Climate science can be about as complex as it gets, so it’s not surprising that the public at large is often confused about the subject.

Even with broad international scientific agreement on much of the evidence surrounding anthropogenic climate change, public concern has dropped sharply in the past two years – leading some to lament that public concern has decreased while scientific evidence has increased.

Researchers at Yale and George Mason universities (PDF), at Gallup, and at other polling organizations all point to findings of less public concern over climate change and its impacts, and to more skepticism about what many consider a scientific consensus. Add to the turmoil resulting from last fall’s unauthorized release ( “stolen” is the term preferred by those scientists involved ) of some scientists’ e-mails a confusing error in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report, and some in the public seem ready to believe virtually any contrarian argument.

But it’s not too early to ask if the current confusion in the end might amount to a Eureka! moment for science communication.

To better inform policymakers, the media, and the public to important climate science findings – and to head-off unreliable claims lacking in scientific evidence – some scientists are expressing new interest in learning to communicate more effectively about their work. Workshops, lectures, and webinars offered by professional organizations, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and by the National Science Foundation, are on the rise.

Coverage Sad for Science … Dangerous for Democracy

Stanford University’s Stephen H. Schneider long has been a vocal and committed advocate for the need for scientists to better communicate with the media, public, and policymakers about their work.

“In the last few weeks, climate coverage has been outrageous,” said Schneider in a recent telephone interview. “It was the warmest January since records have been kept. Yet, the skeptics are exploiting bits of information out of context in order to support an ideology; and they are counting on the media, who has fired their specialists, to give them equal billing.”

“It is not just sad for climate,” Schneider said, “but I believe it to be dangerous for democracy.”

The author of Science as a Contact Sport (National Geographic, 2009), Schneider frequently urges climate scientists to take a proactive approach with the public and the media. “Many scientists run from the process …. We have an obligation to tell people what we know and tell it well,” he said.

Schneider: Time for scientists to get out there, ‘duke it out,’ and ‘insist on correct framing’?

“If people are going to distort it, then scientists should get out there and duke it out with them and insist on the correct framing. However, most scientists are not good at that.”

The solution? Schneider says he believes scientists must make greater efforts to explain their work in simple terms, avoid jargon, and develop effective metaphors to describe their work. His aggressiveness on the issue and his sometimes in-your-face debating style have made him a favorite target for those opposing mainstream climate science evidence.

“People must be informed on how to send value signals to elected officials. If they are completely confused about everything, because the scientists are inarticulate and bury their leads, and the media believe that all claimants of truth are equally credible, then it puts an unbelievable burden on the public to look everything up. Who’s going to do that?” Schneider said.

Two years ago the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology began teaming with the National Science Foundation to create new resources for scientists, including in-person professional workshops, on the art of communication.

Through 12 regional workshops and two online webinars, 983 scientists and engineers have been trained, and more remain on waiting lists. More than 70 percent of the participants are considered early-career scientists.

Scientists ‘Think It is Beneath Them’

Still, for every scientist trained in communications, dozens more aren’t interested in joining the ruckus.

“There is good evidence coming out of the Royal Society to suggest that it is not as easy as it should be to communicate science,” said Ginger Pinholster, director of the AAAS Office of Public Programs, in a telephone interview. “The punch line to the Royal Society survey two years ago was, scientists don’t like to do this. They think it is beneath them.”

Pinholster makes it clear that AAAS is not interested in having scientists make policy. “We hope scientists will be able to provide authoritative unbiased science and technology information to guide the people who have been elected to make policy,” Pinholster said.

So, why is it important for scientists to inform public policy, anyway? “If not us, who?” asks Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

“Who should be informing the decisions of policymakers if not scientists?,” Scott asked in a phone interview. “Scientists are the ones who have the accurate information about what is happening. We want decisions based on accurate information.”

Scott cautions scientists newly engaged in communications with non-scientific audiences about problems they likely will face when working with policymakers.

“Scientists don’t realize they are stepping from the realm of academia into the realm of politics, and it is a very different universe. You may be right, but that doesn’t mean you are listened to,” said Scott.

Not wanting to discourage scientists from playing their rightful role in policy considerations, Scott nonetheless urges them to realize they need to effectively frame their messages. “What does the decisionmaker or policymaker want or need? How can your information help to accomplish that?” she said, adding that the rule of the day is “simplify.”

“Most of the time when you are communicating with policymakers you are doing it in written form. You better have your testimony in written form, the auditory form is quickly forgotten,” she said. She recommends that scientists dealing with policymakers have available a one-page overview with bulleted points, with an appendix for more information. “Make those bullets crystal clear,” she urges.

Despite having more climate scientists learning ways to communicate effectively to the media and to policymakers, many have spent the last, and in particular the past several months – wringing their hands on how best to defend their body of scientific work against what they consider unwarranted, and sometimes personal, condemnations.

Schneider says some of the responsibility undoubtedly lies with reporters and editors: By using traditional journalistic rules of providing “balance” on technical subjects, some in the media persist in “misrepresenting the nature of knowledge, and dangerously so,” Schneider said.

“I’d like it if they brought journalists who are specialists back,” he said, pointing to thinning of newsroom staffs and expertise in a withering journalism economic climate. “I would like it if they had reporters who know the north end of a south bound horse with regard to technically complicated material.”

Many in the media world might also share that hope. But in the current economic climate, and amidst declining advertising and circulation revenues for many mainstream news organizations, it’s not clear how realistic those hopes might be.

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Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and a fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, SESYNC, in Annapolis, Md. Her writing covers the environment, energy, food security, agriculture,...