Can Science 2.0 Help Bridge The Gap Between Climate Science And The Public?
    By Hank Campbell | June 23rd 2011 10:25 AM | 19 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    I'm the founder of Science 2.0® and co-author of "Science Left Behind".

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    Writing at the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang blog,  Jason Samenow advocates an idea he recently saw pitched by atmospheric scientist Alan Betts, namely that science studies be accompanied by layperson explanations.

    Ordinarily, this would be done by the media - independents like Science 2.0 or mainstream media like Discover or Washington Post or whoever - but, at least in the eyes of the public, many mainstream journalists stopped being 'trusted guides' in the eyes of the public when it comes to atmospheric science years ago and are now instead seen by people as either cheerleaders or incompetent, and science journalism jobs have plummeted because few people read them, despite the actual science audience ballooning to 65 million just in the US.

    The catalyst for Samenow was Penn State researcher Michael Mann stating about a recent study that sea levels are rising faster now than in the past (see Sea Levels Are Rising - And Temperature Is To Blame), writing in an email to Joe Romm at ThinkProgress that "projected sea level rise lying at or near the upper range of current projections, more than a meter by the end of this century under business-as-usual carbon emissions."

    Where was that in the study?  Well, it wasn't of course.  And Mann wasn't making it up, but how would people know?   

    More importantly, says Samenow, is that it would have had a much greater impact had that been stated.   

    First, would it have made an impact?   The problem in the past was that journalists printed similar 'media talking points' as fact, without pointing to any studies.   The IPCC knew they would, they created them for that reason, and exploited the media a little.   They thought they were doing framing but, when some of the talking points turned out not tot have a basis in studies, to some on the public it felt like spin and the credibility problem snowballed from there.

    Another part of the problem is that, at least in climate science, researchers are only writing in safe places.    RealClimate was created to provide a one-way lecturers position about climate science for people who already accepted one thing - it is very Science 1.0 and I like reading it, but nothing there is ever a surprise.   Writes Samenow:
    Some scientists might resist the onus of having to write a lay-person friendly version of their articles. However, I agree with Betts, it’s well past time they do so - even if the write-ups are short for more esoteric topics.

    What do you think? Should this be an element of Science 2.0 to help bridge the gap between science and the public?
    Science 2.0 already does - and it bridges gaps between scientists as well, but its primary benefit is public outreach.    Should climate science do more of it?   Yes, but as their work has gotten more public attention they have gotten more insular.  They aren't going to respond to emails much less write columns for anyone except the faithful, and that is sort of pointless.   The climate change faithful are not going to stop believing no matter what and the climate change atheists are never going to believe no matter what.  The vast majority of the public are in the middle but they are not going to read RealClimate for climate issues any more than they will go and read Pepsi scientists about soda - they know what they will get and they don't want to be derided and scolded for asking questions deniers have planted in their minds.

    Science 2.0 is the most politically and culturally agnostic science site around - if Mann put his commentary here, sure, he would get critics, the man is a prominent researcher so he is a lightning rod for deniers, but that goes with the territory.   The fact remains that without the bulk of the public accepting science no policies will get done.   Former Vice President Al Gore criticized Pres. Obama for not doing enough on climate change but the president is responding to the public - they don't care.    That doesn't mean the issue has gone away but the president has to pick his fights.

    If we want people to care enough about climate change to take action, researchers can't let studies do the talking and hope journalists provide proper context, and they can't sit in echo chambers, they have to reach the public - the real public - and show the data and then lay out the arguments.  It works.   It's the whole point of Science 2.0.


    I think you're right on all points. The question is how to get the vast majority to come here and read.

    I think if the audience is large enough, the writers will be knocking the door down.

    It took Scientific American 100 years and they even went through weird periods where they wrote about psychics so I suppose we just need to be patient.   We have far more readers than their online does, though.   There is still prestige in brands people have heard of, even if they lose money and have to sell out for peanuts, like SciAm did.
    You, and your team, have done a fine job of attracting a diverse and interesting group of writers. I never fail to find something new and different here.

