Catch 22



What is the best language to use for a scientist to engage in public communication of climate change? I don’t mean English or French (or Dutch), but rather the tone, the style, the color.


There is catch 22 there: The typical scientific language is laden with qualifiers that are meant to convey that there is –and always will be- uncertainty. Nothing is ever certain in science, at least not without a lot of if’s and but’s. In the real world, that language is easily misunderstood as ‘the scientists don’t know yet’. To make the message understood by a lay audience, scientists have to adapt their language. But clearly, dropping all qualifiers or overstating the case is not conducive to public understanding either. So what is a scientist supposed to do? We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t use scientific lingo, it seems. In the end, each tries to find their own balance between the two extremes, and inevitably, they’ll be attacked by people of one stripe or the other.


Unfortunately, most scientists are very bad at talking about their scientific field in plain, understandable language. Call it professional deformation (discussed in a different context in a previous post). Even more unfortunate is that the few who are good at conveying some scientific understanding to a lay audience are frequently punished for doing so: Their scientific peers call upon them for slight inaccuracies, and people who dislike the implications will try to portray them as lunatic extremists.


Al Gore may be a case in point. Though he is not a scientist, he clearly has a good understanding of climate science. If his slide show were a presentation for a scientific conference, I would have some quibbles over details and the lack of qualifiers. As it is, a presentation meant to convey the big picture of climate change to the lay public, he does a remarkably good job. Better than most scientists would have done, exactly because he is not hindered by years of using science-lingo. Many criticisms of “an inconvenient truth” suffer heavily from not seeing the forest for the trees: Pointing out a small issue in his slideshow doesn’t invalidate everything we know about climate change.


Another good example is Michael Tobis (a climate scientist). He is a great writer and runs an excellent blog. He was grossly mis-characterized after using some pretty harsh words to describe his dislike at Andy Revkin comparing Al Gore’s slight mishaps with a column by George Will that was plain wrong from beginning to end. That was a typical example of journalistic balance as global warming bias, a practice which has done a lot to hamper the public’s understanding of climate science. See the ‘whole’ story, including several links, here.


Tobis actually gives some good pointers for successful communication here: Try to avoid the appearance of arrogance and impatience in public forums by writing to the reader, not the correspondent.


Nisbet and Mooney suggest using different frames to present science to the public. Frames that resonate, rather than highly technical explanations. Certain interest groups have successfully framed the public discussion in terms of uncertainty, whereas I think framing it in terms of risk is much more apt. A medical diagnosis is hardly ever 100% certain. Does that stop you from taking action to remedy the condition? Of course not! Because it’s a matter of risk.


I think many scientists entering the public debate are frustrated about the big discrepancy between the public’s perception of climate change and the scientists’ perception thereof. When faced with deliberate distortions of the facts so often, it’s a challenge to keep your cool. It’s a challenge to not get defensive when science is under attack. But it’s nevertheless needed, because as Tobis remarks, many ‘innocent bystanders’ are listening in on how we respond to these distortions, without being aware of how skewed the public discussion is.


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4 Responses to “Catch 22”

  1. Heiko Gerhauser Says:

    I was at your interesting presentation yesterday and asked the question about biochar.

    Michael Tobis and James Annan regularly post on the global change discussion group, where I also often have contributed. You’ll even find a link to my blog over on James’ blog.

    Now on your post, I don’t think scientists should be policy activists. They should clearly state what are hard facts and they should make clear where they do have special expertise and where they do not, and where an ordinary informed citizen’s judgment is just as good as that of the scientist.

    Maybe we can talk about climate and climate blogs a bit over lunch sometime, saves a lot of typing …

  2. Bart Says:

    I pretty much agree with what you say about the role of scientists, but they have a right to speak out about the policy implications of their research. It is indeed important to distinguish scientific facts from personal opinion, but both can be mentioned. Some (like James Hansen) would argue that if scientific research shows that something is potentially dangerous to society, the scientists involved have a moral obligation to say so. I tend to agree with that.

  3. Eli Rabett Says:

    The key (IEHO) to communicating with the media and the public is, during any correspondence or conversation, to limit your message. Something scientists have a VERY hard time doing. That means, before you start, decide what your message is.

  4. Bart Verheggen Says:

    Good point Eli. I should take it to heart, as I notice that in most of my writing (and presenting), I try to cover too much.

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