Monday, December 20, 2010

Moving Beyond "An Inconvenient Truth"

Continuing my report on presentations at AGU, I will describe one that provided some tips for scientists who wish to communicate their research to non-technical audiences.  The presentation,  entitled "Communicating Science" was authored by G. J. Holland; M. S. McCaffrey; J. T. Kiehl; C. Schmidt.

The talk began with a quick review of how the communication media is rapidly changing--in some ways for the better and other ways for the worse.  The latter includes the disappearance of science journalists and presenters who are being replaced by internet reports and blogs, YouTube, and journalists with little or no scientific training. There are still some journalists and writers who do an excellent job of reporting science, however.  The presenter, McCaffrey, mentioned the book by Bill Bryson, "A Short History of Nearly Everything", which I've described here previously.  He pointed out how such science reports, written for the lay audience, can be successful at getting across complex ideas in simple language (without errors or "dumbing down" the information.

Anyway, the point of the presentation was that scientists were increasingly needed to fill the communication gap, but who were ill-prepared for doing so.  Scientists may be excellent communicators when it comes to talking to their peers, but are less effective when speaking to non-technical audiences.  McCaffrey listed the qualities of a scientist: attention to detail and logic, open acknowledgment of uncertainties, and dispassionate delivery.  These qualities become liabilities when talking to the non-scientific audience who expect to be entertained with attention-grabbing information or visuals in 15 seconds or less....and the presenter must convey complete confidence in themselves and what they are reporting.

The presentation reported on a program initiated by UCAR (University Corporation for Atmospheric Research) and NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research) to develop new approaches to science communication and to equip current and future scientists with the necessary skills to be successful science communicators.  Most of the talk and the examples were focused on climate change and how to convey science information about that topic.  However, the basic concepts are applicable to other science topics.

One of the recommendations was to target audience attitudes and beliefs, which some studies indicate is key to effective science communication.  McCaffrey particularly mentioned the common image of a polar bear on an ice floe (which was photoshopped) as a "framing trap".  Reference to far away places and environments outside the average person's experience often backfires because they do not see how changes in the Arctic, for example, directly affect them.  Another "framing trap" is the "inconvenient truth"...dire predictions about hurricanes or air pollution, which leads to resignation by the public because they see these problems as so overwhelming that there is nothing they can do to change them.  

McCaffrey and colleagues recommend targeting specific communities and not waste time on audiences who are strongly resistant to the message.  Along with this is the idea that the message must be tailored to the specific audience.  Logical and dispassionate delivery of science facts works well for a scientific audience, but not necessarily for a non-technical audience.  Alternate targets would include factors that people are personally concerned with:  economics, cultural concerns, immediate impact to community (e.g., sea-level rise on coastal areas).  (My observation is that there are many people out there who are open-minded, but ill-informed....they've been fooled by the "merchants of doubt" whose misinformation campaigns about climate change have drowned out the voices of scientists.  Such an audience is open to being informed by the facts, especially if the message is tailored to their interests.)

The second recommendation is to shift the primary emphasis from the "science" to the "art" of communication.  This is a tricky point because the science communicator can't play loose with the facts in order to get attention or to support a particular position.  Included in this shift in perspective is the recommendation to resist advocating particular policy positions.  It's possible, for example, to present both sides of an issue and then show which is supported by scientific facts and which is not--and let the viewer make up their own minds.  I've found this approach to be very successful with fair-minded people, but even makes some headway with people resistant to a particular viewpoint.  Simply by acknowledging other viewpoints sends the message that you are open-minded--at least to the fact that others may hold different opinions and beliefs. 

I think it's also appropriate (and important) to distinguish between your opinion as a scientist and your personal feelings or beliefs.  It's also important to clearly distinguish between an opinion based on your expertise and one based on your understanding of a research conducted by other scientists. I'm often asked questions about climate change science with which I have no first-hand experience. My response is usually, "That's outside my area of expertise, but based on my reading of the scientific literature...this is what I understand to be the prevailing opinion of scientists working in that area...". 

Many of the points made in this presentation are common-sense.  However, I found it interesting and informative to have the common approaches to conveying climate science (drowning polar bears, apocalyptic warnings, etc.) dissected and shown to be ineffective in getting the appropriate science message across.  

Much of the information and the recommendations given in this talk were based on studies conducted by these programs (NCAR, UCAR) into science communication. Such studies can help science communicators move beyond the "inconvenient truth" approach to conveying science information. 

Image Credit: The above image from accompanied a letter in Science Magazine decrying recent political attacks on climate scientists.  The journal (not the letter authors) included the image of a polar bear isolated on a shrinking ice floe, which turned out to have been photoshopped.  Oops. If you look at the Science letter now, it has been replaced by a real image of two bears on a somewhat larger ice floe. The erratum accompanying the image reads: "Due to an editorial error, the original image associated with this Letter was not a photograph but a collage. The image was selected by the editors, and it was a mistake to have used it. The original image has been replaced in the online HTML and PDF versions of the article with an unaltered photograph from National Geographic."  The unfortunate outcome of this error is that climate deniers have used it to further their claims that climate scientists are faking their data (aka "Climategate").

No comments: