Improving climate change communication, or dumbing down the science?

Appealing to the lowest common denominator and expunging doubt and uncertainty from science outreach and debate is not the way to deal with public misunderstanding of climate change.

In a recent issue of the American Geophysical Union‘s Eos newspaper, science communication consultant Susan Joy Hassol argues that climate researchers are failing in their efforts to communicate effectively with the public.

Some of Hassol’s recommendations have merit. Scientists should indeed be careful in their choice of words, and avoid jargon that may be unfamiliar or have different meanings in the world outside the lab and common-room. Examples given by Hassol include “anthropogenic”, where “human-caused” might in some situations be better; “spatial” and “temporal” (“space” and “time”); and temperature trends expressed in degrees per decade, where total change over a given period saves the arithmetically-challenged having to exert themselves.

But Hassol goes much further than to highlight certain linguistic no-nos. She warns scientists against using “weasel words” and caveats, and advocates the use of more assertive statements, shorn even of the word “debate”. I disagree. If we were to accept Hassol’s advice in total, then the result would be an increase in the hyperbole to which some people react by mentally turning off when the subject of climate change is raised.

A similar point was made by the renowned geospace physicist Syun-Ichi Akasofu in the same issue of Eos:

“In my opinion, reporters could be doing a better job of portraying what scientists and, maybe more importantly, what we do not know.

“Because there has been so much misrepresentation about climate change, I am also concerned about the inevitable backlash against science and scientists when the public ultimately learns the correct information.”

As an atmospheric physicist turned freelance science journalist, I know how research scientists think and act, and also how media workers – with and without science degrees – function. And having discussed climate issues in the political blogosphere with individuals who have no science education, I know that they are crying out for reliable information, uncertainty and all. They mistrust those who feed them science-lite, and rightly so.

In my experience most research-active scientists are, with a little help from professional communications workers, perfectly capable of explaining their work in language comprehensible by the public. And having monitored for the past decade and a half the way in which scientists present their work in peer-reviewed journals, I would say they are becoming less jargonistic and more literary when communicating with each other. This is a remarkable and positive change.

Hassol presents us with a caricature rather than an accurate portrayal of the modern-day climate scientist. If the word “anthropogenic” has found its way into the popular press, then this can only be a good thing. Virtually everyone now understands what it means, and linguistic palettes are enriched as a result.

The same goes for the term “theory”, which Hassol suggests should be expunged from public discussion of climate science. I disagree. Scientists should educate the public and explain to them the true meaning of “theory” and “hypothesis”. This is a crucial issue in the debate surrounding so-called “intelligent design”, and I’m afraid there is no easy way around it.

To talk of “weasel words” is to introduce a straw man into the discussion. I do not see scientists using words or statements that are intentionally ambiguous or misleading when communicating climate issues. Caveats, yes. Uncertainty is part and parcel of science, and it is vital that scientists are honest about uncertainty.

If scientists remove doubt from public discussion of their work, they treat people with contempt. And this will not be forgotten by consumers of media products, who may then take their custom elsewhere. We cannot risk appealing to the lowest common denominator when attempting to influence the mass of humanity. There may be many fools walking on two legs, but most human beings are by definition of average intelligence, and thus perfectly capable of grasping reasonably complex concepts.

Where Hassol is on much stronger ground is in her advocacy of communication via metaphor. As a species we use stories to convey truths both literal and moral, and metaphor plays a powerful role in narrative. Journalists habitually use the word “story” to describe their news reports, and they are more likely to engage with scientists who can communicate with them on this level.

In my work as a science journalist I liaise with a number of outstanding press officers charged with packaging scientific research for media consumption. My advice to scientists is to make full use of such professional communications expertise.

By full use I mean don’t just present press officers with your latest paper, and give them a five-minute interview from which they can extract a few quotes for a public release. Set aside some time, sit down with them over coffee, and discuss the science and what you are trying to do with it. And make sure that you communicate directly with journalists, with the press officers in the background providing support where needed.

There are a few problems with the way in which climate science is presented and debated in public. But this hugely complex issue is constantly in the news, and surely this says something positive about how seriously scientists take their public outreach responsibilities. There is of course room for improvement, but dumbing down the science will not improve matters.