Okay, Climate Scientists: Time to Fight Smart

Posted on Categories Discover Magazine

The big news today is that climate researchers are banding together, preparing for the onslaught they fear is coming at the hands of the new Congress. I’m honored to learn that one of the researchers behind the effort, Scott Mandia, was inspired by our book Unscientific America:

The science of climate change and even the scientists themselves are under attack from a well-orchestrated and well-oiled misinformation campaign.  The best defense against this anti-science offensive is to make sure that the correct message reaches a wide audience.  Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshenbaum in their book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future explain that scientists have failed to get their message across for a variety of reasons but mostly because we are not engaging the public on their turf.  After reading that book, I became a climate change evangelist with my Global Warming: Man or Myth? Website, this blog, and more recently a Facebook Fan Group called Global Warming Fact of the Day.  I have two small children and I do not like the future that I see for them or for their children in a human-driven warmer world.

Go Scott–but if we’re to be out there, we also have to be smart. The media is not at all like the scientific world. There are great potential benefits that can come from outreach and being outspoken–but they don’t come automatically. They’re the consequence of very deliberate choices about how to communicate effectively.

Some things to consider: When it comes to science communication, the facts are the baseline from which one absolutely cannot stray; but at the same time, we have to be aware that people respond most strongly to the frame. Climate scientists are going to be rebutting political attacks on them, but what will their message be? Will it be that incoming Republicans (and Attorney General Cuccinelli) are abusing their power? Or will it be that climate research is robust and convincing on the subject of anthropogenic causation?

Or, will it be that this is all a distraction from the real issue, which is to get clean energy solutions hopping before countries like China establish so big a lead that we’ll never catch up?

Notice that only one of these messages is purely scientific in nature. I suspect that’s the message that scientists will want to stick with–appropriately enough–but even here, there are pitfalls. Remember that the political attack is also largely scientific in nature, at least in terms of its framing. It exaggerates uncertainty about particular scientific studies (like the Hockey Stick) in order to distract from the big picture.

So any scientist walking into this context had better be ready for one obvious trap: Being lured into talking about uncertainty to the detriment of what we actually know. It’s easy to ask a scientist a question that will invite a large volume of caveats and doubt-generating statements without leaving much time to discuss what’s firm, what we can rely on. A question like, “what are the limitations of existing climate models?” You get the picture.

Conversations about uncertainty invoke a frame–a scientific frame–and that’s often precisely where climate skeptics want you to go. That’s where they live. That’s where they’ve been living for years: Just read Naomi Oreskes’ and Eric Conway’s book Merchants of Doubt. And they can get you into their territory just by asking you to be frank about your research.

That’s one of many things to bear in mind as we begin communicating climate science with a much greater public focus, and in a highly politicized context.

Another concerns the subject of advocacy. Scientists are very scrupulous when it comes to respecting the line between stating the facts, and pushing for policy outcomes–as they should be. But guess what: When you’re out there communicating about science in a politicized context, you’re going to be accused of being an advocate no matter what you do. It’s a false charge, but it’s a virtual guarantee that it will be made anyway.

It simply has to be brushed off. Don’t get angry, and don’t get distracted. Remember what it is that the American public, and political leaders, need to know about climate research–and tell them that. Tell them twenty times. And then do it again.

As this all unfolds, I’m looking forward to many further exchanges with members of the climate science community on how to proceed. It’s a challenging time, but also an exciting one. We can do this much better than we’ve done before. I’m glad the climate science community is ready to take a much needed step to reach out to a public that needs it very badly indeed.

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