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The AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) is currently holding their annual meeting at Vancouver, B.C., and their plenary talk definitely gave me a lot of food for thought.

The longer I’m in academia, the bigger the gap between the scientific community and the general public seems to be.  It’s frustrating that doing good science simply isn’t enough.  At the same time, the publish or perish culture of academia makes it really hard for scientists to find time to communicate with the general public and decision makers.  It’s one of the reasons why I’m not sure that academia is the right fit for me because for me, publishing peer-reviewed articles isn’t as invigorating as talking about science with non-scientists.

Most of the time I read something in the news about climate change, I cringe a little (or a lot, see Ventilation: Freeman Dyson), but this article by Michael D. Lemonick is excellent.  It’s about Thailand, where my parents and a lot of my relatives live, and about the recent flooding that caused a LOT of damage so it was really fortunate that my parents and my relatives were okay.

The intro of the article does an excellent job of explaining the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events:

An obese, middle-aged man is running to catch a bus. Suddenly, he clutches his chest, falls to the ground and dies of a massive heart attack. It turns out that he’s a smoker and a diabetic, has high blood pressure, eats a diet high in saturated fat and low in leafy green vegetables, pours salt on everything, drinks too much beer, avoids exercise at all costs and has a father, grandfather and two uncles who also died young of heart attacks.

So what killed him? Most people are savvy enough about health risks to know this is a trick question. You can’t pick out a single cause. His choices and his genes all contributed to the heart attack — but you can say with confidence that the more risk factors that pile up, the more likely it is to end badly.

Somehow, though, people think that it makes sense to ask whether a given extreme weather event — a devastating heat wave or a punishing drought or a deadly torrential rainstorm — is caused by climate change.

That’s a trick question too. Scientists know that the increasing load of greenhouse gases we’re pumping into the atmosphere doesn’t “cause” extreme weather. But it does raise the odds, just as a diet of triple bacon cheeseburgers raises the odds of heart disease.

There was also a wonderful series of public service announcements about the flooding done by a non-profit group in Thailand.  It’s scientifically accurate, accessible, and it even includes cute whales:

There is hope for science journalism/communication!

I’ve just discovered my new favorite astrophysicist, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium.  He’s a great communicator who makes science accessible , he’s funny, and he knows his stuff!  Here he is talking about the beginning of the universe, Pluto, and things that want to kill us.  And here he is explaining how the tides work (and poking a moon-shaped hole in Bill O’Reilly’s proof of God’s existence).

As a scientist who is studying the effects of climate change on ecosystem functioning, I’m often reminded of the enormous gap between the scientific community and the general public.   Hearing people say that climate change is a hoax makes me wonder about the quality of science education at the primary school level, why skeptical/contrarian arguments against climate science are so convincing, and whether there are enough scientists chatting about their research with non-scientists on a regular basis.

This past Monday, my university hosted a Global Warming Forum where they invited Susan Avery (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute), Robert Socolow (Princeton University), Fred Singer (Science and Environmental Policy Project), and Kenneth Haapala (Science and Environmental Policy Project).  Because of Fred Singer’s history of misrepresenting climate science and scientists and Kenneth Haapala’s involvement in the scientifically inaccurate Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, a few graduate students and I thought it would be an excellent opportunity for us to make sure that anyone who was going to this panel would have a bit of climate science info in their hands to refute some of the common misconceptions of climate change.  (Our handout was largely based on information from skepticalscience.com and realclimate.org — both are comprehensive sources of scientific info on climate change.  Many of the arguments that are made by climate skeptics can be easily countered by information from an introduction to biology, ecology, or earth and atmospheric science course too.)

Because a lot of the science is already out there and many scientists who are more qualified than me have already refuted a lot of the specific claims made by climate skeptics, I just want to focus on one question that I’ve thought about a lot since the forum: what makes skeptical/contrarian arguments so convincing?  Here are some ideas that I’ve been bouncing around:

1) They inundate the audience with graphs, charts, and jargon.

