(I don’t talk much here about my science communication research, but here are some personal observations on climate change reporting. I worked for an organisation involved in crop science back in the late 90s, so I saw that particular debate from very close up.)
Climate science reporting is increasingly beginning to resemble the debates on MMR vaccine and genetically modified crops – in other words, any rational discussion of the underlying science becomes totally sunk beneath polarised media coverage and divergent political standpoints.
The furore over leaked emails from the University of East Anglia and errors about the estimated decline of Himalayan glaciers is finally enabling the British press to ‘personalise’ the climate change debate in a way that the public will understand – unfortunately, in this case, by talking about lies, leaks and cover-ups.
From reading coverage of the leaked emails, one thing is clear: climate scientists are a beleaguered lot, who are moving in constant lockstep with bitterly combative sceptics. Organised dissent is exhausting to deal with, and it frequently leads to bad decision-making, as everyone’s horizons shrink to the current focus of dissent rather than the wider context.
There is no obvious bogey to focus on here: MMR and GM both had ‘Big Pharma’ (well, Medium Agrochemical in the case of GM and Monsanto) as likely profiteers. With no obvious enemy in sight, the story seems to have become Stuffy Convention (Big Science?) versus the Maverick. Or, Scientists Are Like Everyone Else (= out for what they can get).
The danger for those working in this area is such a debate becomes an excuse for political inertia. Arguably, inertia hasn’t mattered in the GM crop debate, because we could all get on with growing and breeding crops conventionally. There is no such luxury of time with climate change. I’m still haunted by the stories of the bushfires from friends in Australia last year.
I think it’s time for climate scientists to really start talking to the public, and that’s challenging. ‘Everyone Dead By Teatime’ (to quote the Daily Mash) is all very well, but there’s a limited appetite for apocalypse talk. I suspect even now, climate scientists are hoping the government will do the talking for them, but I think it’s much better if scientists find the way themselves.
Geneticists and their funders and regulators in the UK have worked very hard to understand non-expert views and engage with the public. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, for example, took steps to understand the opinions of patients and the general public in what had become a highly emotive area. General science bloggers (like Ed Yong) and ‘Bad science’ groups are also playing a part in encouraging scientists to come out and engage. It is probably happening in climate science, but my guess is that much energy is going into warding off the denialists rather than talking to the average confused punter.
In conclusion: get out there. You never know what people think until you start asking.
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