Hooks, Roles, and the Climate Change Blame Game

According to Yale University survey taken late last year, there are large gaps of knowledge between scientists and the public on the subject of climate change within the American general public:

"[O]nly 57 percent know what the greenhouse effect is, only 45 percent of Americans understand that carbon dioxide traps heat from the Earth's surface, and just 50 percent understand that global warming is caused mostly by human activities. Large majorities incorrectly think that the hole in the ozone layer and aerosol spray cans cause global warming. Meanwhile, 75 percent of Americans have never heard of the related problems of ocean acidification or coral bleaching."

Why such a difference in public understanding and scientific consensus on an important policy and environmental issue?  Is it the media?  Have scientists failed to get their cumulative work into the public sphere?  Are there issues within the journalistic and scientific institutions themselves that prevent the needed education?  Where does the blame lie?


As reported by Bud Ward and Keith Kloor, at 2011 AAAS conference, in a session Keith jokingly dubbed, "Why climate Scientists are from Mars and Science Reporters are from Venus", Seth Borenstien, well respected science journalist, commented on how he had been wondering whether or not the January anomaly would end the 311-month streak where the mean global temperature was warmer than normal. This prompted the following question from scientist, Peter Gleick:

"Why isn’t 312 straight months a story?"

Seth's answer:

"It is the equivalent of planes landing safely every day."

In a comment in this thread, Keith, also an attendant, expounds on Borenstien's response providing helpful context:

"During the exchange, Seth further elaborated why this would be a good hook for the story–because it would give him a news reason to write about those 311 consecutive months.

Again, it’s vital that people understand how daily journalism works (I’m not talking about enterprise or investigative stories), but the majority of stuff that people read and tune into every day."

This theme resurfaced in a online article written by Charlie Petit, "No Media Splash: National Research Council says climate change getting worse, we gotta act fast. Again. Not at all the first time. Yawn. Wotta system", Charlie laments on the coverage of the NRC report [link for SkS coverage], America’s Climate Choices:

"Bad enough that much of its contents has been previewed as much as a year ago, with four volumes already published. All this new one says is that that if we don’t do something fast the world as we know it will probably end and the next one won’t be fun. Well, not in so many words, but blah blah blah. One might as well write a report about overpopulation, or the soul-destroying impacts of extreme poverty, or the scientific emptiness of astrology, homeopathy, or a search for Big Foot. True, but not new."



During the same meeting at the AAAS conference, as reported by Ward, this exchange occurred between Elizabeth Shogren (NPR reporter), Kerry Emanual (scientist), and Tom Rosenstiel (Project for Excellence in Journalism):

"You haven’t made your case yet" to policymakers and the public generally, she [Shogren] said, directing her comment at the climate science community, represented at this particular AAAS panel by MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel. "What do you want me to do about it?"

That rhetorical remark prompted a challenge from Emanuel. "No. You haven’t," Emanuel said, prompting a rapid-fire exchange with Shogren, Rosenstiel, and panelist Seth Borenstein, Associated Press science reporter, over the proper roles of the media — and also of climate scientists themselves — in science education.

"If you’re waiting for the press to persuade the public for you, you’re going to lose," Rosenstiel argued, "because the press doesn’t see that as their role."

There are certain rhetorical problems with the exchange that need to be fleshed out before understanding the disconnect.

To further the understanding, I emailed Bud Ward, and as planner and moderator of that board, he elaborated on it:

I can tell you the emphasis, both from Kerry Emanuel and from Tom Rosenstiel, was on the word "You."  As in:
     "No. YOU haven't."
That was not quite so much the emphasis when Elizabeth Shogren of NPR made the initial point ...
     "You haven't made your case yet,"
but it certainly was implicit. And in her
     "what do you want ME to do about it?"
the "me" was emphasized...as if she, and the media generally, certainly could not carry the scientific community's water (evidence) if they themselves were not doing it satisfactorily in the first place. That comment led Kerry to jump in, which in turn led to Rosenstiel's remark.

So do scientsts think it is the media's role to "persuade" the public, as Rosensteil infers?   Or did Emanuel mean that it is the media's role to help the public understand the risk posed by climate change?  

