Posts Tagged ‘science communication’

Dilemmas in science communication

April 17, 2012

Slightly different version has been posted and discussed at Planet3

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting on science communication and the increasing public distrust of science. Climate was not the major theme, though it did come up as an example (not least because I was an invited speaker, as a blogging scientist / scientific blogger).

Cees van Woerkum: Modern vs traditional communication

The first speaker was professor in communication science, Cees van Woerkum. I attended his lectures 19 years ago. He explained how the old model, of a sender and a receiver of communication, was no longer valid (if it ever was). Modern communication is characterized by a much more active role of the audience in selecting what information to take in. Also, the message is not inert, but rather gets meaning in an active and social process.

Drawing on examples from biotechnology, carbon capture and storage, and vaccination he argued that scientists should take the concerns of citizens seriously. Laughing at somebody for calling biotechnology “unnatural” is not going to take their worries away or change their mind. Calling fears of side effects from vaccinations “dangerous nonsense” doesn’t quite work either, especially not if those concerns have already been anchored to a certain extent through social construction. If a scientist calls the chance of CO2 leakage from a storage facility vanishingly small, the response is “so it’s not impossible?!” A potential way out according to van Woerkum is to ask what’s behind their concerns: What do you mean by unnatural?” Then you can at least start to have a conversation.

Jona Lendering: A different field of scientific inquiry facing large scale disinformation

This was followed by a presentation by author and historian Jona Lendering. Although the topic of his talk was something entirely different (about ancientPersia) the similarities with the climate debate were striking. He explained how this field of academic enquiry (about the origin of Western civilization) was being “attacked by anti-scientific tendencies” (aiming to glorify one culture’s role). The scientific establishment hardly participated in the public debate on the internet. As a consequence, the anti-scientific views got more traction and mainstream science failed in (what should be) one its core missions: Informing the public. He repeatedly stated the mechanism: “Bad information drives out good information”. He also mentioned the “intense hate” with which the “attack-machines” approach science. It was as if I was listening to Kevin Trenberth; the dynamic between a skeptical-cynical part of the audience and mainstream science was just too similar.

Me: Dilemmas in science communication

I talked about the dynamics of blog discussions and about the dilemmas that one encounters in trying to communicate scientific insights to a broad audience, mainly in the sphere of understandability vs completeness:

I mentioned that imho mainstream media suffers from too much emphasis on news (as opposed to robust knowledge) and on mere facts (to the detriment of explaining the scientific process of getting to understand those facts). In the blogosphere I see too much emphasis on details (to the detriment of the big picture) and on uncertainties (to the detriment of robust knowledge).

The last one on the list I actually added based on the dilemma that van Woerkum alerted the audience to: As a scientist (or science journalist), you can no longer easily claim “listen to me, I’ll tell you how it is”. You have to take the concerns of citizens seriously.

But what to do if those concerns are not openly expressed, but rather disguised in scientific sounding (but incorrect or sometimes even plain silly) arguments? “Climate change is due to the sun” or “Iranis the origin of Western civilization” or “vaccination causes autism”? The underlying reason for skepticism often remains hidden. As a scientist, you’re sucked into a quasi-scientific argument. How else can you react, than by saying: “no, that’s not the way it is. It’s this and this way, for such and such reasons”? But such a reaction is being characterized by skeptics ((mis-)using van Woerkum’s words) as “unjustified superiority of science”. Is explaining how science sees it a hopeless strategy?

In line with van Woerkum I think it’s important to focus on the underlying reasons for distrusting science. We should really discuss why we disagree so strongly about climate change (e.g. due to differences in worldviews and in risk perception). Keith Kloor cites Scott Denning (who spent a lot of time talking with contrarians, e.g. at two consecutive Heartland meetings):

Almost everyone that dismisses climate change as a problem does it for ideological or political reasons, not for scientific reasons.

Of course, there are also other potential reasons, but this one is surely a biggie.

Discussions about hockeysticks and feedbacks are all very interesting, but they are not the crux of why there is a such a heated and politicized debate about climate change. We don’t have a similar public debate about the mating behavior of fruitflies after all.


Science communication: Who is responsible (for its failing)?

March 9, 2011

There’s a semi-continuous argument going on about who’s to blame for the lack of public understanding about climate change. I’ve discussed the communication conundrum a few times as well, and assigned blame to various quarters, e.g

The media:

The popular media often paint a false picture of the scientific debate by giving the tiny minority viewpoints equal footing as the consensus viewpoints.


Most scientists are very bad at talking about their scientific field in plain, understandable language.

