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Climate controversy pushing scientists to become better communicators

Explaining science is something reporters, especially science reporters, must do. But most of us are not scientists. Instead, we rely on the type of scientist who is good at telling stories, good at translating what happens in the lab to people who may not have been around an Erlenmeyer flask since high school.

So what makes a scientist a good communicator? It turns out the scientific community has become more interested in figuring that out.


 

A Researcher Starts Talking Science

Take a look at a definition of radiative forcing from a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

”…the change in net irradiance at the tropopause after allowing for stratospheric temperatures to readjust to radiative equilibrium…”

Are you following? Me neither. What about this?

The sun shines down on Earth, warming our oceans, burning our skin, heating the asphalt.  The numbers suggest more and more heat is getting absorbed by the earth and its inhabitants, and less is being reflected out into space. This is making the earth hotter.

Now you know I’m describing global warming. Scientists face a struggle all the time. How to talk about their work in a way that everyone gets, but remains true to the science.  And how not to wince the next day when the headlines miss the nuances in what they tried to say.

Twenty-nine year old Christina Love teaches physics at Drexel University.  During her years of science education, she got no formal training in how to communicate with non-scientists. And that’s not unusual. When she speaks to biologists, she says she often has no idea what they’re talking about. That’s one of science’s dirty little secrets. A scientist out of their field, often knows just about as much as someone who majored in philosophy. So Love set out to organize what she calls “Start Talking Science.”

At an event at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Center City Philadelphia, Love stands by a poster explaining her Ph.D. thesis on building a better machine to detect dark matter to a few young students. One is majoring in political science. And Love is giving some background.

“So you see these beautiful pictures of our galaxy,” Love tells a crowd gathered around her poster, “one model shows that our galaxy’s way deep down in this huge spherical halo of dark matter. We’re surrounded by it. It’s here, but you can’t detect it.”

What is dark matter?

Dark matter is this large amount of mass that we detect based on the gravitational effects,” says Love. “So essentially we know that there’s a lot more mass than we see. Detectors that have to be very very sensitive to detect something no one can see or feel.”

Get-togethers like this are something scientists do all the time with other scientists. But this time, this event is open to the public, and scientific jargon is discouraged.

“When I first learned about dark matter, I was an undergrad at West Chester University, and I really wanted to scream,” says Love. “I thought, ‘How is this possible, how did I not know this up until now?’ I went through my grade school and high school thinking we know everything and it turns out what we know is less than five percent of the entire universe, so there’s just some amazing things out there that everyone deserves to know and understand.”

The Push to Communicate

In the last 10 years, major scientific societies have begun holding workshops on communications. Some have even established big money prizes to promote the idea.

Naomi Oreskes teaches the history of science at Harvard University and she’s written extensively about funding for climate change deniers.

“There’s definitely been a change from a feeling ten years ago that it was the job of the scientist to do the science as well and as accurately as possible,” says Oreskes. “But it was someone else’s job to communicate it. And most scientists that I knew and I talked to thought it was your job, it was the job of science journalists. And scientists used to get mad because they thought science journalists did a poor job.”

After writing extensively on climate change, Oreskes has turned to “science-based fiction” to reach a new audience. Her latest book, “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future,” is a worst-case climate change scenario looking back from the year 2393.

Oreskes says controversies around politically charged topics such as climate change have led a lot of scientists to rethink how they talk about their work. If the science is complicated, she says, it’s a delicate art to simplify without dumbing it down.

“I always like to say it’s not dumbing it down; it’s cleaning it up,” says Oreskes. “But how to make that clean up, how to present it in a way that’s not misleading, it’s not trivial.”

The Push Back on Communication

Oreskes says one of the best science communicators to emerge from the lab into the public sphere is Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann. Mann has had his own turnaround when it comes to speaking out.

“We have to accept that we don’t live in a world where scientists can simply do the science, publish it and assume it will translate into good public policy,” says Mann. “It doesn’t work that way.”

If Mann sounds like he’s on the warpath for better science communication, he is.

“We have to be out there defending the science, explaining the science and its implications because if we don’t it means special interests, front groups, paid attack dogs will simply poison the discussion with misinformation and disinformation.”

Mann’s views are shaped by personal experience. In 1998 he co-authored a paper that looked at weather patterns from medieval times by analyzing ice cores and tree rings. And in this paper was a simple little graph, one he thought pretty uninteresting.

