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Communicating Science: Not Just Talking the Talk

Filed under: — group @ 16 September 2009

Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt

The issues involved in science communication are complex and often seem intractable. We’ve seen many different approaches, but guessing which will work (An Inconvenient Truth, Field Notes from a Catastrophe) and which won’t (The Eleventh Hour) is a tricky call. Mostly this is because we aren’t the target audience and so tend to rate popularizations by different criteria than lay people. Often, we just don’t ‘get it’.

Into this void has stepped Randy Olsen with his new book “Don’t be such a scientist”. For those who don’t know Randy, he’s a rather extraordinary individual – one of the few individuals who has run the gamut from hard-core scientist to Hollywood film maker. He’s walked the walk, and can talk the talk–and when he does talk, we should be listening!

While there may be some similarities in theme with “Unscientific America” by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum that we reviewed previously, the two books cover very different ground. They share the recognition that there is currently a crisis in area of scientific communication. But what makes “Don’t be such a Scientist” so unique is that Olsen takes us along on his own personal journey, recounting his own experiences as he made the transition from marine biologist to movie-maker, and showing us (rather than simply telling us–you can be sure that Randy would want to draw that distinction!) what he learned along the way. The book could equally well have been titled “Confessions of a Recovering Scientist”.

More than anything else, the book attempts to show us what the community is doing wrong in our efforts to communicate our science to the public. Randy doesn’t mince words in the process. He’s fairly blunt about the fact that even when we think we’re doing a good job, we generally aren’t. We have a tendency to focus excessively on substance, when it is often as if not more important, when trying to reach the lay public, to focus on style. In other words, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it.

This is a recurring theme in Randy’s work. His 2006 film, Flock of Dodos, showed, through a combination of humor and insightful snippets of reality, why evolutionary biologists have typically failed in their efforts to directly engage and expose the “intelligent design” movement. In his 2008 film Sizzle, he attempted the same thing with the climate change debate–an example that hits closer to home for us–in this case using more of a “mockumentary”-style format (think “Best in Show” with climate scientists instead of dogs) but with rather more mixed results. Randy makes the point that the fact that Nature panned it, while Variety loved it, underlines the gulf that still exists between the worlds of science and entertainment.

However, the book is not simply a wholesale, defeatist condemnation of our efforts to communicate. What Randy has to say may be tough to hear, but its tough love. He provides some very important lessons on what works and what doesn’t, and they ring true to us in our own experience with public outreach. In short, says Randy: Tell a good story; Arouse expectations and then fulfill them; Don’t be so Cerebral; And, last but certainly not least: Don’t be so unlikeable (i.e. don’t play to the stereotype of the arrogant, dismissive academic or the nerdy absent-minded scientist). Needless to say, it’s easy for us to see our own past mistakes and flaws in Randy’s examples. And while we might quibble with Randy on some details (for example, An Inconvenient Truth didn’t get to be the success it was because of its minor inaccuracies), the basic points are well taken.

The book is not only extremely insightful and full of important lessons, it also happens to be funny and engaging, self-effacing and honest. We both agree that this book is a must read for anyone who cares about science, and the problems we have engaging the public.

If the book has a flaw, it might be the seemingly implicit message that scientists all need to take acting or comedy lessons before starting to talk – though the broader point that many of us could use some pointers in effective communication is fair. More seriously, the premise of the book is rooted in perhaps somewhat of a caricature of what a scientist is (you know, cerebral, boring, arrogant and probably unkempt). This could be seen merely as a device, but the very fact that we are being told to not be such scientists, seems at times to reinforce the stereotype (though to be fair, Randy’s explanation of the title phrase does show it to be a bit more nuanced than might initially meet the eye). Shouldn’t we instead be challenging the stereotype? And changing what it means to the public to be a scientist? Maybe this will happen if scientists spend more time not being so like stereotypical scientists – but frankly there are a lot of those atypical scientists already and the cliches still abound.

