On Wednesday I went to a meeting of the Royal Meteorological Society in London on the subject of ‘Communicating Climate Science’, which also served as a launch event for the meeting organisers’ report: Climate Science, the Public and the News Media.
This post will be a brief summary of what was discussed (and a bit of what wasn’t). Next week I will give a more subjective assessment based on my opinions. The meeting generated some activity on Twitter under the hashtag #rmsclim.
The meeting’s programme was well thought-out. Emily Shuckburgh’s introduction nicely summarised the problem. According to the findings in the report, only 60% of people thought that ‘most scientists agree that humans are causing climate change’. This leaves 40% who disagree or are unsure. This is clearly not an accurate representation of the overwhelming agreement on the mainstream science of climate change. She also showed several video interviews with members of the public. One person was quite incensed by scientists’ vague language, such as ‘could be caused by global warming’. This person said that she was sure that scientists did have this information and were for some reason deliberately witholding it.
Tim Palmer gave a thoughtful view from the perspective of a scientist, drawing on his experience in public debates with those opposing mainstream climate science. He spoke about how difficult it was to have to represent and effectively communicate the entirety of climate science. The format of a live debate is, as Rowan Sutton later mentioned, ‘a very bad way to share scientific knowledge’. The format requires clearly defined ‘for’ and ‘against’ positions, and there is neither time nor interest in carefully fact-checking the statements and assumptions made by the debaters.
Rosie Robinson spoke about interactions with news media. The limitations of the format are clear, since news media are concerned primarily with sparking public interest rather than accuracy. Of those articles which make it through this filter, the public preferred articles describing definite observed changes rather than uncertain future prediction. The Daily Mirror story about the effects of climate change on bees was popular because it was ‘simple’, ‘common sense’, and ‘interesting because it talks about the food chain’. It mentioned a scientific article which improved its credibility. Tabloid articles in general were praised for their brevity and clarity. Rosie offered six take-home messages:
- Information of funding sources helps counter allegations of vested interests (seen as a serious issue by many members of the public).
- Illustrating arguments with clear graphs, real-world indicators and comprehensible physical mechanisms is encouraged.
- Avoid overloading on ‘uncertain’ language and tie uncertainty to the idea that it implies we should take a precautionary approach.
- Develop simple take-home messages!
- Show passion – people are more likely to believe those who are passionate and conversational.
- No jargon. Ban ‘anthropogenic’!
Alice Bell introduced two common models of science communication and questioned whether either was really up to the challenge. The old-fashioned approach follows the deficit model. The idea is the public simply lack information, and that this can be given to them in a top-down fashion from those in authority. It concentrates on ‘making people understand’. Unsurprisingly it is seen as patronising nowadays. Engagement involves two-way interaction. It is clearly more powerful since a two-way approach can be modified based on immediate feedback from the public. But can even this approach really fulfil our goals? We ask a lot of it, and that’s something I will come back to in my next post.
Alice Bows talked about the physical and social science behind future emissions trajectories. I felt this was a little superfluous. The presentation was fine but I didn’t see what it added to the meeting. Adam Corner returned to some results from surveys. He reassured us that public trust in climate scientists and belief in the human component of climate change wasn’t in some kind of free-fall. He also introduced one of the most telling quotes I have heard on this subject. A member of the public said:
I would feel a lot better if the scientists said, ‘I believe in my heart of hearts that this is going to happen’.
I’ll come back to that in the next post. Finally, Chris Rose spoke a little about the difficulty of communicating with people holding diverse sets of values. This is essentially a problem of interest. We need to find a way to make people care, but unfortunately people don’t all care about the same things.
Finally, Tamsin Edwards flagged up something which I think scientists should be aware of.
Don’t really like the reactions of crowd here at RMetS meeting – two laughs essentially at public misunderstandings – not a good start…
— Tamsin Edwards (@flimsin) November 7, 2012
She spoke about how bad it would look to a member of the public at the meeting to see scientists laughing at what they said when they misunderstood science. It would be perceieved as patronising. Once one makes someone feel stupid, there is no chance of trying to engage with them. As someone else in the audience pointed out, there are many reasons scientists might laugh at this kind of thing: exasperation, disbelief, or simply at the sheer absurdity of the statement. The problem is not necessarily the reasons for the laughter, but the interpretation by the public. I don’t think it points to a serious problem of a condescending attitude amongst scientists, but it is something we should guard against.