Though of course both statements in isolation miss the broader point, which is that

there are weaknesses in all parts of the chain that hamper the communication and use of climate science: A lack of good communication by scientists, a lack of scientific literacy amongst the public, the education system, the political system, a lack of fact-checking by the media, disinformation by vested interests, etc.

Enough self-quotation. Discussions are raging at Keith’s, Eli’s (check out John Fleck’s comments), mt’s, Stoat, with very interesting discussions in the comments sections.


John, tell your friends to get off the all scientists are lousy communicators and it’s their fault that the science is not being communicated kick and maybe we can talk.

To which many journalists would understandably reply: Exchange “scientists” by “journalists” as well while you’re at it. And both would be right.

John Fleck points out that, apart from egregious examples that exist e.g. in the opinionsphere journalism,

the data would suggest that journalists across the major press publications in the area I deal with most closely – climate change – are doing a creditable job.

Max Boykoff, now at the University of Colorado, has done the most work on this. His most recent analysis of newspaper coverage of climate change found that the British tabloid press “significantly diverged from the scientific consensus that humans contribute to climate change,” but that what Boykoff calls the “prestige press” (NY Times, Guardian, LA Times, Washington Post, etc.) pretty much gets the story right. Despite the widespread belief in a “false balance” problem, Boykoff’s most recent data showed a steady decline in the problem, such that in 2006 (the most recent year for which he’s got data, sadly), just 3 percent of the US and UK stories he surveyed did the “false balance” thing.

William puts the lion’s share of responsibility with the public:

But if the public wanted intelligently written journalism that actually explored issues carefully, they would get it. Alas (as far as I can tell), most of them want entertainment, but they want to feel good about watching it, so they want to pretend they are watching news, so effectively they are asking to be lied to. And that is what they get.

There’s something to that. Over the years, even the evening news and the weather forecast have changed in its narrative and appearance so as to be more about entertainment than about information. Election debates. Blogs. People want entertainment and they want it now. Gimme a quick fix, quick. Next, what’s next? There’s no time for learning or reflection.

Jonathan Gilligan has a similar line of thought as William, putting the responsibility on the public to consume the information they chose to:

There are lots of great books by scientists and journalists, so why do we assume that deadline journalism is so much more important than books for getting accurate and clear information to the public?

Yes, there’s bad journalism and there are bad books, but there are also excellent examples of both and if we can’t trust the general public to figure out what’s trustworthy, then it’s game over for democracy regardless what we do for the environment.

While rather gloomy in its ending, I think Gilligan is right that news journalism (interesting discussion on that thread, esp. the back and forth between Gilligan, Kloor and Tobis) isn’t the type of medium that we can expect to cover slowly unraveling stories in any depth. But even deadline news journalism is usually put in a certain context, where such issues can be touched upon. And there’s also background journalism, science journalism, and other kinds of communication (by scientists, journalists or whomever) that could rise to the occasion.

Which gets us to the point that it’s really about. Quoting mt:

the real question isn’t “whose fault?” It’s “what now?”

Communicating science: Angry or calm, cerebral or emotional?

March 12, 2010

Randy Olson, author from the provocative book “Don’t be such a scientist!” has some interesting essays over at The Benshi.

Provocative? Well, not everybody agrees with his suggestions. Michael Tobis for example argues the exact opposite: Act like a scientist! Oh, and what to think of this opening sentence of a review of the book:

“I’m going to write this review in the style suggested by Randy Olson. This means that I’m going to use my penis.”

I guess that the reviewer’s interpretation of not being so cerebral.

Anyway, over at The Benshi I ran into this video of Ed Begley Jr. being interviewd on Fox News in the wake of the “climategate” mess. I was cracking up. As Randy said to Ed: He kicked ass. He made some good points along the way as well, though half the interview they were trying to shout each other down, so it was hard to follow. If there would be rice on the table it would have quite literally turned into a foodfight I gather. Begley appeared sincere though, and sincerely angry.

Now the question is, is this the way we ought to communicate? As filmmaker/activist I guess everything goes, and it may be effective indeed (Begley did get his main point across), but I do have a feeling that it’s not effective or even counterproductive in the long run for a scientist to go at it the way Ed Begley does.

OTOH, isn’t it time we get out of the defense (yeah, we made a small mistake; we’ll try to do better next time; please don’t hit us) and tell the public how it is? Call a liar a liar? And a duck a duck? (There’s an excellent analogy hidden behind that ducky title btw.) And then we have people argue the opposite, that scientists should just stick to the science and not be so defensive, let alone offensive. That we should embrace our critics.

