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A Tale of Three Interviews

Filed under: — gavin @ 9 April 2007

The release of the IPCC Working Group II summary report (on climate change impacts) lead to a large number of stories on climate change in the media and, inevitably, lots of requests for media appearances for climate scientists on the journalists’ Rolodex. On the same day, there was a short article in Science on the ‘framing’ of science communication.

The Science piece, by Scibloggers Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet, make the point that the way science is expressed in public makes a difference to how it is received. So much, so uncontroversial. However, it generated some trenchant counterarguments, (and countercounterarguments), possibly because they start off criticising a bit of a strawman ‘scientist’ who thinks that ‘if only laypeople better understood technical complexities… controversies would subside’. It’s certainly possible that such people exist, however, they are unlikely to be found among the scientists who are active in trying to communicate to the public. However, instead of arguing about this in a rather abstract way, I thought I’d illustrate the issue by discussing three interviews I did last Thursday and Friday in relation to the IPCC WG II release.

I was asked to do three TV appearances to discuss the upcoming report: CNN (World News Tonight), Bloomberg Media (Peter Cook’s Money and Politics) and the Weather Channel. Each interview was very different – CNN and the Weather Channel pre-taped them, Bloomberg was live. CNN’s interview was from a news reporter who knew the basics, who asked questions that she was interested in and ended up with answers that were comprehensible at the level of the average viewer. The Weather Channel interview was done by Heidi Cullen who is much more versed in the topic (and has a climate science background) and is very aware both of the real issues and the fake ‘pseudo-debates’ that often surround the topic. Her questions were spot on, but possibly at a higher level than would be appropriate on CNN. In both cases, the details of the new report were of less interest than the overall message that the IPCC reports and climate science community are giving.

The Bloomberg producers (who come with a very ‘Wall Street’ focus/attitude) however, still see this as a partisan political debate and while they had a brief factual intro from their reporter, they followed it with a spokesman from CEI, Christopher Horner – author of the “Incorrect guide to climate change” (I’ve possibly got the book title slightly wrong), – and then me. As you might expect, the subsequent 5 minute ‘conversation’ was neither informative nor entertaining, and I doubt that anyone watching was the least bit swayed, intrigued or had their curiosity piqued or their prejudices reinforced. Horner zipped through his grab-bag of talking points (mostly focussed on the imagined failings of the IPCC process), which probably went over the heads of any civilians watching, while I tried to stick to the point that climate change impacts have started and will likely get worse (when I could get a word in edgewise).

So what does this tell us about the ‘framing’ of the issue? First off, the interviewee doesn’t get to change the ‘frame’ in a 5 minute TV interview – however often you are on. Instead the frame is imposed mostly from the editorial and production decisions. It’s easy to see that the CNN and Weather Channel producers see climate change story in a ‘news event’ frame, for which they get outside expertise to explain some of the finer points. Bloomberg see this in a ‘political controversy’ frame and set up their interviews accordingly. Horner would like the frame to be about ‘political/scientific corruption’ which clearly appeals to some, but since he asks you to believe lawyers over scientists, it’s unlikely to get very far (scientists are roughly 3 times more ‘trusted’ than lawyers). Given the other channels decisions’ and the House/Senate hearing a couple of weeks ago, I think that this ‘framing’ has probably had its day but will likely linger on in some corners for a while.

How do frames shift then? Despite what some might think, it is a matter of education – not of the general public though (as welcome as that would be) – but of the gatekeepers: the journalists, editors and producers. Communication efforts are much more likely to succeed if they target the people who communicate for a living, rather than the general public directly. While the overall frame for climate change has clearly moved from ‘controversy’ to ‘news event’, there are still sub-issues that advocates for specific policy changes are fighting over – those are however, more subtle and aren’t so much of a problem of ‘pure’ science communication, and so I’ll leave it for others to discuss those.

