What Scientists Say And What The Public Hears
    By Hank Campbell | May 8th 2014 10:54 AM | 5 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Richard Somerville and Susan Hassol have some recommendations for how to improve science communication.

    I've written about this before. In the Communicating Astronomy With The Public magazine I outlined the Pitfalls and Perils of Science Communication. The absolutely worst thing you can do is engage in deficit thinking - the pretense that you are some Zen Buddhist and a person without your degree is an empty disciple and if you fill them with your knowledge, they will be enlightened.

    The second worst thing you can do is underestimate the intelligence of the public because they lack a PhD.

    Somerville and Hassol are the brains behind the Climate Communication outreach group, so a few years ago, when they were talking about science outreach in Physics Today ( DOI:10.1063/PT.3.1296), they were talking about how to get more people on the global warming bandwagon, but it applies across science.(1) 

    Once you lop off the miscreants on the fringes - you are not going to change hardcore anti-pesticide people, anti-GMO people, anti-vaccine and anti-nuclear people on the left nor are you going to change climate deniers or anti-evolution people on the right -  who intentionally want to obfuscate science issues for their own reasons, there is a big chunk of the public that is being exploited by misuse of the language of science.

    Fear and doubt merchants know this. If someone wants to promote their diet book or their GMOs causes brain damage claims, they will talk about any possible 'association' as a "peer-reviewed study". On the other hand, climate critics will put scare quotes around "suggests" in a study and go on a tirade about what dumb scientists don't know.

    The solution? Somerville and Hassol have two I am going to highlight, and then encourage you to read their article

    The first is to 'invert the pyramid' that scientists have been trained to use when discussing research. Scientists are often dealing with fellow experts so they discuss the background and the data landscape, then they detail all of the new findings, and then make a conclusion. Much of the public will benefit more from the bottom line being addressed first.


    The second is to, unfortunately, be a little more colloquial. We live in a world where car commercials claim their product has 'evolved' and every social psychologist invents a new 'theory' in mainstream journalism once a week, so colloquial terms have actually led to less science understanding, but they have their place.

    Take a look at their chart:


    You know this is true. When it comes to climate science, we know we are warmer than in 1950 but when tree rings did not show it, statistical manipulation to use temperature data became a 'hide the decline' conspiracy theory (see? I used theory incorrectly). When you see partisan science journalists talk about 'confirmation bias' they are talking about political motivation, not a scientifically agnostic offset.

    Some don't agree with clear communication and want words to retain meanings - and that is valid, in a science setting, but we should just use Latin in science conferences if we never want words to become colloquialisms. Realistically, no one is abandoning 'theory' and 'evolution' just because they are used by cranks and detractors. In a public setting, when communication and understanding is the goal, just be smarter about word choice.

    It's a bad idea to underestimate intelligence of the audience, as I said in the beginning, but it is a very good idea to underestimate their science vocabulary.

    Do you agree? Let me know in the comments.

    Citation: Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol, 'Communicating the science of climate change', Physics Today 64, 10, 48 (2011) DOI: Link to read:

    H/T/ Austin Frakt


    (1) Which is to say mean old Republicans, at least in the world of cartoon caricatures painted by some in science media and in climate science. In reality, many climate skeptics actually know climate science better than believers, the same way a whole lot of atheists can quote the Bible better than religious people - in both cases, it is just that what they do with it may be wrong.

     But when it comes to caring about the environment, both sides are not all that far apart. Who recycles more and conserves more energy, Global Warming Denying Republicans or Environmentally Awesome Democrats? They're the same. That common ground means there is hope for science, if we stop letting activists and junk culture merchants politicize science.


    John Duffield
    Hank: the word “denier” is an unscientific ad-hominem that’s right up there with “heretic”. There’s no place for it in scientific communication. Not when Prince Charles goes to Copenhagen in his private jet. Not after Climategate and the IPCC summary being massaged. Not when we export manufacturing to China and China doesn’t care and Germany will be burning brown coal. And especially not when Chicago has had its coldest winter on record and I didn’t cut my grass for six months.

    The whole point about this subject isn’t whether CO2 etc will cause harm, it how much harm compared to other threats. Overpopulation is the elephant in the room. A pandemic will fix our global warming problems at a stroke. An asteroid impact could send us back to the stone age. But science funding is being cut because climate change is sucking up the spending. And anybody who raises a peep of dissent is castigated. The finger is pointed, the spittle flecks, and then comes the shriek: “Denier!”

    No, don’t underestimate the intelligence of the public. They know propaganda when they see it. And they know that Somerville and Hassol were giving propaganda lessons. Shame you don’t. Duh.
    I don't think they are propaganda lessons. Do you really think climate skeptics don't use framing? Of course they do, they do not parse raw data and duplicate findings.

    You clearly saw I use 'denier' for a reason, just like I use global warming, climate change and climate disruption and then anti-GMO people, anti-vaccine people, and others. What interests me most is who objects to which. 

    You think inverting the pyramid and getting to the bottom line and then using language that makes sense are invalid ideas solely because the authors accept climate change. What does that tell the audience?
    they do not parse raw data and duplicate findings
    Well some of us do parse the raw data, it's just that duplicating the findings isn't so easy when you don't know which tree rings to include or exclude  :)
    Never is a long time.
    John Duffield
    You should think some more Hank. See the given reasons for "public confusion"? The economy. Disinformation campaign. Scientific illiteracy. Acts of God. Inept media coverage. And of course the scientific communication. No, I don't think inverting the pyramid etc are invalid ideas. But this article doesn't mention Climategate or the Hockey Stick, or the lack of a temperature rise in the last 15 years. And I know bullshit when I see it.

    PS: whenever I see the word "denier", I am reminded of Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
    You should think some more Hank. 
    Pardon me? I repeatedly ask people not to engage in 'deficit thinking' and assume that everyone else is stupid and if they would just listen to the other person all would be clear. I have yet to see any evidence that you are more knowledgeable than me on any topic at all, and so telling me that I need to 'think' more in order to be more like you isn't really resonating with me.

    Maybe it's just a style issue and you don't realize you are insulting people, but further insisting an article about science communication needs to talk about the hockey stick is...strange.