The Sciences

Communicating About Climate Science, Part II

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneySep 30, 2010 5:39 PM


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On Wednesday, I did a first post about climate science communication. But because many other issues arise in this discussion than are addressed in the video that I posted, I want to continue by addressing some additional points. Here's the first: How important is it for climate scientists, beyond being good researchers, to also be good communicators?

I would say very important--and some already are great communicators. Richard Alley, for instance, is very dynamic, and very entertaining. (Just click here if you don't believe me, to see his Milankovich cycle dance.) I also recently listened to Greg Holland of NCAR do a radio satellite tour to talk about the 2010 hurricane season, sponsored by the Project on Climate Science. He did a great job being personable, getting the facts across, in different media markets across the country. [Note: Singling out these two individuals does not mean that they're the only good climate science communicators--they're just two good examples.] But many researchers don’t have these natural skills--and many don’t have the time or training to let them design a message, think about creative ways of delivering it, consider its timing, and so on. But all of them can do the following. They can think, from the outset of a particular research project, about how it is going to be communicated. And they can work with communication professionals—here’s the money issue, those people need to be available—to come up with a strategy the professionals can then execute. There can, and should, be a division of labor in most cases when it comes to the communication roles. The problem is that while we’ve got lots of great researchers in the scientific world, there is really not much of an identity for professional science communicators—and not much career prospects, either.

Question 2: How can climate scientists communicate on this issue without crossing the line and being seen as "advocates," or losing their objectivity?

If you are working in a politicized area, as a scientist, you should know from the outset that anything you say is going to be given greater scrutiny, and even that you might well be attacked baselessly—not because you’ve done anything wrong, but simply because it serves someone’s strategic or political purposes. In this context, scientists can’t flinch from communicating—but they need to go in with open eyes. In particular, being objective and careful about what you say, not getting baited into needless conflict, sticking to what you know needs to be gotten across, is critical. There’s another point here. In a politicized area, scientists are always going to be accused of advocating for policy positions, and going beyond their expertise. One way of dealing with this is to take the route of the old Office of Technology Assessment—provide a range of options based on the science, rather than explicitly taking a position in favor of one particular policy. Thus, you could talk about why the science shows that global warming is going to keep worsening if we don’t take action, but that doesn’t mean you’re endorsing a carbon tax or cap and trade. Respecting this line between describing a problem on one hand, and advocating particular legislation to solve it on the other, should go a long way towards inoculating against criticism--or at least, the kind of criticism that actually sticks.

I'll have another blog about climate science communication next week....

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