Environment

Who Should be the Climate Persuaders?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorFeb 19, 2011 12:55 AM

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So I'm at the annual AAAS conference and the first session I attended Friday morning was called "Why climate Scientists are from Mars and Science Reporters are from Venus." I made that up. The thrust of the session mostly focused on the state of science journalism in the rapidly changing digital media landscape. But in the informal Q & A period, there were a few hot exchanges between journalists and scientists that highlighted why confusion over the role of journalism (and great annoyance with climate reporters) persists among climate scientists. I had an inkling that the frustrations of climate scientists would come to the fore when MIT's Kerry Emanuel, a panel discussant, mentioned a poll that said 40 percent of the American public didn't believe in evolution, while 98 or 99 percent of scientists did. He attributed that wide gap to a communication problem. (Never mind that many people in that 40 percent column, probably for religious reasons, could never be persuaded.) Kerry's reasoning for the prevalence of anti-evolution attitudes became clearer when he later stated that every major science organization has asserted that anthropogenic climate change is real and has to be addressed, but that journalists had failed to persuade the public of this. That's when Elizabeth Shogren, who covers science for NPR and was one of the panelists, cut in and said, no, you haven't persuaded the public. Kerry shot back: no, you haven't persuaded the public--every story is he said, she said... At which point, AP science reporter Seth Borenstein, who was another panelist, jumped in:

It's not about he said, she said. We got over that a decade ago in [reporting on] climate science. The public believes what the public believes.

Towards the end of the session, Tom Rosensteil, a panelist and long-time journalist who now heads up Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, returned to the exchange and tried to disabuse climate scientists of their conception of the media's role in the climate change debate:

If you're waiting for the press to persaude the public, you're going to lose. The press doesn't see that as its job.

In a follow up post, I'll discuss another exchange between Borenstein and Peter Gleick (who was in the audience) that also illustrates why climate scientists are from Mars and science reporters are from Venus.

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