I’m of two minds on this one, though many of the pseudo-skeptics in the blogosphere have had a very destructive influence on the science, especially lately. If they have shown by their behavior not to be interested in contributing to the science in a constructive manner, then I don’t see the point in inviting them to the table. In fact, they have been welcome all along, if they chose to play by the scientific rules. They have chosen not to; I don’t see any point in changing the rules to accommodate them. (See for a good explanation of the scientific rules/methods here, starting at slide 39).

Olson interviewed Marc Morano and concluded that, for all the falsehoods he’s spreading, he is great communicator. He lists the following reasons why:

1 Specifics

2 Arouse and fulfill

3 Non-controlling

4 Humor

5 Storytelling

6 Drama

7 Ability to listen

8 Non-condescension

9 Speed

10 Likeability

So on the scientific side of things, do we have great communicators? Richard Alley was fabulous at the AGU. Tim Lambert did great in his debate with Monckton. I like Naomi Oreskes as a speaker, but that’s to a large degree for what she sais rather than how she sais it. Spencer Weart is great storyteller, at least in written form.

Debates are tough. A scientist will likely get very frustrated about the stream of lies and “truthisms” being spout by the “skeptic” debating opponent. Keeping your cool is a necessary, but darn hard in such a case. OTOH, and as per Olson’s suggestion, not being afraid to invoke and show emotions either. Then the challenge is how to find a balance between the kung-fu style attack modus of Begley and the frustrated shouting of “asshole” by Watson?

I discussed Olson’s and Craven‘s books and ideas before here. Mt discusses science and journalism and science communication in a lot of insightful posts. He is no fan of Olson, mind you.

The public role of scientists

December 11, 2009

To what extent should scientists differentiate in their role as ‘pure’ scientists and their role as public educator, advocate, activist, or whatever other public role they may want to assume? James Hansen is not afraid to voice his political opinion. As expected, he is viciously attacked for that by political opponents, but others, even if not in agreement on everything he sais, give him credit for differentiating clearly between talking science and providing a personal opinion. I definitely do.

Roger Pielke Jr frequently takes issue with how scientists blur these roles. He often charges that scientists (especially those from RealClimate are a frequent target) “argue politics through science”, i.e. pretending to talk only science, but in the meantime providing a value-laden political stance. Now that all depends on what he means by “politics”.

Climate scientists more and more speak out about the need to (drastically) reduce emissions. IMHO, they do so based on an understanding of the science. Of course, it is also based on a value judgement, that the risks posed by unmitigated climate change are undesirable. Roger’s point (I think) is that this value judgement is not widely shared. He may be right in that, but I think that the vast majority of people opposing the need to curb emissions do so for reasons other than science, and then rationalize that decision by twisting the science around so that it fits their pre-conceived wish not to curb emissions. There are preciously few people who really accept the science, and still strongly argue against emission reduction.

Consider the analogy of a lifelong smoker who goes to see his doctor for breathing problems. The doctor may say: “All the indications point towards your lung function deteriorating. This is very likely related to you having smoked for X decades. In order to minimize the risk to your health, I urge you to quit smoking.”

That is what I see Gavin Schmidt and many other climate scientists doing. And I find it perfectly legitimate, even desirable, that scientists (as well as doctors) share their knowledge about risks with those who need to know.

If the doctor were to say as the last sentence instead “(…) I urge you to take these nicotine patches” he would act as a stealth advocate, since there are many more options to quit smoking that the patient may want to chose from.

If the patient is so hooked to his cigarettes, and would rather continue smoking than extend his statistical life expectancy by X months, he is free to do so. If however he rationalizes that decision by claiming “smoking isn’t bad for your health at all. My dad was 96 when he died in a car accident, and he chain-smoked his whole life!”, the doctor would be right to reply: “You’re mistaken. Smoking is definitely bad for your health. If you keep smoking, your life expectancy will be X month less than if you quit smoking, and you will have more breathing problems. It is your choice whether or not to quit smoking, but you should make your choice in the full knowledge of these consequences”.

This highlights a different problem. One could argue that by continuing to smoke, the patient really only impacts his own health negatively (and those who breath the second hand smoke; likely not the doctor). If the majority of people, and especially the people in power, decide to ignore the problem and not change the trajectory society is on, it is everybody who suffers. Even worse, those in different parts of the world, and those who have yet to be born, will suffer the most. That makes it much more difficult to just say “I don’t care if you quit smoking, as long as you realize the risks”. 