When it comes to making scientists better communicators, Greg Craven’s book “What’s the worst that can happen?” demonstrates how it can actually be done. Craven is a science teacher and is very upfront about his lack of climate science credentials but equally upfront about his role in helping normal people think about the issue in a rational way. Craven started off making YouTube videos explaining his points and this book is a further development of those including responses to many of the critiques he got originally.

Craven’s excellent use of video to discuss the implications of the science is neatly paired with the work that Peter Sinclair is doing with his “Climate Denial Crock of the Week” series. Both use arresting graphics and straightforward explanations to point out what the science really says, how the contrarians distort and misinform and take some pleasure in pointing out the frequent incoherence that passes for commentary at sites like WUWT.

Crucially, neither Craven nor Sinclair are scientists, but they are excellent communicators of science. Which brings up a point raised by both Mooney & Kirshenbaum and Olsen – what role should working scientists play in improving communications to the public? Video editing and scriptwriting (and even website design!) is probably best left to people who know how to do these things effectively, while content and context needs to be informed directly by the scientists themselves. To our mind this points to enhanced cooperation among communicators and scientists as the dominant model we should be following. We don’t all need to become film directors to make a difference!

602 Responses to “Communicating Science: Not Just Talking the Talk”

  1. 101
    Hank Roberts says:

    > “We’re all going to die.” Well, it is TRUE …

    Citation needed, but please don’t bother.

    Good grief, you list two — of several– results that follow rapidly burning lots of fossil fuel, and you say only one of them is the real problem. Hint, history is always opaque to those living in it. Likely there are other problems to find; ocean pH change was a recent surprise.

    But we know the cause already.

  2. 102
    Richard Steckis says:

    Gavin says:

    “Are you therefore claiming that no attribution is possible for any magnitude of extreme event?”

    Essentially yes. Unless the event is a direct response to a perturbation that can be measured, you cannot attribute a weather event no matter how extreme (with any degree of confidence) to global warming based on model assessments alone. Despite what you say about the limitations of statistical attribution, I would back that over model attributions.

    [Response: Well in that case we are done. The seas could boil, Greenland slide into the sea and the Amazon catch fire – and regardless of how well predicted any of those things were, you won’t accept that we can attribute cause and effect. But frankly, I don’t believe you (or rather, I don’t believe that you are being serious). – gavin]

  3. 103

    Gregg Easterbrook, TMQ on ESPN, is global warming denialist v2.0, oh so reasonable type. Easterbrook writes:

    “Professional doomsayer Al Gore endlessly declares that the last two decades have been “the warmest on record” — he doesn’t add that the “record” of reliable temperature data begins in the late 19th century, just when prolonged solar minima were ending and Earth entered a period of recovery from cool centuries. (Meaning temperatures likely would have risen in the 20th century whether man existed or not; I believe greenhouse gases should be regulated, it’s just that it would be nice if Gore were honest about the evidence.)”

    Do you guys have a blogpost on temperature records that shows temps from all sources — tree rings, polar ice cores, etc? Hopefully with graphs?


  4. 104
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Anyone who follows this blog will know that I am quick to try and answer sincere questions if they are within my ken. However, when all a poster wants to do is impugn the collective integrity of climate scientists and the scientific community in general, the only appropriate attitude is contempt.
    Even Jesus only asked us to forgive our brothers “seventy times seven” times, and some denialists are way past that. One becomes a scientist because one is interested in understanding the truth. That necessitates having contempt for lies.

  5. 105
    Richard Steckis says:

    Gavin says:

    “Response: Well in that case we are done. The seas could boil, Greenland slide into the sea and the Amazon catch fire – and regardless of how well predicted any of those things were, you won’t accept that we can attribute cause and effect. But frankly, I don’t believe you (or rather, I don’t believe that you are being serious). – gavin”

    No. We are not done. Your examples are basically appealing to catastrophe. Attribution of cause and effect in science can only be done statistically and empirically and not through model simulation. Model simulation can give us a anecdotal view but not predictive view. Using models for prediction falls into the realms of forecasting and therefore must comply with established forecasting principles for them to be accepted for that purpose.

