How Climate Scientists Can Communicate the Science to the Public (from The Dake Page)

Huh CommunicationLast week we took a look at how climate scientists can communicate the science to policy-makers, so today in Part 3 we’ll look at how scientists can communicate directly with the public. Together these are a three-part series on how to communicate climate science to all three target audiences – other scientists, policy-makers, and the public.

Communicating with the public is actually the most important of the three target audiences, and the one that scientists are least likely to have spent much time doing in their careers. And that’s a shame because policymakers (notwithstanding the disproportionate influence of lobbyists and rich campaign donors) are most influenced by public opinion. It is the public who are the real drivers of change. It is they who give policymakers permission (or pressure) to take action. If enough of their constituents demand action, they will act.

But reaching out to the public is inherently more difficult for scientists. Scientists, like all professionals, have usually spent considerable time (and expense) getting specific education, training, and life experience in their area of expertise than the general public. In these days of specialization it seems we all have our expertise, whether it be in some climate related science, economics, brain surgery, law, plumbing, or bridge design. Each field builds up its own set of jargon, technical words that have specific meanings within their field but may have no meaning to anyone outside that field (or worse, mean something completely different outside the field).

So it’s critical to reach out to the public, but scientists have to do so in ways that can be understood and are meaningful. Here are a few examples, though this by no means should be considered an exhaustive list:

1) Speak at libraries, churches, schools, etc.: Talk about science in a church? Of course. I was recently in a church whose stained glass windows included one celebrating several of our greatest scientists – Albert Einstein, George Washington Carver, and others. Libraries, churches, and schools all have one thing in common – they are places where the community comes together to learn. Off to give a talk about your area of specialty.

[Continue reading items 2 through 5 on The Dake Page]

The above is a partial cross-post of a full article on The Dake Page. Please click on the link above to read further. Thanks.

David J. Kent has been a scientist for over thirty years, is an avid science traveler, and an independent Abraham Lincoln historian. He is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and the e-book Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time. He is currently writing a book on Thomas Edison.

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6 thoughts on “How Climate Scientists Can Communicate the Science to the Public (from The Dake Page)

  1. The tree-felling company boss told be that he needed to, “…’buck’ a log so two ‘turns’ wouldn’t ‘scale over’.”

    Probably observing my foggy stare, a neighbor explained that we were close to the carrying capacity of two full loads on the logging trucks, which are equipped with their own load scales. The boss was cutting (“bucking”) one log so that it could go on two different loads (“turns”) without either being over-weight (“over-scale”).

    Item #2 — absolutely. And that’s perhaps the trick of a good science writer.

    • Great example. Every profession seems to develop its own language. Nice to know your neighbor could act as translator. 🙂

      I find myself being slightly at odds with the term “science writer” and those who think of themselves as such. Most often it seems to refer to someone who is writing an article about some scientific study. A lot of articles I read communicate the study better than the scientist, but still isn’t sufficient for the vast majority of the public.

      The biggest problem is that the article is still about the study, and the public doesn’t so much need to know what the study says as how the study fits into the bigger picture. The worst thing a “science writer” can do is present a study, then the next day present a different study to a public that can’t understand why the two studies don’t contradict each other.

      I think that’s why I have no desire to be a “science writer.” Instead, I want to be a science communicator, i.e., help the public understand the science and the scientists.

      • Good distinction between “writing,” and “communicating.”

        I was working in the woods with some elementary school kids this morning. They ask good questions. A couple of 10-year old girls that I was with noticed that many dead or blown-out trees reveal a spiral pattern, and they asked, “Why?”

        I didn’t have an answer, but here’s one study (pdf warning): http://www.math.utah.edu/~cherk/publ/spiralf.pdf

        Actually quite interesting to me. But I wouldn’t even know where to begin trying to condense the topic into something meaningful to one of these kids without either simplifying it to the point of being a non-answer, or else boring them for two hours. I guess that’s the magic of a good communicator — or of a good teacher.

        • That’s an interesting question. I only skimmed the PDF but it seems it is more focused on how the spiraling may or may not impact structure and function of the tree rather than the question the kids were asking, i.e., why does it spiral? To answer that you would need to have some sense of the state-of-the-knowledge on this topic (I don’t have that knowledge, but my first guess would be spiraling is caused by a combination of prevailing wind patterns of that location over the life of the tree and any twisting forces associated with the substrate and/or dynamics of the physical root grab or nutrient intake). Without reading more these are just guesses. Perhaps you have more specific knowledge that makes these guesses look naive, in which case, I’ll learn something new.

          But your point is the operative one – you need to find the balance between enough information and too much information. That’s going to differ depending on your audience and the complexity of the topic. Usually the best way is to communicate as you would peel an onion (assuming anyone actually peels onions); Introduce the skin/broad answer, then work your way through the layers of greater and greater detail as people as more questions.

          But then it strikes me you know all this already if you work with elementary school kids, so I’ll take off my lecturers hat. I think it’s great that you take the time to help kids experience nature. Bravo.

          • You’re right about the article, which is more of an engineering study about the effect of spiraling on trees — whether there’s a mechanical benefit (to which it concludes with both a “yes” and a “no”).

            I’ve read something somewhere about a prevailing wind and asymmetric crown-growth hypothesis. Interesting that you can see two of the same type of tree right next to each other – one straight, one spiral. After the girls brought it up and we began to take note about the direction of spiral in the dead trees we encountered, we found all but one was right-hand (up to the right). Younger kids can be remarkable observers.

            I don’t usually volunteer with the elementary. Usually, I’ll work with one or two self-motivated high-school kids. Big difference — but actually a lot of fun.. Thank you, though.

  2. Sounds like an interesting phenomenon and now I’m curious as to how widespread it is. I always envy people who are able to help other people learn, and taking kids (big or little) into the field is always a good way to “immerse” them into nature and science.

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