But the graph communicated his findings so well, so easily, to a lay audience, that it got a lot of press. Then, he became a top target for those who claim climate change is a hoax, including powerful interests in the fossil fuel industry.

He was called before Congress; his emails were hacked. At one point, in a national magazine, he was referred to as the “Jerry Sandusky of climate change.”

“I never imagined that majoring in physics and applied math and going into the study of the climate system would place me in the center of what may be the most contentious debate that we have faced as a society,” says Mann. “I didn’t sign up for that.”

But now Mann has embraced it. That iconic chart is now known as the hockey stick graph. It shows how the average temperature of the earth has risen dramatically since the start of the industrial revolution. He’s even written a book on his experiences. “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.”

Mann says back before the famous graph, he was pretty naïve and just wanted to stay in his lab doing nerdy calculations. He’s now an advocate for scientists to get out of their bunkers and engage the public.

“And part of that is using metaphors and trying to get outside of your own scientific comprehension of the issues,” he says. “And thinking about how would I think about this if I wasn’t a climate scientist? If I wasn’t a scientist at all.”

Communicating the Scientific Process

Mann says the challenges include widespread misconceptions about the scientific process.

“We don’t prove things in science,” says Mann. “We establish best explanations for observed phenomenon. We apply weights of evidence. We pose hypotheses and then we look at observations and see if they support the hypothesis. It’s an iterative process. There are huge uncertainties at the base of every area of science; that doesn’t mean that we know nothing.”

Mann and Oreskes, the Harvard professor, agree that the problem for scientists is not just a lack of skill or comfort with public speaking. Science sits at the center of many major public policy debates.  Economic interests on both sides look for science that supports their position – and will attack findings that don’t.

That point is not lost on younger scientists like physicist Christina Love.

“It’s almost a fear of not explaining it properly and all of a sudden becoming the next controversy,” she says. “And so you kind of see that with evolution and climate change and at the risk of getting cosmologists in trouble, I don’t think the Big Bang theory is attacked all that much, and I don’t really understand why.”

Maybe the explanation is that, even though some think the Big Bang conflicts with the Bible, the theory doesn’t really threaten anyone’s livelihood.  Yet.

Comments

  • Individual

    One mistake you can make is to ‘rely’ on some one to think for you. Listen and scrutinize what is being given to you as fact. A good theory is one that can stand up to scrutiny of any sort.

    • Jack Wolf

      At this point in my life, I see the changes. All the record breaking weather events and the ice sheet loss tells me the change is well underway. The theory is still as good as when I first studied it in the late 1970s, and pretty much all that it predicted is unfortunately occurring. Now that it is irreversible, our government need to step up to the plate to finally protect the public, or it will undoubtedly fall.

      • jim_robert

        See changes? So do I. I am a Canadian who hikes a lot in the Canadian Rockies. Early pictures from the area vs. today show much glacier recession, at least for some glaciers, such as
        Bow Glacier, which is the source of the Bow River. The hiking book Classic Hikes in the Canadian Rockies shows this glacier around 1900. If you go there today, the same glacier is much, much receded.

        But here is the rub, which I wonder if you have the intellectual honesty to consider . The same anti-science types, who think science is determined by “consensus” (of which there is none, not even close) rather than **experimentation and hypothesis testing**,
        unthinkingly look at this and make utterly unwarranted conclusions. The fact of the matter is that there was something called the Little Ice Age (LIA) the nadir of which was the early 1800s. The simple fact is that this was one of the coldest periods since the Ice Age, and we are still emerging from this. THAT, mon ami, is why the Bow Glacier – and its sisters – have receded: we are still emerging from that LIA. This is why, according to the Archeological Survey of Canada, the tree line was 100 km. NORTH of where it is today during the MWP (Medieval Warm Period, which was preceded by the similar Roman Warm Period. Incidentally, that emergence
        from the Little Ice Age has stopped over the past dozen years – there has been ZERO global warming since 1998, which now even the co-opted IPCC admits, as did Phil Jones at Hadley , the lead global warmer – until ClimateGate forced him to resign (and you’ll notice the leftists and Agenda 21 scamsters hope you’ll
        forget Climategate… along with Lois LernerGate
        More evidence. Kegwins’ study in Nature on marine radioistopes shows that we are, today, still BELOW the 3,000 year average.
        If you google “Dr. Tim Ball+picea glauca” you will find a white spruce stump on the coast Canada’s Arctic Ocean, dated about 5,000 years ago, and NOWHERE near today’s treeline. Of course, no one on the left has the intellectual honesty to address any of this. The reality is that the left, the BIG GREEN MONEY, and the Agenda 21 types want to control energy, which allows them to
        control everything that touches, which is… well, everything

        • Jack Wolf

          You’re grasping at straws, my dear.

  • jim_robert

    I am a Canadian who hikes a lot in the Canadian Rockies. Early pictures from the area vs. today show much glacier recession, at least for some glaciers, such asBow Glacier, which is the source of the Bow River. The hiking book Classic Hikes in the Canadian Rockies shows this glacier around 1900. If you go there today, the same glacier is much, much receded.

    But here is the rub, which I wonder if you have the intellectual honesty to consider . The same anti-science types, who think science is determined by “consensus” (of which there is none, not even close) rather than **experimentation and hypothesis testing**, unthinkingly look at this and make utterly unwarranted conclusions. The fact of the matter is that there was something called the Little Ice Age (LIA) the nadir of which was the early 1800s. The simple fact is that this was one of the coldest periods since the Ice Age, and we are still emerging from this. THAT, mon ami, is why the Bow Glacier – and its sisters – have receded: we are still emerging from that LIA. This is why, according to the Archeological Survey of Canada, the tree line was 100 km. NORTH of where it is today during the MWP (Medieval Warm Period, which was preceded by the similar Roman Warm Period. Incidentally, that emergence from the Little Ice Age has stopped over the past dozen years – there has been ZERO global warming since 1998, which now even the co-opted IPCC admits, as did Phil Jones at Hadley , the lead global warmer – until ClimateGate forced him to resign (and you’ll notice the leftists and Agenda 21 scamsters hope you’ll forget Climategate… along with Lois LernerGate

    More evidence. Kegwins’ study in Nature on marine radioistopes shows that we are, today, still BELOW the 3,000 year average.
    If you google “Dr. Tim Ball+picea glauca” you will find a white spruce stump on the coast Canada’s Arctic Ocean, dated about 5,000 years ago, and NOWHERE near today’s treeline. Of course, no one on the left has the intellectual honesty to address any of this. The reality is that the left, the BIG GREEN MONEY, and the Agenda 21 types want to control energy, which allows them to
    control everything that touches, which is… well, everything

  • jim_robert

    Last Oct. –March period was the THE coldest in N. America in over 100 years. China and Thailand lost rice crop – and people died of the cold – during the same period.NASA just reported THE coldest temp EVER in Antarctica, of -135.8F, and
    Antarctic ice is at an all time EVER record extent (same Antarctic the self
    proclaimed “science guy” Bill Nye thought was the Arctic during one debate).
    Arctic ice up somewhere around 50% or so as well.

    More for ignorant global warmers: Since when has “consensus,” rather than experimentation and hypothesis testing defined science? Since Galileo? Copernicus? Columbus? Since Hitler had published “100 Scientists Against Einstein?” Since Ignaz Semmelweis was drummed out of the medical biz in the 1800s for insisting his doctors wash their hands between operations? Oh, and that consensus horsemanure?

    Al Gore, the same man who flunked out of graduate school (in a non-scientific area no less) has stated about global warming “The debate in the scientific community is over.” In contrast, Dr. Richard Lindzen of MIT, professor of atmospheric science has stated “Al Gore is wrong. There is no consensus on global warming.” and the frantic alarmism all over the media has, in Dr. Lindzen’s own words, “nothing to do with science.” Meanwhile, Colorado State
    University meteorology professor emeritus William Gray says about global
    warming: “It’s a big scam.” Frederick Seitz Past President of the National
    Academy of Sciences sponsored a petition
    against the whole global warming façade, which over 19,000 scientist signed
    this petition… as opposed to the 600 the U.N. could scrounge up, and some of
    these 600 have since reconsidered their past agreement, such as Nobel Prize
    winning physicist Ivar Glaever who stated in an update to the U.S. Senate Minority
    report for 2007 that “Global warming has become a new religion” and “I am a
    skeptic,”.Japanese scientist Kiniori Itoh, another former IPCC member who has
    called Gorian warming a “scientific scandal,” while noting that people “will
    feel deceived by science and scientists” when they learn the truth. For a complete list of signees to the OISM petition – which includes a simply staggering number of Ph.Ds go to the .oism (dot) org/pproject/ site, where they are arranged in alphabetical order. Meanwhile a similar petition www (dot) petitionproject – as of Aug., 2008 – had 31,072 scientist signatures, including 9,021 with Ph.Ds disagreeing with anthropogenic global warming.

