Communicators, Scientists See Strengths, Limits in Social Media, Blogging

A panel at AGU’s annual fall meeting sings the praises of communicating climate science through a wide range of media — from full-length books to Twitter tweets — and outlines rules of the road and strengths/limitations of each medium.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, Dec. 4, 2012 — A panel of communicators and scientists, two of them regular contributors to The Yale Forum, examined the strengths and limitations of social media and blogs in communicating climate science.

Zeke Hausfather, a prolific blogger whose posts have been a Yale Forum regular feature since the site was first launched, commented that he feels blogs sometimes play “an outsized role” in the climate dialog, but that they nonetheless are essential tools for climate scientists, in part because many often attract an influential audience. “I really enjoy the under-appreciated job of trying to convince the ‘skeptics,’” Hausfather said.

He offered several bits of advice to climate scientists when it comes to blogging:

– Avoid “preaching to the choir,” and don’t be dismissive of those whose views diverge from your own, and even from what is generally considered to be the overwhelming scientific evidence.

– Don’t assume “bad faith” on the part of all climate skeptics.

– Avoid being “snarky.”

– Avoid projecting an impression of “false balance,” for instance suggesting that all competing arguments are of equal weight.

– No use engaging in “futile battles” — spending time trying to convince those who are not open to considering others’ views.

– Search among those who disagree for those threads of “common ground” — areas of agreement which, over time, can serve as a foundation for changing one’s views and for broadening agreement.

Video producer Peter Sinclair, who produces the “Climate Crock of the Week” and also contributes monthly “This Is Not Cool” videos to The Yale Forum, told the audience that his initial videos had been well received, but he was not pleased with the size of the audience they were attracting. He said he decided to engage in “creative combat” and decided to follow the advice of legendary showman P.T. Barnum: “If you want to attract a crowd, start a fight.” Sinclair said he singled out skeptical blogger Anthony Watts, of Watts Up With That for criticism and benefited when efforts were made to pull his (Sinclair’s) video down from YouTube. He said his video in effect “went viral” and laid the foundation for growth in his subsequent audiences for his videos.

Working now with Ohio State University climatologist Jason Box, Sinclair said he is soon engaging in an innovative crowd-sourcing initiative — to be funded, he hopes, through Kickstarter to conduct a research trip to Greenland to track ice melt.

Penn State University climatologist Michael Mann spoke of the strengths and limitations of various communications tools, including full-length books, blogs, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. He pointed to timing and “immediacy” short comings of books, said they often are in conflict with an audience’s seeming shrinking attention span, and can be limited in the range of audience they reach. He said social media avoid some of those limitations but have some limitations of their own, such as Twitter’s 140-character ceiling.

But Mann said he is fully supportive and active on both Facebook and Twitter and finds them working effectively together to help communicate climate science to those not often exposed to the subject. Among his 6,000-plus Twitter followers, for instance, Mann said he now is being followed by actress Pamela Anderson. To chuckles from the audience, he allowed that her recent re-tweet of one of his tweets reached an audience almost the size of what his realclimate.org site reaches over a full year. “I have no pretentions that the followers of Pamela Anderson do so to get better informatino on climate science,” he dead-panned.

Asked if engaging in social media — in particular, perhaps, Twitter — may raise doubts about a scientist’s gravitas, Mann replied that he thinks showing a willingness to publicly engage with the general public, in effect to step out of the academic ivory tower, sends a healthy message to the public about the openness of science.

Bud Ward

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