Friday, June 30, 2006

Sometime in the past year, whether due to Hurricane Katrina, a flood of new research, exasperation with the Bush Administration, the reception of climate change science changed dramatically. Global warming is happening, in every sense of the word.

It is heartening to see the subjcte receieve so much attention and especially to see new research now widely reported about in the popular press. Every week, some new research, about hurricanes or temperature records or tropical circulation or the vulnerability of coral reefs, bounces around the wire services and garners headlines in the daily papers.

There is some danger in the popularization of science. Critics of the particular research might argue that the scientists themselves being compromised by the chance at fame [hardly, the fame is pretty minor and fleeting, it’ll be a long time before we start seeing average post-docs on Letterman]. I'd argue the science itself is more likely to be compromised by media constraints.

The main challenge for scientists explaining their research to the press or the public is the sound-bite. Your two year study? We are told to boil it down to one pithy statement. So we respond by working with the public relations office at the university or research centre when a newsworthy research paper is published (e.g., to write press releases), or in some cases, to attend media-training seminars.

The problem with sound-bites of climate science is that they will often overstate the certainty in the findings. They then become politicized. The news clippings or remarks can get picked up by environmental or activist organizations, who may inflate the remarks. This makes easy fodder for the people commonly referred to as climate skeptics*. This is writ large on the blogosphere, which can operate like a large game of broken telephone, resulting in twisted interpretations of the science. The word “blogosphere” itself sounds like a ride at an amusement park, which, in many ways, it is (riding is not recommended for pregnant women, people with heart conditions, children under the age of 12, or fans of objectivity). This is part of the reason I started this site, why sites like are so valuable, and, in my mind at least, why we need to work heard to increase scientific literacy.

* For the record, while I find the arguments of most people skeptical of climate change un-scientific and clearly biased, I hate the cultish connotations, and the spelling of, the term “climate skeptic”. Yes, the overwhelming majority of the people publicly skeptical of climate change are not climate scientists and are either supported by industries with a vested interest, like coal and oil, or employ arguments framed by those supported by those industries. But the labeling of people makes the rest of us look petty and threatened.

1 comment:

tim said...

Simon, let me first say to continue your thought on a media. Some one said something like that: Journalists are the best of second rate people. Sorry I am putting a negative label on this media profession. They brought it on themselves. Personally I don’t have tenacity to ask the same question over and over. It is way too boring.

The politics of the sound bite: I found it is puzzling that scientist’s look for sound bites themselves. An alternative would be an honest: do you have 25 years for me to explain my work? In reality, journalists are looking for a story. So give it to them. Don’t give them sound bite. I understand you have a dim wit with agenda in front of you. But you can explain importance of what you doing without gross simplification. That is sound bite. Anything that grossly simplified is simplistic and will never withstand the test by complexity.

I also think that you can not hide behind peer reviewed publications. First of all, publications like Nature and Science are pseudo-popular. They count themselves as peer reviewed publications. But, for example, latest fiasco with Hwang Woo-suk. He published in Science, and if not for some conscientious scientists and technicians we would never find out the fabrication and fraud. I am in Canada. But when I am watching adds for David Suzuki I always laugh when he is presented by CBC as most trusted scientist. Science is the voice of the reason and a fact. When science trying to fit facts into Politically Correct ideology it then becomes a prostitute.