When science communication feeds back

You’ve seen your peers vilified, their emails hacked into, pilloried in the media and sent death threats. Your discipline is continually accused of being alarmist, of exaggerating their results, of scaremongering and misleading the public. So, when you come to release the results of your latest study, you’re careful not to speak much about the most disturbing or severe implications of your work. However, even if you’re moderate about it, your results still look worse than what most people consider the ‘normal’ picture of global warming.

The paper comes out. You’re accused of being a doomsayer with bad intent. The life of a climate scientist isn’t a happy one at the moment.

There’s a storm brewing…

OK, sounds pretty bad. But is it really happening? In a recent peer-reviewed article, William Freudenburg and Violetta Muselli argue that the media representation of climate science is not just affecting the public’s perception of global warming and the scientific community, but also the scientists themselves.

The general frame of the media coverage is ‘consensus science, such as the IPCC, says climate change is bad, but some people think it isn’t.’ Because scientists are generally open to (at least) hearing out such claims, or contributing to such stories, this has become the accepted framing of the issue by the media.

Media-active scientists have become used to this; rather than having to argue against someone who says the problem is worse than they think, they find themselves arguing with someone who denies there’s a problem at all. In that situation, rather than quoting the most worrying aspects of climate science, they’re left repeating the basics over and over. People watching or reading conclude that the truth lies somewhere on the spectrum of ‘no problem to moderately bad problem’.

However, according to Freudenburg and Muselli’s analysis, new scientific findings overwhelmingly reveal global warming is proceeding worse than thought. In other words, the scientific frame is ‘the IPCC says climate change is bad, but almost all scientific research since then indicate the problem is worse than commonly stated.’

In short: in the media, it’s “IPCC says it’s bad, but it might not be” while in science, it’s “IPCC underestimates the problem.”

The consequence of this mismatch is that it appears scientists are being doomsayers. They’re routinely accused of being ‘alarmist’, especially the IPCC in the wake of the email scandal last year, when in fact the IPCC’s 2007 report is actually a soft touch.

That’s really worrying. Freudenburg and Muselli’s media analysis wasn’t exhaustive – instead, it was focused on specific US newspapers in two time periods – but it’s a valid point to raise. If public perception doesn’t shift past the ‘IPCC are a bit dodgy, let’s ignore climate change’ stage it seems to have settled in recently, the next Assessment Report, due in 2014, is going to catch a lot of people by surprise.

It won’t be a good, birthday-party surprise. It’ll be a “Oh, damn… we’re screwed” kind of surprise. The kind of surprise felt by a driver speeding toward a bridge, ignoring warning signs to slow down, only to discover (too late) that the bridge has collapsed and they’re going to plunge headlong into the abyss.

Categories: Problems, Science | Tags: , , , | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “When science communication feeds back

  1. Hi Dave,

    Interesting point but it’s really just ‘Negotiation 101’ being played out in the public media arena. You know how it is, you’re prepared to pay $100 for something so offer $10 and you might get it for $65.

    Another thing that I’ve found troubling is that people can get stuck in what I call a ‘media potential energy well’

    There’s so much media to choose from these days and the ability to select only what you want makes it very difficult to expose people to new things, or show them things they wouldn’t normally see.

    For example, if I was interested in car racing, then I need never watch or read anything about adventure sailing. I have so much media choice these days that a few seconds of channel surfing or Google/YouTube searching gets me to a car race. I’d never Google “sailing” and stumble across The Australia Three Peaks Race…and I think that’s my point.

    Search engines have become so efficient and choice so great, that people are stuck at the bottom of a “media potential energy well”. They constantly see what they are used to. It takes a big effort to climb out of the well and search for something different. If you didn’t know the Three Peaks Races existed, how would you find them.

    Before the internet, when there were less than 10 channels on the TV, people watched what was presented to them. They were exposed to things they wouldn’t normally watch. Today, with more choice, chances are they will watch the same genre over and over. For example, when David Suzuki’s Nature of Things was first aired, people watched it perhaps because there was “nothing else on”. As they watched and listened they found it interesting and it became a success. Today, there’s always “something else on” and so if it were aired today, Suzuki’s style of show wouldn’t get a chance to even begin to be successful because there’s always something else on!

    This is a big problem for someone who wants to talk to people about something they don’t know they’re interested in. How do you “preach to the unconverted” when they can filter you out with a few strokes of a keyboard. Perhaps Steve Urwin “Crocodile Hunter” had the best idea.

    That went on a bit didn’t it…I’d like to see you explore this problem in your blog.

    With today’s media, how do you reach out and communicate with people who don’t yet know that deep, deep down they really are interested in science and nature?

    Sounds a lot like (dare I say it) “missionary work”.

  2. Good points. The course so far has raised some interesting questions about what science communication is/what it aims for/what people ‘consume’ it for. However one thing is true, which is that the mainstream media (things like daily newspapers/tv news) still do command readership and influence, so while it’s still easy to ‘filter’ on places like the ‘net, the presentation of science in these places matters.

    This week’s Q&A had Tim Flannery and a climate skeptic on the panel, and they talked about climate change. Look at what the skeptic (Jennifer Marohasy) trotted out:

    “Well, we’ve had no warming – no significant warming now for 10 years … Kevin Trenberth the IPC lead author in the Climategate emails, he says it’s a travesty that we’ve actually got elevated levels of carbon dioxide and there’s no warming. There’s something wrong with the theory … over the last 150 years the increase has only been 0.8 per cent.”

    These points are all pure, debunked, rubbish.

    My point was that this is the media ‘frame’ which has been settled into. In fact, if we want to discuss climate change in an honest way, it’d be better to get two climate scientists, one who thinks it’s only ‘bad’ and another who thinks it’s going to be a catastrophe. Or, get in an economist and a scientist. A sociologist. Even a politician.

    I like your point that it’s a negotiation, but between whom? An expert with a vast weight of evidence on one hand, and a layperson with an actively demonstrated misunderstanding of the issue on the other who has been informed by grey literature published by conservative think tanks? Balance…

  3. Nice post, and which is why we need to have “real” scientists (the ones who can write and communicate well, that is) go into the field of scientific communication.

    Hope you’ll be covering more topics from your course on your blog.

    By the way, your theme is looking good. Very professional.

  4. Pingback: Sunday Science: Climate Change is Boring « David Robertson

  5. Peter

    did you see this post at skeptical science david? it is very well argued.


    • Yes Pete, it sums up the past year pretty well. The unfortunate thing is the divide between sites like SkS and what filters out into the media.

      In some ways it’s a bit surprising that the climate-change contrarian/skeptic/denial movement haven’t been copping it in the media, but that will come in time, like it did with cigarette advocacy.

      The problem is that climate change is like lung cancer for the whole planet and the people who haven’t been smoking are going to get the worst health effects. Hmmm, might have to use that metaphor…

  6. Pingback: Sunday Science: Some of My Favourites | David Robertson


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