Now for the science bit...

  • 20 Oct 2011, 18:00
  • Ros Donald

In an earlier post, we looked at some of the reasons why it's so tough to communicate climate science. Here, we examine some of the ways scientists can improve their rapport with the public, highlighted in a new article in Physics Today by Richard Somerville and Susan Hassol.

It's an important topic. The climate science community's failure to successfully communicate climate change has led to a significant gap between the public's perception of the causes of climate change and the consensus among scientists, and the views of most climate scientists.

'Climategate' provides a case in point: in the time it took the climate science community to respond to the leak, Somerville and Hassol say skeptics were able to use the episode to "repeatedly denounce the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)] and climate scientists." Meanwhile "neither the panel nor the scientists were very effective in refuting the attacks."

Here are some of their suggestions for turning things around:

Turn the pyramid upside-down

Scientists tend to communicate with each other by starting with the background to their findings, gathering supporting details and then coming to results and conclusions. To communicate with the public, however, scientists need to "invert the pyramid", starting as a news story would with the headline and then moving on to why people should care - the "so what" question.

Keeping it simple

Once scientists have arrived at a simple clear message, they should repeat it often, avoiding putting in too much detail or using too much 'science speak' that can just end up washing over the public. By using terms the public is used to such as feet in the US rather than metres, scientists can put their message over more clearly.

It's also imperative that scientists don't forget about the basics:

"Scientists often fail to put new findings into context. They tend to focus on cutting-edge research. But it's also important to to repeat what is scientifically well understood to a public for whom the well-established older findings may still be mysterious."

Don't let uncertainty cloud the issue

Somerville and Hassol also point out that scientists spend too long talking about what they don't know and fail to give enough time to what they do.

"They should explain the connections: In the case of heavy downpours, they can explain that a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, so any given storm system can produce more rain. Scientists have measured an increase in atmospheric water vapour and definitively attributed it to human-induced warming. They have also measured an increase in the amount of rain falling in the heaviest downpours, a change that climate models have long projected."

Use metaphor

Climate science is complex enough for climate scientists, let alone for the majority of us without a grounding in the discipline. Say Somerville and Hassol:

"Failing to use metaphors, analogies and points of reference to make mathematical concepts or numerical results more meaningful is a common mistake. [...] For example, when reporting that the amount of melt water coming from the Greenland ice sheet in 2005 had more than doubled in just a decade to 220km3  per year, scientist Eric Rignot helpfully added that the entire of Los Angeles used about one cubic kilometer of water a year for all purposes."

Clean up the language

'Science speak' can seriously confuse people without a scientific background. "By failing to anticipate common misunderstandings, scientists can inadvertently reinforce them", say Somerville and Hassol. For example, a better substitute for the word "uncertainty" - which to most people means ignorance or a poor understanding - would be to describe a "range" of understanding.

The paper includes this nifty chart, which has been attracting a bit of attention in the blogosphere:

Screen Shot 2011-10-20 At 18.15.28

More language problems

The way scientists talk about climate change can also be misinterpreted in terms of the severity of the problem and the weight of conviction within the scientific community. For example, talking about 'belief' in climate change is misleading, as: "The conclusion that the world is warming and that humans are the primary cause is based on facts and evidence." Meanwhile, when scientists say human activity "contributes" to global warming, it sounds like the contribution could be small instead of being the primary cause.

Careful choice of language can also avoid problematic reactions.

"When climate scientists say that warming is 'inevitable', it can give the impression nothing can be done. Of course, that's not what they're saying, but they should be careful to make clear that society faces choices."

Telling the story

Successful communication also depends on making sure the issue is framed in terms the audience cares about, linking climate change to peoples' experiences.

"Try to craft messages that are not only simple but memorable, and repeat them often. Make more effective use of imagery, metaphor, and narrative. In short, be a better storyteller, lead with what you know, and let your passion show."

What next?

The IPCC has recognised the need for a better communications strategy. But it's first attempt, a press release and executive summary on its Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation, has been criticised in its attempt to create a good headline for using misleading language in places. Incidents such as 'Climategate' have created a steep learning curve for scientists attempting to communicate climate science in a meaningful way. Based on the confusion still apparent in countries such as the UK, US and Australia, the conversation is just beginning.



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