Communicating science: dealing with questions


“…he respectfully treated each question as a genuine search for knowledge.”

(e-skeptic, h/t Hank Roberts)

I think that is the best way to get people to accept the science. It is easy for us who are deeply entrenched in the on-line climate debate to forget how a newcomer perceives the issues. Take the example of Matthew L. at Realclimate’s excellent post on communicating science: My impression is of someone trying to make sense of the daily news stories by browsing the internet, without having a strong opinion about climate change one way or the other. I think he exemplifies the kind of person we need to –and can- convince of the strength of the scientific evidence. We should be thinking carefully about how to best do so. An interesting conversation ensued between Matthew and others, myself included.

I think the tone of the response is important. Even if he were just repeating claims picked up from some anti-scientific website, what would do more good for him and for the numerous people reading (but not participating in) the comments: A sarcastic reply calling him out on his ‘denialist’ talking points or a patient explaining of the issues? And what if he indeed were sincere in his concerns and (perhaps misguided) questions? 

When dealing with the hard-line Morano’s of this world, it may be different. But otherwise, a calm and collected attitude is important. And even with the likes of Morano, it is not clearcut that abusive language is the way to go. Keith Kloor writes:

“If I was stranded on a desert island because of global warming and I had a choice to live out my days with either Morano or Joe Romm, it’s no contest.”

That’s what we should avoid. Perhaps being nice is a better strategy. For Joe Public, it matters a helluva lot who is the nicest guy. They don’t know who is right or who is wrong. Many of them decide based on their gut feeling.

This quote from Matthew is another example of what should be avoided:

“Sad to say JP (a climate activist) did not acquit himself well. He got progressively angrier and ended up shouting, and was even forced to back-track at one point. In contrast the denialist remained very level headed. Anybody listening to the interview and not familiar with either person, or the positions they represented, would have scored a definite win for the denialist camp.”


3 Responses to “Communicating science: dealing with questions”

  1. Steve Bloom Says:

    Well, I just spent a bunch of time reading the exchanges involving ML, and what I was most struck by was the willingness of various responders to engage with him on the details of the issues he raised even after it became clear that he lacked a grounding in the basics. IMHO people like that should be asked to read the AR4 Synthesis SPM, the History of Global Warming and Hansen et al’s “Target CO2” paper (or maybe substitute the recent Rockstrom et al effort for the latter) before continuing with any questions on particulars.

    Re the Jonathan Porritt interview, bear in mind that in a context like that a smoothly-presented Gish Gallop will always win.

  2. Bart Says:

    You’re right on both accounts (detailed responses and Gish-gallop tactics), but to reply to an honest, though misguided question, with “go and read the IPCC report, then come back” likely backfires. It is a very logical and reasonable thing to ask; that’s not the issue. The issue is that it is perceived as arrogance or not wanting to engage. Many people would rather just ask the things that are on their mind rather than doing the necessary groundwork. So they probably wouldn’t read the IPCC report, and leave with a negative feeling about the exchange (and, by extension, of climate science).

  3. Hank Roberts Says:

    My favorite advice:

    Down toward the end, after much detailed help to teach people how to _ask_ questions the smart way, he addresses how to answer them:


    How To Answer Questions in a Helpful Way

    Be gentle. Problem-related stress can make people seem rude or stupid even when they’re not.

    … There is no need of public humiliation for someone who may have made an honest mistake. A real newbie may not know how to search archives or where the FAQ is stored or posted.

    If you don’t know for sure, say so! A wrong but authoritative-sounding answer is worse than none at all. Don’t point anyone down a wrong path simply because it’s fun to sound like an expert. Be humble and honest; set a good example for both the querent and your peers.

    If you can’t help, don’t hinder. Don’t make jokes about procedures that could trash the user’s setup — the poor sap might interpret these as instructions.

    Ask probing questions to elicit more details. If you’re good at this, the querent will learn something — and so might you. Try to turn the bad question into a good one; remember we were all newbies once.

    While muttering RTFM is sometimes justified when replying to someone who is just a lazy slob, a pointer to documentation (even if it’s just a suggestion to google for a key phrase) is better.

    If you’re going to answer the question at all, give good value. Don’t suggest kludgy workarounds when somebody is using the wrong tool or approach. Suggest good tools. Reframe the question.

    Help your community learn from the question. When you field a good question, ask yourself “How would the relevant documentation or FAQ have to change so that nobody has to answer this again?” Then send a patch to the document maintainer.

    If you did research to answer the question, demonstrate your skills rather than writing as though you pulled the answer out of your butt. Answering one good question is like feeding a hungry person one meal, but teaching them research skills by example is showing them how to grow food for a lifetime.

    —-end excerpt—-

    Shorter: this is good advice on how to craft questions more likely to attract better answers from smarter people; meanhile, here’s what I found that might help you along; and here’s how I found it …

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