A Veteran Scientist’s Communications Advice to Colleagues

‘A learnable skill’ is how Richard Somerville describes science communications, offering some medical metaphors as examples.


SAN FRANCISCO, CA., Dec. 3, 2012 — University of California-San Diego climate scientist Richard C. J. Somerville hopes that his fellow scientists increasingly will see communication as “a learnable skill.” And he hopes enough of them will take those new-found skills into the fields in the interest of climate science.

Somerville, no longer teaching but remaining active in the field, told an AGU audience that scientists need to know the importance of recognizing the interests of their audiences. He encouraged them to make their messages to nonscientific audiences “simple and understandable.” Avoid metric at all costs, he said. And don’t expect the public to understand joulles or other terms of art.

Using medical analogies might work, Somernville said. He said global warming can be equated to having a fever — a familiar symptom of what may be some underlying problems. But he reminded people as patients that “You don’t ask your doctor to predict the date of your heart attack.” He acknowledged that “quitting smoking, like not using fossil fuels, isn’t easy. But doing nothing has costs.”

Somerville said he likes to use a baseball metaphor, one he attributes to scientist Tony Broccoli of Rutgers University. He says greenhouse gases are the steroids of climate change: They may not be the reason for a particular home run, they “change the odds.”

Somerville cautioned that “questions can be poorly framed,” as in asking of climate change “caused” super storm Sandy.

Somerville pointed to his personal website as providing climate scientists useful tips on communicating more effectively.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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