Science lite or heavy – what would you prefer?

Back in April of this year I commented on an opinion piece by climate science communication consultant Susan Joy Hassol, published in Eos, the house journal of the 50,000 global members strong American Geophysical Union. In her article Hassol advised scientists against using words such as “anthropogenic” and “theory” in press releases and public outreach material. This confuses the proles, you see, who mentally switch off and go back to watching Big Brother.

I was at the time critical of that advice, and decided to submit a stripped-down and reworded response to Eos. This was accepted following a lengthy peer review process, and published last week along with a comment in praise of Hassol, and Hassol’s reply to both comments. Owing to copyright restrictions I cannot reproduce in full the second comment – by James Kent, another communications consultant – or Hassol’s reply, but I do refer you back to Hassol’s original piece, which she posted on her website.

Here is what I had published last week in Eos

In a recent issue of Eos (89(11), 11 March 2008), Susan Joy Hassol argued that climate researchers are failing in their efforts to communicate effectively with the public.

As a space physicist turned freelance journalist, I know how researchers think and act, and also how media workers function. From informal discussions with journalists, bloggers, and members of the general public, it is clear to me that the public is crying out for hard information. But people will instinctively mistrust those who feed them science-lite.

Most scientists who are active in research are, with a little help from professional communications workers, perfectly capable of explaining their work in language comprehensible to the public. In fact, in recent years scientists have become less jargonistic and more creative in their use of language.

If the word “anthropogenic” has found its way into the popular press, this can only be a good thing. Virtually everyone now understands what it means. Scientists should now explain to the public what they mean by “theory” and “hypothesis”. This is central to the debate surrounding evolution and so-called “intelligent design”.

To talk of “weasel words, as Hassol does, is to introduce a straw man into the discussion. Scientists include caveats when discussing climate change issues, and uncertainty is part and parcel of science. If scientists remove doubt from public discussion of their work, they treat people with condescension. Scientists and science communicators cannot risk appealing to the lowest common denominator when
attempting to influence the mass of humanity. Such a strategy will fail.

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 are more likely to engage with imaginative scientists who can communicate with them on this level.

There are problems with the way in which climate science is presented and debated in
public. Hassol presents a few potential solutions, but dumbing down the science will
not help matters.

In his comment, James Kent applauded Hassol’s “summary of what scientists need to know to communicate with the public accurately and clearly about climate change in this time of rising demand for information.” Kent then presented a caricature of scientists who grudgingly lower themselves to communicating with journalists, all the while grumbling about the distraction from research and wondering how the exercise will help in the struggle for funding and tenure. He also made an unfunny joke about light bulbs and the changing thereof.

There is no space in Eos for an extended debate on this or any other subject, and the AGU does not run web forums for this purpose. If it did, then I would expect some gnashing of teeth in response to Kent’s portrayal of grumpy research scientists who cannot be arsed to communicate with the public. Am I exaggerating? A little, possibly, but if you were to read Kent’s words in full the chances are you would interpret them in much the same way.

In my experience as a science reporter and feature article writer, I would say that only a small minority of scientists fit Kent’s description. Most scientists want to reach out and tell you, me and every Tom, Dick and Harry prepared to listen exactly what they’re up to in the lab.

The only constructive suggestion made by Kent is to integrate communications into science training, starting at the undergraduate level. That would be a very good idea, but formal media training is no substitute for passion and right attitude.

Hassol thanked Kent for his “kind words and insightful remarks”, and chastised me for misrepresenting her position. I shall leave it to you to judge whether I’m guilty of that charge. To me it appears that I’ve upset a cosy consensus among public relations professionals. Now much as I enjoy winding up PRs, this is a serious matter, and I would really like to know what readers of Eos make of it all.