So climate scientists could perhaps be more specific about this, by saying e.g.: “You’re mistaken. Unabated CO2 emissions will very likely cause substantial climate change, with serious consequences. So you should decide your course of action based on this knowledge. If you don’t care about these risks, that is your perogative. However I do. Please find yourself another planet to experiment on.”

Communicating science: finding common ground

October 22, 2009

In discussions, you can either stress the disagreements and differences, or you can search for common ground. Greg Craven (the high school teacher with the youtube climate hit a few years ago) does the latter very well, see eg this video of his, where he sais:

I point out that my motivations are simply pragmatic, because in my experience, that’s the case for a lot of you, as well, so it’s common ground for us. (…) What I’m concerned about is me and mine, and our lifestyle.

Terrific. That hits home, it hits a nerve, and more importantly, it hits quite a strong nerve especially with those that are not convinced of the urgency of the problem.

Greg has since written a book (“What’s the worst that could happen?”), meant for the layperson to make sense out of the climate debate. I haven’t read it (yet), but judged from his video’s and website, he’s a great communicator with a healthy dose of both humour and common sense.

Simon Donner makes a similar point with respect to addressing religious constituencies. That one is a challenge for me though, I have to admit. More on that in a later post.

Even when two people disagree, they often both make valid points. Most scientists are good at doing science, and are not great storytellers (with, of course, many exceptions). So they naturally resent being told to go and tell a story, especially so when they feel that they’re being (partly) blamed for the public confusion about the issue. On the other hand, Olson is right, that the nature of the game has changed, and that scientists who do communicate to the public better be aware of how the public filters and digests information these days, and shape their message accordingly.

The latter episode is an example of an all too common pattern: When someone’s role is criticized, it invokes a defensive reaction. Whereas more often than not, there are multiple reasons for the problem under consideration. In this case, there are weaknesses in all parts of the chain that hamper the communication and use of climate science: A lack of good communication by scientists, a lack of scientific literacy amongst the public, the education system, the political system, a lack of fact-checking by the media, disinformation by vested interests, etc. And in many of these cases, it’s very hard for individuals to change their behaviour for the better, since the institutions were built in accordance with the status quo. E.g., the way scientific work is structured and valued actually dissuades them from engaging in public outreach.

Communicating science: dealing with questions

October 2, 2009

“…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.”

KNMI: The state of the climate

August 6, 2008


The 5 yearly report “The state of the Climate” (in Dutch only) has just been released by the KNMI (Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute). It’s focused on the Dutch climate, but put in a global perspective, and it’s aimed at governments, organizations, and the general public. A main conclusion is that The Netherlands has warmed up more than twice as fast as the global average.


That’s in principle not so surprising, because land warms up faster than oceans. The extra warmth is being mixed (and thus tampered) in the upper water column, and water has a large heat capacity (which causes it to warm up less with the same input of energy). Indeed, most of Europe has warmed faster than the global average. The Netherlands also has also gotten more precipitation during the past 100 years.


Dutch and global temperature (anomaly) trends 1950-2008

Dutch and global temperature (anomaly) trends 1950-2008


Figure 2.1 from the report shows that the temperature in The Netherlands fluctuates much more than the global temperature. That makes perfect sense, because random variations are averaged out to a greater extent when more measurements are included. That is valid for more measurements in space (global versus Dutch) and e.g. also for more measurements in time (40 versus 5 years).  Logical as this may be, you would be surprised how often anthropogenic climate change is being denied, based on 5 (sometimes even 1) year temperature trends, or based on that one glacier in Africa (or was it the Himalaya?) that has increased in length. You can easily find these kinds of arguments on the internet and certain other media (but you won’t hear them at a scientific conference). That has the positive side effect that it can act as a warning signal that the information on such a website is not scientifically sound (even though they often try very hard to make it appear scientific).


The discussion about the temperature trends ends with the statement that “a connection with the enhanced greenhouse effect seems logical, but hasn’t been shown/proven yet” (my translation). Such a sentence seems more geared towards scientists than the general audience, which is the stated target group of the report. I think that the uncertainty here is mainly a consequence of the large variability of the temperature signal over a small area (as discussed above), and that makes it difficult to draw hard conclusions from it (in comparison to global temperature trends). And of course, there is no strict proof in the mathematical sense (nor will there ever be).


Most readers of the report will interpret this very differently however. Many will interpret it as meaning that it’s quite possible that the (local or global?) temperature rise has nothing to do with rising greenhouse gases. However, the chance of that being the case is very small indeed. Uncertainty has a very different meaning in the scientific jargon than in daily language. Oftentimes, science communication fails to convey a proper understanding of the relative (un)certainty, which is a shame.

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