155 Responses to “A Tale of Three Interviews”

  1. 151

    Sunday’s Washington Times has printed an Op-Ed on the IPCC report and the new CNA report called, “Climate of Subtle Conflict”. The authors are both scientists currently working at Washington DC think tanks. The Op-Ed can be read here: http://www.washingtontimes.com/commentary/20070421-103141-6343r.htm

  2. 152
    Hank Roberts says:

    Ray, I know the numbers on solar and the info on claims of warming elsewhere in the solar system. Read the article; the bit I quoted I thought interesting because I found it surprising that anyone trained in Mr. Gore’s program could be surprised by someone raising the “other planets warming” question. (And the rest interesting because it actually identified the organized group infiltrating the meeting to heckle the speaker with the old bogus noise — these people are serious about attacking the science, they have been for a long time in many ways.)

    Then I saw this later yesterday. Again, I’ve read the abstract, I’m pointing it out here because it’s of interest that the subject keeps coming up in different ways. You don’t need to tell me it’s a trivial forcing, I’m pointing to it because it’s the kind of thing to be aware of in interviews —- even trivial forcings are going to take continued investigation to understand them, even after the climate scientists know they’re trivial as far as current rapid warming is concerned.

    Hammel, H. B.; Lockwood, G. W.
    Suggestive correlations between the brightness of Neptune, solar variability, and Earth’s temperature
    Geophys. Res. Lett., Vol. 34, No. 8, L08203
    10.1029/2006GL028764
    19 April 2007

  3. 153
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Hank, I love the abstract of the GRL paper on Neptune–
    to paraphrase: “Just because there’s no statistically significant correlation and we have no mechansim how this would occur doesn’t mean we’re wrong.” Pretty pathetic what can sometimes pass peer review.

  4. 154

    [[Hank, I love the abstract of the GRL paper on Neptune–
    to paraphrase: “Just because there’s no statistically significant correlation and we have no mechansim how this would occur doesn’t mean we’re wrong.” Pretty pathetic what can sometimes pass peer review.
    ]]

    It’s possible it was published as a joke. Peer-reviewed journals will sometimes publish joke articles if they make some kind of useful point. For example, there was a series of articles in economic journals in the 1970s and 1980s about vampire economics — vampires and stakes being competing goods, optimum resource harvesting of human victims and the problem of resource depletion, etc.

  5. 155
    Marion Delgado says:

    You can’t simply equate climate change denialism with Creationism/ID. CCD doesn’t have one unifying belief it has to cling to, it can morph to suit the various interests and prejudices of those involved doing it. The tactics are indeed similar, but you can’t make progress against a blob, the way you can “dent” Creationism. It’d be a mistake, IMO, to start some sort of defense of science thing aimed specifically at climate change denialism.

    For one thing, plenty of genuine scientists in appropriate fields are low-balling anthropogenic global warming. The Thomas Kuhn picture doesn’t look good for them, but they’re not charlatans like virtually all the creationist/ID people are or become. They’re just disagreeing. Creating a committee would feed into the fake image already being put out of a scientific orthodoxy purging dissidents for political reasons.

    For another thing, since denialism is agenda-driven, not belief-driven, the most you could hope for is a media emphasis shift from denial into Lomborg/Linzen territory.

    Yes, there should be science and lay committees to defend science, but not against dissident science, but against people infecting the process.

    Bear in mind that some of these people got their world view partly, by second or third hand, from Ayn Rand. She stated that scientists couldn’t make progress in teams and groups – only individual great minds and their lackeys. She also stated that any scientist who accepted direct, as opposed to contractor, government money had corrupted his science and would cease immediately to achieve valid results.

    I think the campaign should be to make clear to the gatekeepers the distinction between kinds of distortions that happen – promotion, grants, publicity, etc. as well as obvious things like being paid for post hoc justification research. I would take on secrecy agreements as anti-scientific, even if they may be occasionally necessary evils, and scrutinize private/university joint ventures more closely. That’s much closer to a base attack than going after a specific set of numbers.