Thursday, May 28, 2015

How Climate Scientists Can Communicate the Science to the Public

Last week we took a look at how climate scientists can communicate the science to policy-makers, so today in Part 3 we'll look at how scientists can communicate directly with the public. Together these are a three-part series on how to communicate climate science to all three target audiences - other scientists, policy-makers, and the public.

Communicating with the public is actually the most important of the three target audiences, and the one that scientists are least likely to have spent much time doing in their careers. And that's a shame because policymakers (notwithstanding the disproportionate influence of lobbyists and rich campaign donors) are most influenced by public opinion. It is the public who are the real drivers of change. It is they who give policymakers permission (or pressure) to take action. If enough of their constituents demand action, they will act.

But reaching out to the public is inherently more difficult for scientists. Scientists, like all professionals, have usually spent considerable time (and expense) getting specific education, training, and life experience in their area of expertise than the general public. In these days of specialization it seems we all have our expertise, whether it be in some climate related science, economics, brain surgery, law, plumbing, or bridge design. Each field builds up its own set of jargon, technical words that have specific meanings within their field but may have no meaning to anyone outside that field (or worse, mean something completely different outside the field).

So it's critical to reach out to the public, but scientists have to do so in ways that can be understood and are meaningful. Here are a few examples, though this by no means should be considered an exhaustive list:

1) Speak at libraries, churches, schools, etc.: Talk about science in a church? Of course. I was recently in a church whose stained glass windows included one celebrating several of our greatest scientists - Albert Einstein, George Washington Carver, and others. Libraries, churches, and schools all have one thing in common - they are places where the community comes together to learn. Off to give a talk about your area of specialty.

2) Drop the jargon: For the above and any time you're talking to the public, avoid technical jargon like the plague. Don't say "anthropogenic climate change," say "man-made climate change" or even just "global warming." Learn, and then keep in mind, how the public understands the words you will use. If you must use some technical-sounding terminology (like, for instance, the word "terminology"), then explain it briefly and clearly. Don't belabor the minute details that are only important to other scientists, just give them the basic information so they understand it. Trust me, if they want more detail they will ask you for it in the Q&A.

3) Teach a class or a MOOC: This is especially good when you have a community college or a "lifetime learning" opportunity. People will sign up to learn and you can teach at the level of the participants. Face-to-face in a classroom situation is always a good way to build community rapport, but these days you can teach online, either by yourself or through a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) organized through Coursera, edX, or similar organization. As this post goes live there is a MOOC being taught by John Cook and others called "Making Sense of Climate Denial."

4) Make yourself available to the media: Most of the public will get their science via some form of media. For some this is the network news or cable news (or cable newsertainment) programs, but more and more it is through reading blogs. So start a blog. But also reach out to the relevant journalists and science writers in the field. Most traditional media outlets have cut so far back on science-trained journalists, along with shaving publication times from days to mere instants, so journalists trying to write science pieces will need rapid responses and clear information. Learn how to provide it (there are some good suggestions in the book "Am I Making Myself Clear?").

5) Do a TV show: Granted, this opportunity isn't available to anyone, but if you have the panache of Neil deGrasse Tyson or the quirkiness of Bill Nye the Science Guy, go for it. Start on YouTube. Put together some short videos about the science of your specialty; use some cool graphics and music (make sure you have copyright permissions!), and post them. Just don't be boring. People hate boring, and frankly, people think scientists are boring. Have some fun and the public will have fun too. Meanwhile, the public will be learning a thing or two about the science.

Which gets us back to where we began. Making sure the public has an accurate understanding of the science is the first step in getting them to educate their legislative bodies and other policy-makers that action is necessary. As noted in last week's post, the more people in Oklahoma know how climate change affects their state, the more likely they will want their representatives to represent them. The same with people in Florida understanding what rising sea level will do their state, and Californians understanding what how El Nino/La Nina impacts will accentuate their water woes.

The public deserves to understand the science enough to demand appropriate action. Scientists have an obligation to make sure they reach out to the public.