Science and Communication, Part 1

Usually books about climate change take me some time to read. As fascinating as they are, they’re not the kind of literature I would read to relax. They take far more energy to get through than something like Twilight.

This wasn’t the case for Science as a Contact Sport, the new book by Stephen Schneider. I couldn’t put it down – I absolutely whizzed through it. The narrative wasn’t about explaining scientific processes as much as describing what it’s like to be a climate scientist, and how that has changed since the early 1970s. Perhaps my enjoyment of the narrative was due to the fact that I think I like memoirs – although the only other memoir I’ve read is Memoirs of a Geisha (and wasn’t that fictional?) In any case, Science as a Contact Sport was a memoir of the kind of person I want to follow in the general footsteps of: someone who studies climate change, particularly modelling and radiative balance, and has a good sense of how to accurately communicate science to the media and the public.

Schneider has been studying climate change for a long time – he’s literally one of the pioneers of climate modelling – so his story was able to begin in the 1970s. There were quite a few familiar figures in the early narrative, including James Hansen as a PhD student (there was even a photograph!) and Richard Lindzen, who was brilliant but had unusual views on how to communicate uncertain science to the government and the public.

I was fascinated by the insider’s account of the 1970s radiative forcing debate – which would win out in the end, aerosols or greenhouse gases? As Schneider was the co-author of one of the few papers that predicted a cooling, he was able to explain the problems with that paper and why it was quickly discredited. Firstly, the climate model used for the paper didn’t have a stratosphere, so the climate’s sensitivity to CO2 was underestimated by a factor of 2. Secondly, the paper incorrectly assumed that aerosols would evenly disperse globally, like greenhouse gases do. It was very early on in the study of both aerosols and climate modelling, so Schneider’s mistake wasn’t a big deal to the scientific community – but it sure keeps coming up in editorials and YouTube comments these days.

The thesis of the book was that being a climate scientist in the 1970s was very different to the way it is now. In the early 70s, Schneider and his colleagues pounded away at the frontiers of their fields and filled their minds with purely analytical questions. Those who talked to the media about their work were reprimanded, and some scientists even questioned the integrity of creating assessment reports for the government.

Today, however, climate scientists create major international assessment reports every few years, while politicians try to sabotage the process. They are morally obliged to talk to the media, unless they’re happy with the media talking to Fred Singer instead. And even so, editorials and Fox News segments are all too happy to twist whatever they say in hopes to damage the credibility of their field.

Science used to just be about science. Now, as scientists studying an area that is socially and politically important, Schneider and his colleagues have to be adept at both science and communication. The book provided some great suggestions for improvement. One of my favourites was to take the first half hour of each conference to summarize what was known in that field, so that the journalists present wouldn’t witness only the cutting-edge discussions and come away thinking that climate science was uncertain because the scientists all disagreed.

Science as a Contact Sport was a fantastic book that had a lot to say about the nature of science, scientific literacy in the public, and the state of science journalism. A lot like Chris Mooney’s new book, Unscientific America, but specific to climate change. It really got me thinking about the vast chasm between scientists and the public and how we should address it, to the point where it’s inspired a whole series of posts. Keep your eyes open for part 2 – coming soon.

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8 thoughts on “Science and Communication, Part 1

  1. Steve Schneider’s full quote is
    On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

    [Even the full quote doesn’t include the context, which the original interview (in Discover) left out. He also said that his “first mistake was to be a bit too tongue-in-cheek”. -Kate]

  2. I first heard Steve Schneider speak on AGW in 1983 at a conference on glaciology at Northwestern. The area of modelling was in its infancy, the audience at the time quite skeptical of the consequences. To watch the maturation of our knowledge in this arena of science that has identified the consequences occurring and modelling those to come has been impressive. I will have to take your advice and read the book soon.

  3. Stephen Schneider actually made Steve McIntyre of ClimateAudit a reviewer for a paper on the hockey stick, Wahl and Ammann, that was submitted to a journal he was editing. I wonder if he was the guy who nominated McIntyre to be a reviewer of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.

  4. MikeN, you don’t need a nomination to be an IPCC expert reviewer – you merely need to ask to see the draft report and sign a few agreements. It’s one of the reasons why you should be suspicious whenever people trout that position out to claim credibility (i.e. as if it were a lead author position).

    By the way, on a related note for whoever’s interested, a little-known fact about the AR4 is that all of the WG1 reviewer comments (and author responses to those comments) are available online. It’s a good example of how science works for people who aren’t aware, or for anyone interested in the inner workings of the IPCC reports itself.

    I bring it up here as an example of the openness of the review process – notice, for instance, all of the comments by Dr. Vincent Gray (some 96% of all rejected comments are his, and surprise, when he speaks against climate science, his credentials all prominently include “IPCC Expert Reviewer”. Note that discounting his comments, only 16% were rejected outright, which is far more typical of research papers (and as usual, you can read their justifications yourself)). Does this strike you as the kind of person who would be nominated for the position by someone credible (skeptic or no)?

  5. Er, correction: The percentages I gave for the comments in my last paragraph only apply to chapter 9 (the attribution-to-mankind chapter), and I mis-quoted the percentage of rejected comments (97% of Dr. Gray’s comments were rejected, which is distinct from 97% of all rejected comments. In truth, approximately 60% of all comments were rejected, but most of them stemmed from Dr. Gray, who submitted nearly half of all total comments.).

    Chapter 9 was the chapter the denialists (specifically the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition) held up as an example of the uselessness of the IPCC process (neglecting to mention the overwhelming role of Dr. Gray’s comments, nor that you could read his comments to see if the rejection was justified), and Dave Semeniuk did the initial calculations on his blog, which has since been closed down. I did read through the WG1 draft comments and Semeniuk’s numbers seem accurate, although I didn’t repeat his analysis.

    If you can spare the time at least for a browse or light reading, the comments I mentioned in my reply above are well worth a read.

  6. Brian D noted that “97% of Dr. Gray’s comments were rejected, which is distinct from 97% of all rejected comments. In truth, approximately 60% of all comments were rejected, but most of them stemmed from Dr. Gray, who submitted nearly half of all total comments.)”

    Ha! “No play for Doctor Gray.”

    He’s not the only one who trades on having submitted review comments. Another is TVMOB, aka Lord Monckton. I believe TVMOB even sports a Nobel-prize pin on that basis.

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