Categorized | Climate Change

The Science of Communicating Science

In real life, communication ranks among the top necessities of humans, as evidenced by early drawings depicting life scenes, the development of languages and dialects, visual arts, and so forth. We need to communicate with family, friends, partners, and clients, about the issues that matter to us. To patch together our daily lives, we are constantly communicating, even if we don’t give it a second thought.

But communication is a two-way route. It entails one side giving the information, and the other side reacting. If communication fails to fulfill this two-way purpose, then the message can be ignored, distorted, or misunderstood, even as it is being passed on. Science is among the fields where this failure to communicate is noticeably commonplace, and the burden is usually on the messenger (aka the scientist). If the scientist does not tailor the message according to the intended audience, people will only understand what makes sense to them.

The issue of communication (or lack thereof) between scientists and the general public is not new. Scientists have been accused of being geeky and speaking in terms that the general public cannot understand. Many articles have been written on how the public feels alienated and yes, even stupid, when it comes to scientific matters. The unfortunate result of this is that many people prefer to ignore important scientific issues completely, because they cannot form an educated opinion.

According to Randy Olson, scientist-turned-filmmaker and author of the book Don’t be Such a Scientist, the main problem with scientists is that they usually aim straight for the brain of their audience, as opposed to their emotions. They come up with various facts, statistics, and logic arguments, but neglect to engage their audience or to elicit some sort of response. How can you get the audience to relate if you don’t get them to respond? This shortcoming is cleverly shown in his mocku/documentary Sizzle, where he tries to find the truth about climate change and global warming from top scientists.

The field of climate change is a particularly difficult one in which to communicate with the public because of the associated uncertainty (an inherent characteristic of most science) and the complexity and scale of the issues. Fortunately for all of us, scientists and general public, there is hope.  Just a few weeks back, a few climate scientists gathered to discuss better ways to communicate science in more clear and unbiased ways.  Interestingly, they didn’t talk directly about climate science, but rather used a climate-related case study to defend, attack, analyze, and discuss various opposing opinions. The focus, according to conference organizer Professor John Sonsteng of William Mitchell Law School, was not on advocating for either side, but on justifying the science. That strategy will hopefully lead to better ways to lay down the facts in a manner that is understandable for everyone.

So maybe someday, in a perfect and hopefully not too warm world, everyone will have a better understanding of science in general, of climate, and of how important those are to our everyday lives.

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- who has written 12 posts on dotWild.

Astrid Caldas is the Climate Change & Wildlife Science Fellow for Defenders of Wildlife. Astrid provides scientific support for Defenders, including providing technical assistance for integrating climate adaptation into programs, doing synthetic research, and publishing papers and reports on climate and wildlife issues.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.