Once again, Bud Ward elaborates, in an email:

"I believe Kerry has a pretty sophisticated understanding of the media, one of the reasons I chose him in particular to participate. So I do not think he thinks it's the job of the media to "persuade," but rather their job to help "educate" the public. I think he was being critical of how well the media generally do their job in terms of informing and educating (a term many media old-timers are not comfortable with, by the way -- they EDUCATE, but they are not EDUCATORS, many point out.)"


Andy Revkin, noted science blogger for the NY Times, suggested during the AAAS meeting:

"[F]or instance, that the scientific community could better reward, rather than seemingly punish, scientists who do effective outreach with the media and the public."

Emanuel answered:

"You touched on a raw nerve" ... "an attitude in our culture: if we’re doing outreach, we’re not in the lab."

Revkin is familiar with this jump from science to advocacy, as evidenced by his story done on Richard C. J. Somerville, "The Road from Climate Science to Climate Advocacy".  The situation is precarious for scientists, and not only from their peers.  As scientist Susan Solomon notes in an email exchange with Revkin:

"If we as scientists go beyond what we know into our personal opinions and values, we begin to engage in the same sort of personal speculation masquerading as authoritative that we dislike when it is done by the skeptics."

The Blame Game


So where so we go from here?  There are clearly roles for both scientists and the media to fill in order to inform the public of the realities of climate change, and risks that are incurred as a result of business-as-usual emissions scenarios.  While several people have filled those roles admirably, there seems to be recognized institutional problems in both the media and science establishments that prevent constant and informative advocacy of climate change risk, and yet, this is what is needed before any movement from the public on legislation, that could be used to curb that risk, can be realized.

This division on ideas has led to the blaming you see at the AAAS meeting, as well as some of the discussion on blogs (linked throughout and below). Nonetheless, since recognizing and moving beyond the issues is expected of those whose roles are considered of supreme importance, the blame game must stop, and issues must be resolved to fit the different challenges that we are subjected to as a result of climate change risk.  

I asked Stephen Leahy, a well-known international science journalist,  a direct question about solutions to this impass between scientists and the media who report on them.  Here is his answer:

"Mutual understanding goes a long way. I did a session in front of 500 ecologists at a conference a few years ago about how media works - deconstructing the process for them. They vented their worst media experiences - some were really awful. I offered advice/tips. No one punched me when it was over.

One of the main things I emphasized is the need for scientists to ask questions before they answer them. Who is the reporter, what have they done, what media etc. Media is not monolithic. In fact it has become extraordinarily diverse making it easy for fakers, pretenders, disinformers to operate with impunity.

I've had lots of science training, workshops etc - way more than any scientist has had or needs about media. But few journalists have."
He also has advise for the reading public, with his Global Warming BS Detector.

Jonathan Gilligan, a physical scientist, who has taken his specialization into environmental policy, has other ideas, which include stepping outside the traditional roles of journalism.

"A viral community-education project (an expert educates a group; each member goes and starts a new group, which he or she leads until everyone learns enough to become a leader him or herself, and so on with exponential growth) might be a very practical model for getting information out on technical subjects more effectively than journalism can do. Think creatively and outside the list of familiar and comfortable institutions and technologies."

Whatever the solution is to the problem of the public being largely out of sync with expert scientists on climate change, I believe more of these panels that interface the production and dissemination of scientific findings should become a staple of the discourse on climate science communication.

There are capacities in the education and warning of public risk that need to be filled by appropriate citizens in order to have functional democracy.  As the famous diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Kofi Annan said:

"If information and knowledge are central to democracy, they are the conditions for development."

More to the point, Ben Franklin:

"It is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins."

And Thomas Jefferson, simply:

"Information is the currency of democracy."


[link] "AAAS Media/Science Panel Highlights Differences Distinguishing Science and Journalism"  Bud Ward

[link] "No Media Splash: National Research Council says climate change getting worse, we gotta act fast. Again. Not at all the first time. Yawn. Wotta system." Charlie Petit

[link] "Why It's Called News" Keith Kloor

[link] "Tuning Out the Latest NAS Report is Misguided" Keith Kloor

[link] "The Road from Climate Science to Climate Advocacy" Andy Revkin

[link] "Who Should Be the Climate Persuaders" Keith Kloor

[link] "Americans’ Knowledge of Climate Change" 

And Special thanks to Bud Ward for corresponding with me through email to give this piece proper context

Posted by grypo on Tuesday, 24 May, 2011

Creative Commons License The Skeptical Science website by Skeptical Science is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.