    [Response: Then you didn’t understand my question. I asked if an event of any magnitude was attributable- because if it is then we are talking about signal/noise ratios as opposed to dogmatism. So let’s start over. – gavin]

  6. 106
    llewelly says:

    Do you guys have a blogpost on temperature records that shows temps from all sources — tree rings, polar ice cores, etc? Hopefully with graphs?
    See also:
    RC has posted many articles about paleoclimate reconstructions. Try google with “ hockey stick” for the posts about all the myriad controversies.

  7. 107
    Radge Havers says:


    A main point is that there is a contingent that seems more than ready to blame scientists for the fact that not everyone in the world is convinced of the evidence in favor of topics a, b, or c.

    Not sure I see that. More like irritation that some scientists seem reluctant to rise to a challenge not of their own making and that isn’t being addressed adequately in the rest of society. You say “wrestling phantoms in the dark.” Hank Roberts says “history is always opaque to those living in it.” There’s the frustration.

    Anyway story-telling may not be the exact right term. But as was pointed out, scientists are very often quite good with words, carefully structuring arguments and crafting an artfully dry and concise professional tone. I’d go so far as to say that some become so singularly oriented in that respect that they turn into word-use bigots; to the point that they may eschew visual literacy, for instance. I’m not pointing any fingers, just saying that exhortations to open out an expanded repertoire on various levels are to be expected if there’s a sense that the profession is under valued and even under threat. If you think it isn’t, I’d naturally wonder why and whether you have a valuable insight or are just sheltered.

  8. 108
    Noel Fuller says:

    When teaching maths at any level in schools I learned to always begin with a few minutes on numeration, or is it numeracy – aiding children to attach understandings to the numbers we are using. Some children from quantity rich cultures arrive at shool already advanced in this, frequent reference at home to the analogue clock for instance (I know! – only those who are vision impaired use analogue these days), The point is that without this numeracy there will come a point where it is useless to try to teach that child any more maths. They will only have rote ways to calculate and will be unaware of alternative approaches. Thus we all probably know people who are highly intelligent but claim from some time in their early years that they are no good at maths.

    Communicating climate science suffers the same problem. Highly verbal argument or explanation gets little traction without graphics, the best being animations. If I want to point to something on the web that will “prove” that CO2 does what is claimed I find myself in a weak position, and having to rely on weight of evidence. I have read long verbal explanations of the history connected with this question, there are books going on about radiative transfer or radiative forcing that no enquirer is even going to look at. But where in the online stories are accounts of the actual experiments done (apart from one in a tube by Koch that resulted in a denialist argument), where are the graphical representations of results, where the animations showing in principle the processes of radiative forcing, even just the CO2 molecule releasing a photon of IR in any direction including back to where it came from? (To get over misuse of the second law of thermaldynamics).

    Denialists have become expert at exploiting these gaps. A case concerns a paper using the term “Ice sheet collapse” or similar in its title. Another paper citing this and another as representative, proceeded then to explain simply and elegantly with lots of graphics that ‘if you put a lump of ice in a bowl it is not going to slide over the edge, and we all know that ice caps are sitting in depressions and they are not going to slide over the rims into the sea, well yes, there are some breaks in the rims through which glaciers exit but that is a different story. Clearly these scientists don’t know what they are talking about.’ I obtained the papers and found that they were being completely misrepresented, one did not discuss ice sheet collapse at all and the other just touched on the notion it might take a few thousand years. It was a strawman argument. My point is it exploited a simple image, the bowl, that anyone could understand, to make an effective point in the eyes of people who could not obtain the papers concerned to check up, I had some difficulty doing so being now a pensioner. Only from a science journalist who had raised the point with Antarctic researchers did I get a half-pie explanation of what (unstoppable) ice-sheet collapse might mean. An animation making use of the kind of footage the “Extreme Ice” video displays might convincingly display the idea while also showing that most of the current research is about mass balance etc.

    So the public needs the equivalent of numeracy, using imagery, with respect to climate science and the biosphere. I recently saw a BBC series on forces that have made the planet – 5 episodes. A friend surprised me by saying the case for anthropogenic global warming via CO2 had been proven for him by the series. As I read it the graphic visual presentation had communicated and connected a weight of evidence so he now accepted the case. He had been able to relate what he heard to what he knew through the imagery.

    Anyone who has seen the Peter Jackson version of the Lord of the Rings or watched America’s Cup races where realtime animations of yachts, winds currents, courses, interference, the rules, and adavantage, are interspersed moment by moment with direct video of the action. should know how powerful these animations can be. Give them something useful to do like presenting the findings of climate science to the public.

  9. 109

    A very nice talk relevant to the subject of the post: Tell Me a Story”.

    BTW there is a clear and present danger to the implicit message of Randy’s book: “Don’t be such a scientist” could easily be taken as delegitimizing scientists, science, and scientific attitudes. Latching onto and reinforcing already rampant anti-intellectualism, with an undertone of blaming the victim. Not nice.

    I’m trying to imagine a cookbook style manual aimed at gays, how to modify their behaviour so they will cause less offence to and find more acceptance in the rest of society… doesn’t feel right, does it. Or jews, negroes, females… nobody would dare to sling the kind of insult and accusations at those people that climatologists have had to routinely endure.

    But then, scientists have never been eager to take their insulters to court. They aren’t the litigious kind, and anyway don’t have the money. Should that change?

    Being a scientist is a defining thing, much more than just a job. I am “such a scientist”, have been since age four, and will be forever. And proud of it too. Anyone having a problem with that?

  10. 110
    Greg Craven says:

    To All:

    I feel strongly enough that the ideas and approach in my book will *bypass* most of the thorny issues being discussed on this thread that I’m going to be blunt, and risky.

    I can’t give the text away, since that would breach my contract with my publisher and land me in serious trouble. But I’m positively desperate for everyone here to read the book and consider the chance that it may just be the sword to cut through this Gordian Knot of the popular debate. So I’m going to go out on a limb.

    Buy the book on Amazon (it’s ten bucks). Read it. And then, if you think it was not worth your time and money, contact me through and tell me how much you thought it WAS worth.

    I will pay the difference to you out of my own pocket.

    I can’t say I’ll “refund the purchase price,” since I don’t get the revenue from the book (I get 76 cents in royalties per book), but if you thought it was a total waste of your time and money, I’ll pay you the $10.17 Amazon charged you plus the shipping.

    So I’ve taken away the financial risk to you. Perhaps you’re willing to risk wasting a few hours of your time reading it, on the off chance that it may just be the new idea that could change the whole game. Millions of people forwarded my boring “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See,” not because I’m a really entertaining guy, but because that silly little grid hit a nerve with a hell of a lot of people who didn’t give a shit about climate change, or were simply paralyzed by the contradictory voices in the shouting match. There must be something to that grid.

    It is new. It is different. And it reached a lot of people that haven’t been reached by any other strategies or appeals.

    Many many authors, speakers, bloggers, scientists, journalists, and activists have done amazing things in the fight to wake up the majority. Real Climate is at the top echelon of that group deserving praise and thanks for their tireless work.

    But all the approaches to now have not yet gotten us where we need to be. I’m no megalomaniac, and I’m pretty sure I’m not delusional, but I think I’ve come up with an entirely new approach, whose basic premise has been demonstrated to have promise (in the success of the video). Can we really afford to not give it a shot?

    So please buy, beg, borrow, or steal the book, read it, consider it’s potential as a tool to break through to those who are reachable but unreached, and then if you decide it wasn’t worth the money, contact me. Tell me how much you paid, how much you think it was worth, and the name and address to send the check to. All I ask is that you give me a reasonably detailed critique of where you think the book fails, so that I can refine the message and make it better. In fact, that’s how the tools in the book came about, through two years of asking people on the internet to critique what I proposed. That’s why I’m pretty damn proud and hopeful for what I’ve produced.

    It is a book addressed to people who are on the fence or slightly skeptical about climate change (i.e. the great majority of Americans). So you might think “What value is that to me? *I* don’t need to make up my mind.” The reason I’m asking YOU to read the book is so that you can use the ideas and approaches in it as a TOOL to accomplish what you want most–a wholesale shift in the national culture regarding climate change. That is how policy makers can have the space to make significant enough policy changes to have a reasonable chance of safeguarding our kids. It is the can opener. It is the search engine. It is the MSG that unlocks the huge potential sitting right there all along, but heretofore inaccessible.

