaining the key points from The Debunking Handbook, was an intimidating environment for a humble Aussie blogger. It was held in a cavernous room that could hold over a thousand scientists, and joining me on the session were powerhouse communicators Susan Joy Hassol, Ed Maibach, and John Reisman.

A few hours beforehand, I searched for a quiet spot to revise my notes (I’m not one of those public speakers who can breeze up onto a stage and effortlessly pontificate). Walking past the coffee shop, I recognized Scott Mandia (even without his superhero costume). Scott is one of the driving forces behind the Climate Science Rapid Response Team and definitely someone on my Bucket List. 90 minutes of discussion later, I thought I really should go off and prepare for the talk.

I found an empty room and took out my notes. Across the room stood a very recognizable bespectacled, bald John Abraham, the other driving force behind the Rapid Response Team and another Bucket List item. Half an hour of conversation later, I was getting increasingly anxious about the impending session. So I sought out an isolated corner where the odds of bumping into a friend was minimal. With 20,000 scientists kicking around the Moscone Center that week, I sure seemed to bump into friends at regular intervals.

After a hectic, gruelling, and satisfying schedule, I left the AGU 2011 fall meeting with a brain crammed full of new information, many more contacts, a longer to-do list, numerous potential collaborations, and some cherished friendships. There are still a few unticked items on my Bucket List which I’m gnashing my teeth over. But I can always tick those off at AGU 2012.

*The editor of The Yale Forum independently raised funds from supportive scientists and others to underwrite Mr. Cook’s AGU travel expenses.

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One Response to My AGU Bucket List: A Personal Memoir of ‘The Community’

  1. Wonderful gathering. John Cook, you should be meeting with fellow scientists EVERY DAY.

    I figure the carbon fuels PR industry meets all the time trying to figure ways to delay science reports. Just now, Texas decided to accept a science report:
    http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Climate-change-data-back-in-article-2418892.php

    Looks like scientists have lost so many communication battles over the years.
    Seems they just now have arrived somewhere around the year 1982…

    Do we face a crisis or not? Scientists should be meeting like the AGU all the time.