News: AAAS 2012 Annual Meeting News
Scientists Offer Passionate, Innovative Ways to Engage the Public on Climate Change
The crowd of scientists, journalists, and students had their audience participation clickers in hand, ready to answer two vital questions:
Is climate change a serious problem? More than two-thirds of the audience at the plenary address voted that it was “a very serious” problem. And what is the main cause of climate warming? The favorite answer—chosen by 86% of the audience—was human activity.
But when the Pew Research Center in 2011 asked Americans these same questions, the percentages were dramatically different. Only 38% of those polled said that climate change was a very serious problem, and the same percentage said warming was caused by human activity.
The plenary began with a dramatic video of shifting images of canyon vistas and rainbows giving way to pipelines and calving glaciers, and throughout the night the discussion gave way to a multimedia backdrop of slide shows, viral videos, street interviews, and even a few stage shows.
The interactive event, held before a packed ballroom of more than 1400 participants and webcast live, was billed as a way for scientists to explore new ways of getting their messages out to the public. If science isn’t enough to convince people that warming is a real “planetary emergency,” the panelists asked, what can researchers try next?
“The big thing is to be responsible, to tell the story,” said former CNN journalist Frank Sesno, who moderated the discussion. “We need to convey the information, to help people learn so they can be more active, more informed, and more engaged citizens.”
At its best, said writer and researcher Olivia Judson, this kind of storytelling "can capture the imagination, and make someone gain curiosity" about the natural world.
Scientists have more options than ever for telling that story, the group agreed, but what approaches are most effective? Should they try new metaphors, new visual aids, or new ways of reaching a global audience?
Here's one clicker questions: How many people will live on Earth in 2050? Here's another: And what was the average birth rate for women across the globe in 2010?
The correct answers: 9 billion, chosen by 37% of the audience. But only 22% correctly chose a birth rate of 2.5 children per woman—most participants chose higher averages of four to five children.
from left: James Hansen; Frank Sesno; Olivia Judson; Hans Rosling
[Photo by Edward W. Lempinen]
Hans Rosling, a professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden showed the audience where they had gone astray in their thinking. He employed a shifting tower of toilet paper rolls, a giant curtain rod used to point at a towering graph, and a lively animation of galloping bubbles showing the world’s countries racing over time toward comparable birth rates.
The style of his presentation—full of color, humor, and movement—can go far in helping scientists explain their findings, the panelists agreed. But they also suggested that not all scientists could or should adopt these techniques.
James Hansen, the head of the NASA Goddard Space Center, came to national prominence in 2006 when he described a pattern of climate data
suppression and distortion by political appointees. Hansen said he “couldn’t tell a
story like that.” At first, he recalled, “I thought that if you made one really
clear talk and documented it, backed it up, published a scientific paper, that
would be effective.”
He wrote the popular book Storms of My Grandchildren to bring attention to what he calls the “planetary emergency” of climate change. He meant for the book to be widely accessible, and "my colleagues understand it, and college-educated people can understand it, but most of them tell me they have to read it twice.” He’s now working on a book that his 13-year old granddaughter can understand.
Language is a considerable barrier in explaining science to non-scientists, agreed Olivia Judson, a research fellow at Imperial College London But instead of props and slides, the author of Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation uses metaphor and “reframing” research to draw in her readers. She said there’s a difference between telling a compelling story and “dumbing down” science.
“People resent being talked down to, they know when it’s happening, and it’s unnecessary,” she said. “I do think that using language that is clear is not the same as trying to pretend the problem is simpler than it is.”
Clicker Question: How do you communicate your science?
Communicating through a peer-reviewed article or a book was the most popular answer, with 65% saying they had published in this way. Only 20% had posted a science video to YouTube, but 61% said they had blogged, tweeted, or posted to Facebook about science.
Rosling said he does all three, while Judson and Hansen said they stuck mostly to publishing. “I would lose credibility if I don’t do science,” Hansen said, explaining why he conserves his time and energy for research over social media. “But we have got to reach the huge public,” he acknowledged. “These modern devices are the way to get the public and get through this disinformation that is confusing the public.”
“There are powerful networks here,” Sesno agreed, "and it seems to me that science needs to engage those communities, science needs to jump into that mix.”
If the debate over climate change and other scientific fields like stem cell research are a “street fight,” he continued, “that’s the street where the fight is taking place.”
The plenary crowd watched a series of viral videos about science, and the panelists agreed that the videos worked best when they made information personal, relatable, or featured some sort of narration or visualization that helped the viewer see an ordinary problem from an unexpected and imaginative perspective.
Last question: What’s the most effective way to communicate science?
The audience had a few favorite answers this time: Metaphor, humor, and going to the popular press. Hansen voted for social media, Rosling opted for humor, and Judson chose all of the above.
But whatever the method, some of the panelists concluded, effective science communication must change attitudes as well as correct misconceptions. “Ignorance is not really the problem,” Rosling said. “It’s the difficulty in handling the facts.”
Science, Judson suggested, is more of a stance toward the world than a mountain of data. “And what I would like to do try and change is not so much the way people understand the facts, but the way they look at the world and ask questions about it and engage their curiosity and their skepticism.”
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