Thursday, May 14, 2015

How Climate Scientists Can Communicate the Science to Scientists in Other Fields

A few weeks ago we talked about how to communicate climate science to all three target audiences - other scientists, policy-makers, and the public. We touched on how scientists "do science," i.e., through research, data analysis, conference attendance, and scientific publication. Today we'll take a closer look at how scientists can communicate climate science to other scientists, including those scientists who specialize in other fields.

1) Publish the Research: As already noted, the main way for scientists to communicate the science to other scientists is to publish it in peer-reviewed journals. Doing so allows scientists to carefully lay out the premises, the methods, how the data were analyzed, the results, and the conclusions, all so other scientists can evaluate - and recreate - the work. I've discussed peer review in depth in previous posts. [Click on these links to read Part 1 (basics of peer review), Part 2 (when peer-review goes wrong),  Part 3 (abusing the system), and Part 4 (using the internet to bypass peer-review) of the series.] Once published, the research is further scrutinized, which may confirm or refute the work, and usually leads to more studies...and more publications. Many climate researchers, for example, have hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers (whereas most climate deniers have few, if any, peer-reviewed publications).

But think about the scientific publishing process for a moment. Like physicians, for example, where individual doctors may specialize in endocrinology, brain surgery, dentistry, or podiatry, scientists may specialize in astrophysics, archeology, biology, chemistry, mathematics, geology or dozens of other specialties. The more specialized the professional training and expertise, the greater the likelihood that a given scientist won't be keeping up to date on advancements in other fields. A biologist is likely to have memberships and subscriptions to several biology-related organizations and journals, but may not be reading a physics journal discussing heat transfer in atmospheric systems.

This presents the dilemma that while journal publication is critical, it is largely focused on communicating with other scientists within your own field. That said, despite the tendency toward greater specialization, there is also a greater need for multidisciplinary collaboration. For example, ecologists looking at migratory patterns will see that those patterns are being modified by climate changes.

So how does one reach out to scientists in other fields?

2) Presentations at Universities: We've already said that scientists attend scientific conferences to find out what other scientists are doing, but here we have the same problem as with journals. With limited funds, scientists are usually only able to attend one or perhaps two conferences in their primary area of focus. One way for climate scientists to reach out to scientists in other fields is to give presentations at Universities, especially if it can be arranged such that all relevant scientific departments have the opportunity to attend. We all have friends in other universities - set up a brown bag or evening talk next time you're in town.

One key point for presenters to remember is to avoid scientific jargon that may not be understandable to scientists in other fields. This is less of a problem than it might be when communicating to the general public (more on that later), but try talking about quantum flux to an ecologist and you'll see some glassy eyes nonetheless. The goal is to get the gist of the information out to other scientists so they can have informed discussions with others in their fields (and with their non-scientist friends). They won't need all the details, but as scientists they will want to have enough detail to feel comfortable that the science is sound. Make the time to present to them.

3) Explain the IPCC Process: This can be done as part of item #2. With so much disinformation floating around out there (much of it intentionally wafted onto the winds of blogs by lobbyists), it's important other scientists have a sense of how the scientific consensus was arrived at, including how the IPCC and other organizations assess all the scientific literature. Bottom line, all the science from more than 100 years by thousands of scientists published in more than 100,000 peer-reviewed papers unequivocally demonstrates that human activity is warming the planet. Make sure other scientists understand how that unequivocal conclusion was obtained.

4) Call out Misinformers: Let's face it, there are people and organizations out there who are intentionally misinforming the public. Most misinformers are lobbyists and political operatives, but a handful of those misinformers are scientists. It is important to call them out on their misrepresentations, errors, and in some cases, outright falsehoods. This shouldn't be as hard as it sounds - scientists are not afraid to question methods and conclusions at scientific conferences and in publications; this is no different. As professionals we have an ethical obligation to call out people who are repeatedly misreporting the science. Do it.

5) Explain "science" in terms of the big picture: Yes, scientists are encouraged to narrow in their research question so that it can be tested. That's the focus of your peer-reviewed publications. But when reaching out to other scientists, especially those in other fields, it is more important to give them the bigger picture.Your study looked at melting of glaciers? Explain how melting glaciers affects overall global warming, or drinking water sources, or tectonics. Don't just tell them your study conclusions; tell them what your study conclusions mean to our overall understanding of the big picture science. And tell them how your findings are relevant to their field of study.

6) Write a Blog: And set up a Facebook group. And produce videos for YouTube. And teach a MOOC. These will be especially useful when communicating to the public, but they can also be directed at a more technical level to other scientists. Don't be afraid to experiment with social media (have your kids show you how).

7) Teach Students How to Communicate: While most of the focus of this piece is on scientists communicating to other scientists, don't forget that your students are the scientists of the future. It is imperative that they know how to communicate to other other scientists. Again, this goes beyond just publishing in journals and presenting at conferences. All the above applies to them as well.

While there are likely other points that can be offered on how to communicate the science to other scientists, these seven points cover the most critical. The goal is to broaden your field of vision so that others can understand the meaning of your work. In this age of limited resources, it's important to make the effort.

Future posts will explore how scientists can communicate to policy-makers and to the public. Stay tuned.