    For what it’s worth, Bill McKibben wrote of the book: “This book trumps most of our accounts of the global warming crisis, partly for its good humor and straightforward logic, and partly because the author has actually figured out what actions make sense.”

    Chris Mooney wrote in the New Scientist: ” In the climate debate, I would rather trust Craven than industrial lobbyists or environmental groups, and I doubt I am alone…. I learned something from it – an achievement I might have thought impossible given my lengthy immersion in the climate debate…. If Craven could get everybody who has weighed in on this debate to go through the exercises in the book, Al Gore should share his Nobel peace prize.”

    Ross Gelbspan wrote “This is a terrifically thoughtful book. Given the discouraging history of antagonism, denial and indifference to the heating of the planet, Greg Craven’s book shines an illuminating floodlight on how we think about global warming.”

    And General Anthony Zinni (former Commander in Chief of U.S. Central Command) wrote “Greg Craven has written a brilliant and unique work on global warming. His innovative and intelligent approach to this controversial issue is superbly crafted. It is an important book that is a must read for those who care about our planet and future generations.”

    (Terry Goodkind, on the other hand, said that I was “evil,” and that what I’m doing is “no better than the terrorists.” So…there’s that.)

    So please. Give it a shot. I’m entirely sincere in my offer. And, as you might sense, increasingly desperate.

    Thanks so much for your consideration, and for all the time and energy that you all have already spent on this issue.

    Greg Craven

  11. 111

    I do not know whether Mr. Olsons book is thought solely in a US context, but as someone trying to raise peoples awareness about the issue in Europe, it appears to me that there may be some transatlantic differences in the way you need to frame the debate if you want scepticals to listen to you.

    I am not too familiar with the sociology of the US, but it appears to me that science is perceived by the “Joe sixpacks” you mention as being a generally left-wing excercise, which is rejected with reference to “common sense”.

    In Denmark (and at least in the Germany and the other scandinavian countries as well), science is traditionally perceived more as a right-wing domain. Here, the usual denialist framing of the debate is painting denialists as rational, clear-headed, scientifically thinking more-intelligent-than-average people against ill-informed, well-meaning but naive activists who do not understand the science they think is supporting their cause – helped by smart, cynical PR folks always looking for a fashionable and profitable cause to exploit.

    And it works. In Denmark, almost 40% of the propulation remain sceptical towards AGW (a fact that might be of interest to Marc Morano and his ilk for the purpose of making cheap denialist points during the summit in Copenhagen!).

    Maybe Denmark has a particularly difficult problem hosting a disproportionately large number of the very few serious sceptics from the cosmic ray school (Svensmark, Friis-Christensen and their coworkers) along with some very vocal outright denialists with seeming credentials (Bjarne Andresen with the “no global temperature”, Ole Humlum who wastes no time supporting Segalstad and Jaworowskis exotic claims about the CO2 rise not being anthropogenic) – and, of course, Bjørn Lomborg. Especially Lomborg has made it his main line of argument that his opponents are irrational activists who are afraid of numbers, and, as you know well, he has unfortunately been quite effective also abroad.

    But my experience from here is, actually, that the most effective way to get our sceptics to listen is indeed to focus on substance rather than style, precisely because the latter is all too easily rejected as being the product of emotions or PR wanting in hard facts. Not being a climate scientist (but a science teacher), I have often found it quite an effective strategy making the point that the science is so clear that I, being a rational, interested and normally gifted person, can go check it, and that any person considering himself in possession of the same average qualities can do the same.

    I understand perfectly that the idea of refuting nonsense firmly by simply presenting cool facts will hardly sound original to you people at Realclimate, but this is often exactly what is necessary here.
    Of course, being arrogant and unlikable is not popular here, either, but the surest way to lose a debate against a classical North European denialist firmly convinced that he represents reason and coolheadedness is, to my mind, definitely to present yourself and your argument as full of style rather than substance.

