Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.

Communicating climate science: some questions


Last week I went to a meeting of the Royal Meteorological Society on communicating climate science. I summarised the main points in a previous post. In this post I will take a more opinion-based approach and discuss some questions, sparked by the meeting, which are important to me.

Should we just ‘stick to the science’?

A scientists instinct is to be cold, rational and analytical. They avoid trying to persuade their audience, and focus mostly on presenting the evidence. This ideology tends to avoid trying to influence people, allowing them to make up their own minds. Some scientists have become so good at this that their papers appear to have been written with the goal of minimising their readership.

Nevertheless, it is a natural approach for a person who has built their career around the scientific method. The rational scientist’s response to a public misunderstanding his work is simply to provide more information. However, as Alice Bell pointed out at the meeting, this ‘information’ deficit model rarely works well. People do not generally respond to being talked at.

Some quotations from focus groups came up during the meeting. One really stood out to me:

I would feel a lot better if the scientists said, ‘I believe in my heart of hearts that this is going to happen’.

This person feels the scientists lack sincerity because of their scientific approach. This person would prefer it if they spoke in a more natural fashion. Someone in the audience objected to this because of the use of the word ‘believe’. I do not know it but I would guess they were a scientist. To a scientist, belief has nothing to do with it. It has connotations of faith, and of ignorance of evidence.

I think the objector missed the point. The word ‘believe’ could be easily replaced with ‘think’. The person is simply looking for someone to express clearly and concisely their assessment of the available evidence. In the parlance of the every day person this means the scientist should express their beliefs.

Can we be informative without being patronising?

Above I made the case for subtle alterations in our approach to sustain public interest in climate science. The goal here is to attract enough interest to open a ‘channel’ through which information can be transferred (I am talking here about scientific results, not more subjective things like policy options).

The difficulty here is to maintain a balance between authority, clarity, accuracy and humanity. This last point is vital. The communicator’s humanity helps make him convincing (which we assume we want to be while communicating objective information and evidence). If one doesn’t try hard enough one comes across as cold. If one tries too hard one can come across as fake. It is possible to get it wrong entirely and come across as patronising. Being seen as patronising ruins communication. If you make someone feel stupid, you lose any chance of engaging with them and persuading them to listen to you.

Why bother?

Perhaps it’s just all too complicated. Maybe we should just leave it. What’s the best we can hope for anyway? The media are driven by sales, not facts. Scientists are busy and often have no real desire to spend time trying to be engaging. Is success even possible?

What does success look like when it comes to climate communication?

Presumably scientists don’t want praise. Perhaps they do desire some recognition, as well as accountability. Most climate scientists are publicly funded and would like to justify public expenditure on climate research. But I think the goal of public engagement is most simply described as providing to the public an accurate impression of the state of the science and the level of scientific understanding on different policy-relevant climate issues.

I say the issues have to be policy-relevant mainly because one would have a hard time talking to someone about highly theoretical work which is hard to tie to the real world. According to the report launched at the meeting, 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.

I think it is worth bothering. It’s frustrating and time-consuming, but to me there is no reason to do science if I can’t tell people about it. And I mean lots of people, not just science-minded people. I think my research is pretty cool, and I want to try to communicate that. Perhaps that’s a good starting point here. If we get hung up on particular goals it can be easy to be disheartened. The public like passionate communicators. The word ‘passion’ came up time and time again in the meeting. Scientists are passionate about their work. As long as the essence of the science is good, there is no reason to be reluctant to express this passion.


Author: Angus Ferraro

Trainee secondary physics teacher and former climate research scientist.

2 thoughts on “Communicating climate science: some questions

  1. One of my favorite singers — mentioned in Sci. Am. here:
    says the last time he performed that song somewhere in the deep South, a woman came up to him afteward and asked, did he really _believe_ in that ‘Evolution’ stuff?

    And he says he answered — I’m paraphrasing:
    ” oh, no, I don’t _believe in it.”
    Then a pause. Then he went on,
    ” evolution isn’t something you _believe_ in. It’s something you know about.”
    “Or don’t”

    • I think that’s the right approach when it comes to evolution. However, predicting how the climate will behave is difficult and there is no one-word response. I think when someone asks for ‘beliefs’ they are asking for a scientists personal opinion based on their knowledge. A critical analysis of the evidence, in science-speak. But obviously phrased in a non-technical way.

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