Thursday, March 20, 2014

Climate Scientists Talking to the Public

Graphic courtesy of NASA
One of the more emphatic debates these days is whether scientists should talk more with the public. Traditionally, scientists do their science in the lab or the field, toil for weeks or months (or even years) over analysis, and then write up their findings for publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals to be read only by other scientists.

The public sees none of this. They usually can't access the journals because they don't have a subscription. Not that it matters; scientific writing is generally incomprehensible to anyone outside their field of study, never mind the public. In any case, single papers are only pieces in a very large puzzle, and who outside of a few academics has the time to work on a puzzle that size? Well, no one.

So where does the public get its scientific information? Largely from the news media, who generally, okay, let's be frank, do a lousy job of communicating the science as a whole. Usually a single paper is presented as if it is the entire puzzle, not the one piece. And tomorrow's piece, presented just as breathlessly by a media geared towards sensationalism, may seem to totally contradict yesterday's piece. Add to this the fact, yes, the fact, that there are parties out there who intentionally try to mislead the public. The obvious example are lobbyists paid to protect their benefactor's interests by standing in the way of policy changes that could negatively impact the short-term bottom line. By now I think we all know some blatant examples.

Which leaves scientists. The traditional "do science, let others communicate it" mantra just doesn't work any more. Science is part of everyone's life...every single day. That's a good thing. But with the virtual cesspool of blogs, where anyone can saturate the internet within hours with the most inane non-scientific drivel, the public is inundated with information. As Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum noted in their book, Unscientific America, on the internet "there’s tons of information available, but much of it is crap.” So to counteract that crap, scientists have to step up and communicate the facts of science directly to the public. This isn't a new idea. Carl Sagan did that with his original Cosmos series (recently resurrected with Neil deGrasse Tyson), and the above-mentioned Chris Mooney discussed it in a 2010 Washington Post Op-Ed.

The idea has gotten new legs in recent weeks in an effort to get the facts out about man-made climate change. Penn State climate scientist (and co-author of the "hockey stick" paper) Michael Mann recently wrote a New York Times Op-Ed called "If You See Something, Say Something," a play on the post-9/11 warnings in many of the nation's subway systems. Phys.Org discussed the pluses and minuses in a recent post, saying "Climate scientists want to interact more directly with the public." Others have also tackled the issue.

Let's be blunt -  there clearly is a need for scientists to ensure the public gets an accurate picture of the science behind man-made climate change and other scientific issues. But how to do it? At the very least it's important for scientists to become more accessible to the public. Get a Facebook page to highlight your research, tweet your latest findings, Google Plus your research. Ah, but here's the rub. Do it in a way that isn't going to come off as overblown gibberish readable only by those who have spent years learning the jargon. Drop the "sciency talk." Talk to us in language we use every day. The public doesn't need to have every detail so that they can replicate your research. We just need to understand what is happening (e.g., the planet is definitely getting warmer and we are the main cause) and what it means (e.g., it could make George Strait's song about "Oceanfront Property in Arizona" sound like a good investment opportunity).

In short, scientists need to remember that they are part of the public too. Share your work.