Tony Barnston, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, engages with the broad public through Reddit, a social news site. ‘I would like to do another,’ he says.

What do astrophyscist Neil Degrasse Tyson, Congressman Daryl Issa (R-Calif.), and fomer Man Vs. Wild host Bear Grylls have in common?

They’ve all let strangers ask them anything on Reddit, a social news website. Climate scientist Tony Barnston of Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) also recently tested the “Ask Me Anything” waters and found them to his liking.

The experience turned out to be enlightening not only for the Reddit community, but also for Barnston, who discovered a new opportunity to talk shop about climate in an informal setting. His experience may provide lessons for other climate scientists looking to engage the public about their work.

What exactly is Reddit?

Reddit has been referred to as “an Internet firehose” because of the massive amount of information that regularly moves through the site. Users generate all of that information, as they do on Facebook and Twitter, but there are some big differences. For one, most users are anonymous. For another, rather than following specific users — though they can do that — most users manage that firehose of information through “subreddits,” in effect communities where users post on specific topics.

Nearly 1.5 million users post on Reddit daily in one of some 144,000 subreddits. Of those 144,000 subreddits, one of the most active is “IAmA.” That’s where users with interesting stories can share their insights and also participate in an “Ask Me Anything” or AMA. An AMA is basically what it sounds like: users pose questions, usually germane to the original poster’s background, and the original poster answers them.

To further turn the firehose of information into a manageable stream, users can up-vote or down-vote questions. As a result, for users sorting the queue of questions by popularity, the cream generally rises to the top and the most off-topic questions end up at the bottom.

Testing Crowd-Sourcing in the Reddit Waters

Having a climate scientist participate in an AMA came at the initiative of Arif Noori, the assistant Web director at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, which houses IRI.

So You Want to Reddit …

“It was because of the community, the simplicity, and the instantaneous nature of these threads on Reddit that we decided to try it out,” Noori explained in an e-mail. “There’s something interesting about the crowd-sourced nature of voting certain questions to the top. You don’t have that on Twitter or Facebook.”

Noori also cited as another reason that a Reddit climate science AMA made sense: the “sizeable community of Redditors interested in science topics.” In fact, the science subreddit is the sixth most-subscribed subreddit on the entire site, still another reason that a climate science AMA made sense.

A few days prior to the session, Noori reached out to IAmA moderators to help promote Barnston’s AMA. “I was afraid we wouldn’t get any traction since there were two other AMAs happening that day — A journalist who just returned from an Al-Qaeda stronghold in Yemen and an actor who played Shaggy in Scooby-Doo,” Noori said.

IRI Climate Scientist Tony Barnston in his office where he took questions via Reddit social media. (Photo credit: Brian Kahn)

Despite competing with current events and pop culture, Barnston’s Reddit still had a great turnout. There were more than 200 comments and questions posted to his AMA. “I couldn’t answer them all. There were too many,” Barnston said later in an interview in his office.

Barnston took cues from Reddit users in deciding which questions to answer first. “I focused more on the top ones that had more points, that were more popular,” he said.

At the same time, he also wanted to play to his strengths in modeling and data. “I did read the ones on the bottom half, and a few of them were so up my alley that I wanted to answer them. Things about data were unpopular, but that was a topic I could relate to.”

By answering both the popular questions and ones more in tune with his own interests, Barnston was able to keep users following along and himself interested and involved.

Why It Worked … Time to Organize Your Thoughts, Your Response

Aside from the benefits Noori had anticipated, Barnston saw one other major benefit of doing a Reddit AMA that could appeal to scientists perhaps feeling some anxiety about engaging with the public. “I liked having time to think of my answer. Look at my office, that’s what my mind looks like,” Barnston quipped.

His office is actually representative of lots of scientists’ minds. The shelves are filled with statistical analyses and earth science books, printouts of academic journal articles are scattered on the desk, and climate model outputs, sea surface temperature maps, and manilla folders are piled — albeit quite neatly — on the floor. In short, there’s a wealth of information, but it can take awhile to remember where it is stashed.