    I suppose you're right about the patient part. No doubt more pages in the Google cache will help too.

    I am a layperson, and a skeptic, or by your definition, a "denier". There in lies the problem. You have labeled me, so you can discount me and my opinion. I think it is folly and hubris to suggest that CO2 levels are the only factor plating a part in our changing climate. The Earth's climate has always been changing.
    I like reading sciecne articles, but it's pretty obvious that the point of your article is to push an agenda. That's not science.

    I am a layperson, and a skeptic, or by your definition, a "denier". There in lies the problem. You have labeled me, so you can discount me and my opinion. I think it is folly and hubris to suggest that CO2 levels are the only factor plating a part in our changing climate. The Earth's climate has always been changing.
    I like reading sciecne articles, but it's pretty obvious that the point of your article is to push an agenda. That's not science.

    Gerhard Adam
    It seems that it is your position that is contradictory.  On the one hand there is the claim of skepticism, followed by the statement that the Earth's climate "has always been changing".

    Let's be honest.  This isn't about CO2, but rather whether the proposed political, economic, and social "solutions" are appropriate or necessary.  That would be a legitimate position to take and one that warrants a great deal of skepticism.  However, to behave as if this is about the science is disingenuous at best.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard, if it isn't about Co2, why is that where most of the blame is laid by believers?

    I recognize your position is more nuanced than that, but most blame CO2.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    I understand, but my point is simply that the problem keeps getting muddled up by people making a variety of claims that invariably revert down to a more political or economic consideration.

    The first question is whether warming (or change) is occurring, regarding of causes.  If we agree on that, then we can begin to argue about possible causes and whether/how they relate to any proposed "solutions".  Specifically the point of being skeptical should be whether or not "solutions" are possible and whether they are based on actual evidence of causes.  However, to behave as if climate change is not occurring and then couch it in terms of how the Earth is always changing, or that "this or that" specific cause isn't true is motivated by the politics/economics and not the science.  After all, what possible difference does it make what the cause is, except within the context of proposed "solutions"?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Well, if we could only get the chicken littles to stop skipping all of those steps in the middle.....
    Never is a long time.
    I am a layperson, and a skeptic, or by your definition, a "denier"
    What is my definition again?   A denier is someone who asserts that regardless of what we do to the atmosphere, things will be just fine.   If you assert that a Prius in every garage will save the world - even though anyone with a clue knows that the acid rain from those billions of batteries would kill us before CO2 would - then you are a denier.   If you assume pollution makes no difference at all, you are a denier, or that man never landed on the Moon.

    Instead, you are a martyr - you contend because you know little beyond talking points and remain obstinate, you are somehow being painted unfairly by people who call you obstinate.   If the only climate science you know are bookmarked points refuting tiny parts of climate science and therefore think you are knowledgeable, then yeah, you are a denier.   Oh well, no amount of data - none - is going to change your mind, just like no data will change the mind of some kooks who think organic food is structurally different than food grown on a 'non-organic' farm 300 yards away.
    I like reading sciecne articles, but it's pretty obvious that the point of your article is to push an agenda. That's not science.
    I assume you mean I am pushing some left wing, pro-global warming agenda?   Your answer is important, because claims that I am a commie pinko pushing global warming is currently losing to claims I am a right wing denier by 212 to 205 and your vote puts 'you are a pinko' at 206.   I like to remain as balanced as possible.
    212 to 205

    Wishy washy is what you are ;)
    Never is a long time.
    Give the man a break. You have already noted the level of hyperbole in the discussion, and seem to want to bring it to a more profitable discussion. The reality out there is that questioning the assertion that a data supported global change in climate implies it must be man-made and can be fixed by putting prius in every garage IS enough to be labelled a denier and assumed to be oblivious to facts. That is the point the commentor is raising - what's your answer to it. On the one hand you satirize the hyperbole out there with its summary conclusions, and on the other hand, you make a summary conclusion that he is a martyr - kind of like a denier just not as smart.

