The central lesson of Climategate is not that climate science is corrupt. The leaked e-mails do nothing to disprove the scientific consensus on global warming. Instead, the controversy highlights that in a world of blogs, cable news and talk radio, scientists are poorly equipped to communicate their knowledge and, especially, to respond when science comes under attack.
A few scientists answered the Climategate charges almost instantly. Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, whose e-mails were among those made public, made a number of television and radio appearances. A blog to which Mann contributes, RealClimate.org, also launched a quick response showing that the e-mails had been taken out of context. But they were largely alone. “I haven’t had all that many other scientists helping in that effort,” Mann told me recently.
So writes Chris Mooney in his must-read op-ed opinion piece in the Washington Post, “On issues like global warming and evolution, scientists need to speak up.” It looks like the Post is feeling just a tad guilty over the travesty of the Sarah Palin op-ed, having now published three responses, though only one was on the op-ed page. Mooney is on the second page of the Outlook section, which probably gets much fewer readers than the op-ed page now residing in the paper’s front section.
I certainly can’t disagree with Mooney’s core argument, since I have been making a similar point for a while (see Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1). Indeed, Physics World published a piece of mine on this very subject last year (see “Publicize or perish: The scientific community is failing miserably in communicating the potential catastrophe of climate change).
I was so frustrated that scientists were not communicating with the media in a media-friendly way on Climategate/Swifthack that, after waiting several days for the scientific community to put together a media call, I did so myself (see Exclusive audio of press call today with Michael Mann, Gavin Schmidt, and Michael Oppenheimer on “Climate Science: Setting the Record Straight”). I was also very critical of the scientist at the center of the maelstrom for adopting the Tiger Woods approach to media relations (see “Phil Jones has today announced that he will stand aside as Director of the Climatic Research Unit until the completion of an independent Review”). Jones’ failure to speak up, failure to make himself available to the press the way Mann did, helped this story blow up.
BUT I can’t really agree that scientists haven’t responded. Here’s but a short list of the many leading scientific institutions and hundreds of scientists who have:
- 1700 UK scientists come forward to reaffirm climate science
- Climate science statement from the Met Office, NERC and the Royal Society: It’s the hottest decade on record and “even since the 2007 IPCC Assessment the evidence for dangerous, long-term and potentially irreversible climate change has strengthened.”
- The American Association for the Advancement of Science reaffirms “The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society.”
- American Meteorological Society reaffirms “that the atmosphere, ocean, and land surface are warming; that humans have significantly contributed to this change; and that further climate change will continue to have important impacts on human societies”¦.”
- Nature editorial: “Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real “” or that human activities are almost certainly the cause.”
- Statement on stolen emails by IPCC Working Group I on basic climate science
BUT such relatively passive outreach doesn’t work with a media that has been scaling back on science journalism, that needs a much more pro-active media outreach effort.
Yes, a few media outlets went to the trouble of reaching out to leading scientists themselves, notable the Associated Press — see Must read AP analysis of stolen emails: An “exhaustive review” shows “the exchanges don’t undercut the vast body of evidence showing the world is warming because of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.”
But with the cacophany of voices screaming to get media attention, simply issuing a statement is no way to get serious coverage these days. Back to Mooney:
This isn’t a new problem. As far back as the late 1990s, before the news cycle hit such a frenetic pace, some science officials were lamenting that scientists had never been trained in how to talk to the public and were therefore hesitant to face the media.
“For 45 years or so, we didn’t suggest that it was very important,” Neal Lane, a former Clinton administration science adviser and Rice University physicist, told the authors of a landmark 1997 report on the gap between scientists and journalists. “. . . In fact, we said quite the other thing.”
The scientist’s job description had long been to conduct research and to teach, Lane noted; conveying findings to the public was largely left to science journalists. Unfortunately, despite a few innovations, that broad reality hasn’t changed much in the past decade.