Data and jargon (like “AGW”) make climate skeptics appear more knowledgeable than they really are.  When someone is showing you a graph with labels like “wavenumber (cm-1)” and “Delta Tb (K)”, they probably look like they know what they’re talking about even if they say scientifically inaccurate things like “CO2 is not a pollutant” (click here to find out why that’s inaccurate).  Oh, and they’re tricky about the scales on the graph.   For their temperature trend graphs, they use data from the 1970s (or later) to the present day.   What they don’t mention is that most climate scientists use 5- or 10-year averages when they’re talking about climate change because there’s just so much interannual variability.  Also, because climate happens on a large time scale by definition, it makes more sense to show at least a hundred years of data.

They argue that they look at the same data as the experts and just come to different conclusions, but to someone who actually studies climate science, what they’re doing is like skimming through Animal Farm and dismissing it as a silly story about barnyard animals and their adventures.  They just don’t seem to fully understand the information that they’re criticizing.

2) They set up false dichotomies.

The title of both the climate skeptics’ presentations said it all: “Nature, not human activity, rules climate change”.   First, no climate scientist has ever said that climate change is caused by only one or the other.  (In fact, aren’t humans a part of nature?   It’s like saying “Nature, not photosynthesis, rules climate change”.)  As with a lot of complex processes, there are usually multiple, interrelated causes and drivers.  We know that a combination of geological and ecological processes and human activities are driving climate change.  We also know based on multiple lines of evidence (e.g., ice cores, weather station data, satellite data, our understanding of the greenhouse effect, etc.)  that human activities are the dominant ones.

Another false dichotomy they kept on reciting over and over again was that switching away from fossil fuels is bad for the economy, that a price on carbon is going to drive everyone into poverty.  I’m not sure which century/decade Fred Singer and Kenneth Haapala are living in, but they seem to have missed all the excitement about the growing green building industry that’s still going strong despite the recession, the growing renewable energy industry (especially in China), and the sustainable food movement (even Walmart is getting in on the action).  All of these industries can help us become less dependent on fossil fuels *and* they’re bringing in lots of money so economic prosperity and environmental protection don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  Not to point fingers or anything, but now who’s being all alarmist and doomsayer-y?

3) They say things with absolute certainty.

Isn’t it simpler and more comforting to hear someone say, “Cooling is bad; warming is good!” than it is to hear, “Cooling and warming can be bad or good depending on the situation”?   Scientists are trained never to say that they’re absolutely certain about any scientific fact though, because science is about probabilities.  We can have a hundred experiments that show one result, but we can never be absolutely sure that the 101st experiment will give us the same result even though it’s highly likely.  Science is an ongoing process of discovery, replication, verification, and revision because we can never be 100% sure about a given thing, but that’s not the same as saying we don’t know anything.  We just know the limits of our knowledge.  The climate skeptics at the forum, on the other hand, don’t seem to realize or acknowledge that there are limits to their own knowledge but are quick to point out scientists’ limitations (even if one of the climate skeptics has no scientific credentials).  Doesn’t that seem just a teensy bit hypocritical?  If they’re making assertions like “CO2 is beneficial and always good for plants”, where are their lines of evidence supporting that statement?

4) They appeal to the cultural values of the audience.

I can’t take credit for this idea because it actually comes from an interesting press release from the National Science Foundation.  Basically, people tend to trust scientists (or experts) who already share their cultural and/or political views so maybe Fred Singer and Kenneth Haapala’s anti-regulation, anti-government stance is appealing to some folks (and it’s a fine stance to have, but I worry that it’s informing their views on climate change more than the science itself).   Scientists can harness this tendency too, though.  Maybe one way to bridge the gap between climate scientists and the general public is to focus on the things we can agree on and go from there.  Care about clean air and water?   Let’s work together to reduce our dependence on coal because coal power plants are the largest source of mercury in the U.S. Care about national security?   Let’s work together to reduce dependence on foreign oil.  Care about the economy?  Let’s remain technologically competitive by investing in R&D on carbon-neutral energy because a lot of other countries are already doing that.  And last but not least, you like silly photos of sassy cats?  Me too.

P.S. – I just noticed that all of the “Possibly related posts” link to climate skeptic websites, which is making me wonder more about whether there are enough scientists chatting about their research with non-scientists on a regular basis.  The general public just seems to hear more from climate skeptics than climate scientists, but this post is already long enough so maybe I’ll have to save those thoughts for later.