    I have not yet read Mr. Olson´s book, and I am sure there is much to learn for me in it, but from Mr. Schmidt´s review here, it appeared to me, prima facie, that there might be important cultural cross-country differences to the problem of how best to overcome climate denialism. I could be wrong.

    I am hoping that other European and US commenters could elaborate this question and enlighten me further about their experience with communicating science in different countries.

    Best regards – and thank you at Realclimate for providing a cornucopious source of information and refutations! You are a gift that keeps giving.

  12. 112
    Mark says:

    “The average guy is confronted with two stories, not one.”

    He’s not. He may be told to confuse the thousands of anti-AGW stories with being one story, but it isn’t.

    Pro AGW: One story, with different emphasis, but basically “CO2 is a problem and we’re warming far too fast for anything other than our fossil fuel use to be the cause”

    Anti AGW: It’s the sun.
    Anti AGW: It’s not happening.
    Anti AGW: It’s too late.
    Anti AGW: It’s too early to tell.
    Anti AGW: It’s a conspiracy.
    Anti AGW: It’s GCRs.
    Anti AGW: It’s cooling.
    Anti AGW: It’s always doing this.
    Anti AGW: etc….. ad nauseum.

    Media help confuse this by saying “we have to show both sides”, but there’s far far more sides than that.

  13. 113
    Mark says:

    “In sum: Civility is better than sarcasm because sarcasm DOES NOT WORK. Neither does arrogance, dismissiveness, telling somebody else to “read the science.” Etc.”

    Civility only works when ALL SIDES are civil and want to discuss or argue the facts or interpretation.

    However, denialists aren’t civil. They aren’t looking to make a case for what IS going on, just want it not to be AGW. They change their tune, their evidence and their criteria for accepting evidence. Like a tide of floating jobbies in the Thames Estuary, they hide when you whack them or try to grasp their point and another little richard-the-third rises up to become prominent in its place. Later to rise up again just the same as before.

    In short, it requires that all sides to be honest in their arguments.

    Denialists aren’t.

    Therefore civility DOES NOT WORK.

    And at least with sarcasm, they don’t get the appearance of validity they so sorely desire (since they don’t have anything else: not facts, not theory, not evidence, not anything. Just “there’s still too much discussion to do something yet”).

  14. 114
    Mark says:

    “re: #80 – Again, you suggest that imagined insults and put-downs aren’t really there, and that “frankly that isn’t our problem.” This is being dismissive”

    Now compare with your earlier words:

    “What are their reasons? What are their interests? That dairy farmer in Wisconsin? He feels under attack. Accept it.”

    Isn’t that being dismissive of the harm such wanton disavowal of the intelligence the human is supposed to display as a member of homo sapiens sapiens? Is it not dismissive of the horror that such unthinking denial be allowed to doom so many? Is it not dismissive of the very valid concerns that real people who have looked into this who are, for reasons unconnected with the FACTS, but with the result that this Wisconsin Dairy Farmer is no longer on easy street and may have to find a new job and so accuses these scientists who are not even as well paid as his regular workhands “ivory tower egotists” or worse, just riding that gravy train and lying deliberately to do so?

    That pain is real yet you dismiss it cavalierly.

    The risk to others is real you dismiss it too.

    In fact, it’s all the scientists faults and THEY are the ones who have to “deal with it”.

    The Wisconsin Dairy Farmer is in a job that will be hurt by the fact of fossil fuel abuse in the past. It’s a fact. Deal with it.

    Oh, I can’t say that, can I? That’s being dismissive.

    Why then is it OK for you??

  15. 115
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Richard Steckis says “Attribution of cause and effect in science can only be done statistically and empirically and not through model simulation.”

    Lord, Steckis, don’t you realize that even statistical analysis–hell even by nonparametric methods–requires a model to draw conclusions? There are no conclusions that are model independent, though some are robust across many different models. Do you also refuse to drive automobiles or fly on airplanes or ride in elevators, too?
    Again, you sure you don’t want to reconsider your position about conducting dubious experiments on the only habitable planet we know?

