Yesterday I went to a talk on communicating climate change science, put on by one of Asheville's own National Climactic Data Center personnel (and Nobel laureate!)
The talk covered much of the expected information vis a vis communicating science: keep your audience in mind, don't overuse jargon or acronyms, or at the very least, explain them, sum it up in clear points that the audience can relate to according to their concerns.
And he made the point that this is easy to say, but very hard to do.
First, people want absolutes, and the nature of many disciplines but especially climate science, is not to deal in absolutes. You have knowledge of a mechanism, and you might know the mechanism very well, and you have models, and the models most likely work well for some things, but cannot work well for all things. Put them together and you can only think, "okay, the likelihood of this is enough to concern me, not the certainty." Yet people want to know if hurricane Katrina can be attributed to climate change, they want to know what was the warmest year on record, and if you try to speak in possibilities instead of certainties, many will think that can only mean you just don't know anything.
Second, everyone is only human, and human reaction are going to cloud the debate. People will panic. People will scoff. People will jump to erroneous conclusions, will take conclusions out of context. Even the climate scientists will write nasty things in their emails,and those trying to prove them wrong will hack those emails. According to our speaker, the evolution of the blogsphere has accelerated this kind of thing, yet climategate shows that even those claiming to follow strict "scientific discipline" are just as human as anyone else, prone to bouts of emotion and opinion. That shouldn't come as a surprise.
So how is climate science generally communicated? Has it been communicated successfully?
Our speaker argued that no, it has not been communicated successfully to the public.
First, you have the scientific literature, and this is what scientists trust, what they revert to. It would be great, from a scientist's perspective, if everyone would just go to the journals for information. This, he says, is how the NCDC, a government agency, has responded to accusations of fraud. General response as to methodology, and a point to the journals.
Yet journals are not written to an audience of the whole world, no matter how scientists might like them to be, and the whole world is exactly who is involved in this instance. And so you will have a whole world of speculation, a whole world of reactions, but not too many people who have the time, knowledge, or fortitude to wade through the journals, especially not when blogs will do. So in the case of the NCDC accusations, sure, it should be up to accusers to make a compelling, researched and ethical case, and if they had read the journals, it probably would have helped. But on some level is also up to the accused to be engaged, not removed and above, and scientific journals are just not an effective way to do this.
The next level is the assessment reports, like the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports, like some domestic ones, where groups of scientists do the reading of the journals for you, and do their best to sum it up and distill it to it's finer points for an audience with some general science background, for an audience with no science background. These, he says, are better, more accessible, though still not mainstream, and certainly not error-free in and of themselves.
Sometimes, scientists have the opportunity to directly speak to political leaders. Congressmen and senators can have their staff write up a list of questions and send them to folks at government agencies like NCDC, and dedicated and busy government scientists will do their best to answer. This is certainly a directly useful method of communicating the issue to the people that matter, although undoubtedly is not without political land-minds that some scientists might be ill-prepared to avoid.
Though he didn't go into it, it is clear that the next step, the most engaging yet difficult step, is interviews and sound bites, popular science books and perhaps even the symbol that is Al Gore. Al Gore does not define climate science, he does not own the concept of climate change, and he is certainly not a climate scientist, though he is educated. He has done great things to get the information out to people who might not have found it accessible otherwise, and he has done great things to make sure that has critics will never believe a word anybody else says about the whole thing. The private jets, all the money he supposedly made off of the movie, and all that.
The point is that every tool we have is fraught with flaws, and to some those flaws have been basis enough to outright reject the whole thing. Yet no system is without flaws, so for the good of the discussion, forging ahead is a must. Refining and employing a combination of these communication methods is the right thing, whether or not it is the easy thing for scientists or the public. We are an enlightened society, and must be able, however imperfectly, to communicate and contend ideas of weight productively. Climate change is the issue that it is, because it is by its nature an intersection of science with philosophy, politics, economics, and morality.
Perhaps the best thing would be to have more sessions like this, in which a dedicated scientist and human being stands up in front of an audience and shares the issues is a humble yet knowledgeable, wholly human-like manner. Who disclaims the absurd notion that climate change is an international left-wing conspiracy for climatologist job security and the power one somehow gains by instilling panic by throwing in things like "you know, it would be great if this turned out not to be true, because I like driving my car as much as anybody else."