Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Getting the message across

There has been a particular thread through the last few posts (1, 2, 3). In summary, a lot of people who are, at very best, ignorant of climate science are pushing a lot of misinformation and thus increasing the risk of a lot of human and financial costs. This blog aims to be a source by which those who want to learn about climate science can, and it will not be a place to debate with or otherwise give voice to the rejectionists, denialists, and willfully ignorant.

Especially since I have been thinking about it myself, though also I think because others have been focused on it also, I have noticed recently many good postings related to communicating climate science, in particular on Climate Progress. A couple of recurrent themes are (1) that scientists do not necessarily make effective communicators and (2) that the media cannot be relied upon to convey information accurately and in context.

There are actually a few different marks held against scientists as communicators, in this particular case trying to communicate the facts about climate change in the face of massive misinformation. The first issue is the idea that scientists in general are not good at the task. The stereotype is of a lab-coat wearing egghead unable to explain in clear and understandable language the area of his (yes, the stereotype is a "he") expertise to the non-expert. Not to call that view universally true, but there is some accuracy to it. It is usually not a key aspect of a scientist's job to explain his or her research to the general public.

With climate science there is the added problem of many people determined to contradict them by any means necessary. Simply trying to defeat such opposition with the facts is often hopeless. Of course the facts matter, but it is very often not enough to recite the facts - for example, when refuting someone whose attempts to refute climate science are basically to huff and puff about taxes, socialism, and taking away of freedoms.

Another issue with scientist as messenger is how this can play into the false notion that all of climate science is highly uncertain. Throw together an excerpt of an actual expert in the field with some political hack pushing a opposing and disproven view, and someone looking on who does not know any better can readily figure that there is real controversy and uncertainty throughout climate science.

That is exactly what the media tend to do. Typically, as to my eye in the case of the Grand Forks Herald, that is simply reflective of journalists being ignorant of the issue and perpetuating their perception of two sides. There is a tendency for people to think there is "on one hand" and "on the other hand" then that the truth lies somewhere in between. But to paraphrase something I read somewhere recently, what good is taking a truth plus a lie and dividing by two?

Regardless of why media may be pushing a supposed debate on whether climate change is a threat, reasonable sources should be pushed to do better. I think the Herald may be responsive. If they do not give airing to 9/11 conspiracy nuttery perhaps they can learn that climate change denial is a similar form of crackpottery and stop spreading it around. Not every story has two legitimate sides, and it is important to point that out in this case.

There is no shortage of recommendations on messaging, including things like only emphasizing for people the positives of addressing it, not using technical terms, and talking values more than science. Or the opposite of all those. There just is no single right answer, and I expect to take many different approaches here. The overall underlying theme though will be consistent. The scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change is broad and solid and points to the need for action to avert whatever we can, while those trying to dispute that rely on cherry-picked, isolated, and misrepresented information, that is when they even attempt to use evidence and not just politics, ideological platitudes, and defamation.

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