Scientific training continues to turn out researchers who speak in careful nuances and with many caveats, in a language aimed at their peers, not at the media or the public. Many scientists can scarcely contemplate framing a simple media message for maximum impact; the very idea sounds unbecoming. And many of them don’t trust the public or the press: According to a recent Pew study, 85 percent of U.S. scientists say it’s a “major problem” that the public doesn’t know much about science, and 76 percent say the same about what they see as the media’s inability to distinguish between well-supported science and less-than-scientific claims. Rather than spurring greater efforts at communication, such mistrust and resignation have further motivated some scientists to avoid talking to reporters and going on television.
They no longer have that luxury. After all, global-warming skeptics suffer no such compunctions. What’s more, amid the current upheaval in the media industry, the traditional science journalists who have long sought to bridge the gap between scientists and the public are losing their jobs en masse. As New York Times science writer Natalie Angier recently observed, her profession is “basically going out of existence.” If scientists don’t take a central communications role, nobody else with the same expertise and credibility will do it for them.
Meanwhile, the task of translating science for the public is ever more difficult: Information sources are multiplying, partisan news outlets are replacing more objective media, and the news cycle is spinning ever faster.
You can read the Angier interview here. She makes some important points:
“It’s basically going out of existence,” said Angier of newspapers’ science coverage. She noted that the coverage tends to be more fragmented and less comprehensive than it once was. “There’s something about the human mind that wants to have a sustained story-line,” she said, “and we’re not getting that.”
Several mainstream news organizations in recent years have let go of their science reporters and done away with their science sections altogether. The science section of The New York Times, which is one of the few left in the country, features more health-related stories and fewer hard-science stories than it used to, said Angier, a Pulitzer Prize winner.
She believes part of this change is driven by readers’ interest in issues that they believe affect them directly and that they can have some control over.
Ironically, human-caused global warming will be the greatest sustained story-line of all this century — particularly if the anti-science crowd keeps winning the news cycle and succeeds in delaying the necessary action long enough to ensure the world is subjected to the very worst consequences aka Hell and High Water. Even more ironic, readers do have some control over their fate — but only if we act swiftly and strongly. If the media and scientific community let the public and policymakers snooze through one more decade, then our ability to control our own destiny will start to diminish rapidly (see “The coming climate panic?“)
Mooney ends on an optimistic note:
The precise ways in which scientists should change their communication strategies vary from issue to issue, but there are some common themes. Reticence is never a good thing, especially on a politically fraught topic such as global warming — it just cedes the debate to the other side. “If we come out of this with a more organized way of dealing with these attacks in the future, then it will have done some good,” Mann said of Climategate.
On other topics, including evolution, scientists must recognize that more than scientific matters are at stake, and either address the moral and ethical issues themselves, or pair with those who can (in the case of evolution, religious leaders and scientists such as Giberson and National Institutes of Health chief Francis Collins, who in 2006 wrote a book called “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief“).
All this will require universities to do a better job of training young scientists in media and communication. The good news is that this is beginning to happen: At the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego, for instance, marine biologist Jeremy Jackson’s “Marine Biodiversity and Conservation” summer course introduces young scientists to the media, blogging and even filmmaking.
“Traditionally, scientists have been loathe to interact with the media,” Jackson said in a recent interview. But in his class, “the students understand that good science is only the beginning to solving environmental problems, and that nothing will be accomplished without more effective communication to the general public.” Scientists need not wait for former vice presidents to make hit movies to teach the public about their fields — they must act themselves.
And in another sign that the times may be changing, a syllabus for such classes is already here. A spate of recent books, from Randy Olson’s “Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style” to Cornelia Dean’s “Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public,” seem like perfect assigned reading.
I long to see an organized effort by the scientific community to respond to the anti-science disinformation campaign, which has been well funded by the fossil fuel community and right wing. Educating the next generation of scientists to be better communicators is a terrific idea, but in the specific case of global warming, either this generation of scientists starts speaking much more directly and effectively to the public and policymakers — bypassing the soon-to-be-non-existent science media — or all the communications skills of the next generation of scientists will be all but irrelevant.
Oh, and communications jobs one for the current generation of climate scientists is getting meetings with each member of the U.S. Senate over the next few months — yes every last one of them, though the Swing Senators are where to start — to explain that human-caused global warming is all too real, that it is happening faster than most of the media has reported, and that the consequences of inaction would be unimaginably catastrophic for their constituents, the nation, and the world.