    . Farley Mowat, the noted Canadian leftist and Greenpeace activist, wrote in his book West Viking (written while we were still in the global cooling scare) that there were probably at least dwarf forests growing in Greenland when the Vikings
    arrived in 985 AD and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History reports “… Erik
    the Red discovered two areas of southwest Greenland which were suitable for
    farming, with grasslands and small stands of alder and birch.” You will note that it is too cold today for any type of forests to grow in Greenland, and there is zero ability to farm, unless modern technologies are utilized – and even then, crop selection is very minimal. Mowat also reported the Arctic pack ice was much less in that Viking discovery era than today. Dr. Fred Singer writes that when the Vikings first settled Greenland, they grew vegetables, and it was warm enough to allow the population to grow to 3,000 people and by 1100 AD the place was thriving enough
    that they had their own bishop and twelve churches. Nature reported in a 2010 article that clamshell
    studies also confirm Norse records.
    Meanwhile, the Archeological Survey of Canada has also noted around
    “A.D. 1000, a warmer climate resulted in the tree line advancing 100 kilometres
    north of its present position.”

    Indeed, when I was conducting research
    in Iceland at Skaftafell Nat’l Park two
    years ago, Icelandic historians know from extant deeds – and have put in the
    displays at the park – that somewhere around FORTY old Viking era farms are
    currently buried under the Vatnajokull glacier system (the largest in the world
    outside of Greenland and Antarctica). In other words, it was simply much warmer
    in the Icelandic settlement era than it is today. We are routinely informed of the melting of Greenland glaciers today at lower altitudes, but demonstrably there are at bare minimum low altitude glaciers in roughly the same geographic area that had seen pronounced glacial recession one thousand years ago than
    we see today. Al Gore may want to visit Skaftafell National Park in Iceland on
    one of his many jet-setting, carbon burning trips to check the facts
    himself. More evidence: There are records of grape growing occurring in places in northern Europe back during this optimum where they can’t grow today. Gregory McNamee, in the Weather Guide Calendar (Accord Publishing, 2002) noted that wine connoisseurs might have gone to England for fine vintages (can’t grow fine vintage grapes there today!), that heat loving trees like beeches carpeted Europe far into Scandinavia, and Viking ships crossed iceberg free oceans to ice free harbors in Iceland…”. Art Horn writes that “In the winter of 1249
    it was so warm in England that people did not need winter clothes. They walked
    about in summer dress. It was so warm people thought the seasons had changed.
    There was no frost in England the entire winter. Can you imagine what NOAA
    would say if that happened next year? “

    On the other side of the world, research by Panin and Nefedov in 2010, where they analyzed rivers and lakes in the Upper Volga and Upper Zapadnaya Dvina areas in Russia, also found evidence of a Medieval climatic optimum in that part of the world Even worse for the warmers, recent research has found evidence for the Medieval Climatic Optimum in the central Peruvian Andes, southern South America, China, see, where the author XJ Zhou notes “temperatures in the Medieval Warm Period are comparable to those in the current warm period over China,” and Antarctica, Li, Y., Cole-Dai, J. and Zhou, L. 2009. Glaciochemical evidence in an East Antarctica ice core of a recent (AD 1450-1850) neoglacial episode.
    Journal of Geophysical Research 114: 10.1029/2008JD011091 Amazingly, there is
    even clear evidence of the LIA and MWP in Antarctica.

    Better, google Dr. Tim Ball+picea glauca (hint to anti-science leftists… that means
    white spruce). Here is a pix of a 5,000 year old picea glauce right NEAR
    TODAY’S ARCTIC OCEAN in western Canada, FAR from the tree line today. How did it get there, anti-science leftists?
    Truth is, there have been numerous climactic optima, including the Medieval
    Warm Period, the Roman Warm Period, etc. – that all have been as warm as, or
    warmer, than today.

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