    uestioning the assertion that a data supported global change in climate implies it must be man-made and can be fixed by putting prius in every garage IS enough to be labelled a denier and assumed to be oblivious to facts. 
    You're mixing arguments, intentionally I assume.   The idea that pollution will not be bad for the atmosphere is shockingly naive but you want to ridicule people who actually know what they are talking about by contending anyone who wants less pollution has a Prius fetish.    It's okay to be a denier - there are cultists on the pro-warming side too and neither fringe is going to be convinced by any amount of science data.    Only 9 out of 10 dentists recommend sugarless chewing gum also, so there is 1 guy out there who wants the teeth of children to rot out.  There's no pointing in pretending he is a great dentist.
    I think it has more to do with the fact that scientists have repeatedly tried to avoid FOIA laws and are unwilling to a)disclose their data willingly and b)engage in a meaningful, publicized, nationwide exchange with those who still question their ethics, integrity, and accuracy of data. The fact that they cling to their data and deliberately attempt to circumvent those who want a look at it is troubling.

    scientists have repeatedly tried to avoid FOIA laws
    This is the sort of sweeping generalization prized by advocates on both sides.  Replace your sentence with "Republicans are anti-science" promoted by those on the left and you can see how it falls apart.   Did a few scientists begin to ignore FOIA requests?  Sure, they believed, rightly or wrongly, that they were being inundated by requests to prevent any work from being done.   And you know what?   Some were filing them simply to harass researchers, the same way some on the left engage in email and phone call campaigns to inundate climate researchers who dispute findings.

    Alleging that the vast majority of climate researchers don't engage with the public, or engage in some secret conspiracy, is simple paranoia, no different than people on the other side who believe every bit of skepticism is funded by Exxon.
    I was led here from a link on realclearscience. This was a good article, I like the tone of the comments, at least some of them--I'll keep coming back here.

    Any outreach effort would be unsuccessful unless scientists distinguish themselves from demagogues--both those who oppose them and those with whom they agree.

    Give me the facts. Don't dumb it down. Don't tell me what to think.


    Yep.  If you read various articles here, some of them are positively dizzying in their complexity.   I often feel like I get a little smarter even if I am not sure I grasp everything but that is the whole point of the site - there are no editors telling anyone they have to write for a 14-year-old or 'frame' the data so that poor simple folk can understand it.    Writers here instead respect the audience and know that people are a lot smarter than the mainstream media give them credit for.

    We're the only independent science site of any size (not owned by a magazine or media company) but I sure hope we're the future of science communication.
    I agree with the notion of layperson summaries on articles, however I can understand an unwillingness from researchers to do this on many levels. Political ideologies aside, the context and definition of terms in research articles can be a source of confusion for the general public. On my blog recently I pointed out that University of Colorado Sea Level Research Group inflates their sea-level data by 10% to take continental uprising into account. A layperson might see this as an attempt to distort the facts because the predicted rise is relative to the core of the Earth and not the coastline; a notion that is counterintuitive (possibly bordering on deceptive) to the public yet well understood in that research community. This kind of incompatibility means researchers may have to refactor their results and/or design broader and more "intuitive" definitions. This amounts to extra work that many researchers will find difficult to justify; especially since few view "public relations" as part of their field of expertise. Whether this happens or not, I think scientific journalists and bloggers with such dichotomic skills will be necessary for a while to come yet.

    Some good points there, Lex. However, researchers are usually writing papers that contain the contextual and confusing-to-the-public terms to be precise. The terms are precise for the intended audience. To include any less precise terms in the papers would only serve to decrease their effectiveness and dilute the meaning.

    Yep. Most researchers don’t have time for, or the inclination to do, PR work. They are focused, almost exclusively, on the project. That is how it should be. How their shoes got tied or how some journalist misquoted them is merely an unpleasant distraction. Just find that stinkin’ Higgs particle!

    I further agree that we need for there to be places for the interested public to read a less scientifically precise, yet accurate and understandable version of the important works. This goes back to the question Hank asked with the title of this post.

    Can Science 2.0 bridge the gap between xxxx science and the public? I vote yes.