And while he didn’t have to dig too deep to answer some questions such as one about differences between La Niña and El Niño, others were more complex. In an interview on the Earth Institute’s “State of the Planet” blog, Barnston noted some questions “could easily have been asked by a colleague.” For example, one questioner asked about the interaction between El Niño, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, and the Atlantic Meridional Oscillation.

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the hottest topics of the AMA was climate change. That’s where Barnston balked a bit. Of all the topics, climate change sparked the most discussion and debate among Reddit users themselves. While the exchanges remained civil for the most part, Barnston worried that his answers could get misconstrued as policy statements or could be taken out of context.

He had to be cautious about where to draw the line, for example, when answering a question about what short-term effect of climate change people should be most worried about. Barnston cited sea-level rise impacts on coastal communities as the largest short-term threat. He also pointed to the propensity of communities to continue building on low-lying land as a cause for concern. However, he managed to stop himself short of offering a climate change policy solution and shied-away from development issues because neither subject falls within his area of expertise.

Barnston worried also about what headlines could look like on climate “skeptic” websites. Given that his affiliation with Columbia was presented up front and used to lend credibility to his responses, he realized his answers could also reflect on the university and on the climate research going on there. In other words, his words, no matter how well-intended and carefully stated, might somehow be used to disparage his credibility and that of the university. (In this respect, the long-lasting ripple effects from the stolen climate scientist e-mails at the University of East Anglia in 2009 are never far from one’s mind.)

What’s Next?  More Scientists on Reddit?

“Overall, I enjoyed doing it and would like to do another,” Barnston said, reflecting on the experience.

Noori says he hopes to see more scientists on Reddit, too and thinks tying an AMA to a climate or earth science current event could be key: “I think it’s a good idea if scientists would make themselves available for when there is something newsworthy going on — for example, a seismologist AMA after an earthquake.”

With the Climate Prediction Center recently issuing an El Niño Watch, August or September might be an ideal time for Barnston to head back to the IAmA subreddit. By then, climatologists should have a clearer idea of whether an El Niño will develop and what its strength might be. That and other coming events no doubt will continue to provide an “in” for Reddit users to engage even more with climate science.

So You Want to Reddit …

“I would encourage other scientists to give it a try,” Barnston said regarding a Reddit AMA. If you’re ready to take the AMA plunge, here are a few guidelines to get you started.

Some Things to Do

1.  DO provide proof of your qualifications. You can be anyone on Reddit, which is great if you want to be an anonymous commenter. But if you want to do an AMA, be ready to provide proof. That means a tweet or a press release saying you’ll be on Reddit or verifying your identity with the moderators prior to the AMA.

2.  DO be unique. IAmA moderators promote AMAs with different angles. If you want them to promote your AMA, show what’s special about your line of research whether it be the topic, the places you travel to, or new findings that move the field forward.

3.  DO make sure you have time. With over 200 questions to choose from, responding to even the best can be time-consuming. Barnston spent the better part of a workday answering questions. Be prepared to make a commitment.

And Some Things to Avoid

1.  DON’T feel the need to answer everyone. While most questions were thoughtful during Barnston’s AMA, some were frivolous. Don’t feel the need to answer ones that are off-topic or seem out of bounds.

2.  DON’T be nervous. Most Redditors are anonymous, but that doesn’t mean they’re hostile. Reading through Barnston’s Reddit, many users said thanks when they asked their question, and 99 percent of the discourse was extremely civil. As Barnston noted, some users could even be colleagues!

3.  DON’T be afraid to move on. If a commenter keeps asking off-topic or hostile questions, just skip over them. There were so many serious questions during Barnston’s AMA, he couldn’t get through all of them. Don’t waste your time with dead-end questions.

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Brian Kahn is the communications coordinator at IRI. Connect with him on Twitter @blkahn.

Topics: Climate Science