  16. 116
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    If we had the mojo of the Apostles we could look Ananais and Sapphria (the denialists) in the eye and ask them to repeat what they just said.

  17. 117
    Donald Oats says:

    When it comes to science presentations/documentaries, these are the things I like to see the fingerprints of in the presentation/doco:

    Know your intended audience.

    If you aren’t experienced at skillful communication to your intended audience, get linked up with someone that does it as their day job.

    If the scientists in question (unfortunately) look like nerdy scientists in real life, avoid having them on camera.

    Don’t patronise with fairy floss explanations – keep as close to the facts as possible when simplifying the message for the audience. An example of fairy floss explanation is the fascile one used by doctors to explain how antidepressants help the depressed patient, namely that they correct a chemical imbalance in the brain. Well, duh!

    Show how scientists do their jobs in climate science, maybe even some of the more challenging parts. For example, fieldwork in nasty places like Bowen’s book on Lonnie Thompson’s teams ice coring at high altitude in the mountains. It makes people appreciate the effort involved in getting hold of the data, as it were.

    Convey a sense of history and context: for example, Imbrie & Imbrie “Ice Ages: Solving the Mystery”, Harvard (1979) pp 98–99, Ch 8, by way of introducing Milankovitch’s mathematical objective of developing a mathematical theory able to describe the climates of Earth, Venus, and Mars, far into the future or distant past, Imbrie and Imbrie use Milankovitch’s own memoirs with this excerpt:
    When Milankovitch discussed his new ambition at the university, he found that his colleagues were puzzled.

    Our great geographer stared at me with an astonished look on his face when I told him of my intention to calculate the temperature of the parallels of latitude on the Earth…
    Have we not built thousands of meteorological stations on Earth that inform us more reliably and accurately about…
    temperature than the most perfect theory?

    Don’t weigh into debunking sceptics and denialists because that immediately polarises an audience into for or against, and risks putting off the audience. Stick to a neutral stance when it comes to policy.

    Ask your intended audience what science programs or documentaries resonated, and why – and then watch those programs.

  18. 118
    llewelly says:

    Stick to a neutral stance when it comes to policy.

    And thus play into the hands of those who claim no credible solutions are being offered.

  19. 119
    Mike Chapman says:

    I recently read the book ‘Unscientific America’, it was bit of a random pick from Amazon, the title looked interesting. I thought it was a bit weak and I wondered where the authors were going and how they were going to get there. I was astonished when the author appeared on a high profile political current affairs program here in Australia, on the National Broadcast free to air channel. I think Chris Mooney managed to stand his ground and escaped being mauled. I say this because Australia pretty much has this same problem of illiteracy regarding scientific knowledge, processes and critical thinking.

    I expect that here on RealClimate it is to be expected that the debate quickly focused to how to communicate the science of Climate Change. However, curiously the debate seems to focus on a magic bullet approach – if only the communication was done ‘this way’, then everyone would see and understand.

    Unfortunately most people wont, or refuse to think critically when assessing scientific content and it will make no difference how the information is presented.

    Here’s a link to Chris Mooney’s interview, sorry I can’t link direct you’ll need to sift though the site to find it.

  20. 120
    Donald Oats says:

    Re: 118, if a scientist tries to convey solutions as part of a presentation or doco on the topic of solutions, then all well and good. But be prepared for being pidgeonholed as a commie, greenie, or whatever the latest term is for someone on the political left. This may well happen even if the scientist is a Liberal voter (in Australia) or a Republican voter in the USA. Unless the solutions are nuclear and hands-off leave it to voluntary changes in consumer behaviour, the risk is very real that the scientist will be deliberately portrayed as leftwing/green. And from that point on, everything that scientist says is viewed through that prism, including the science!

    Some scientists are great at policy stuff, some are great at the science communicator role, and some are best kept far away from popular science presentations and left to doing the science, IMHO. Very few are great at all three, and in today’s environment, to be great at all three without being tarred as partisan is pretty challenging.

    Just my thoughts on the challenges of science communication.

  21. 121
    Jari says:

    Dear Greg Craven,

    I will give it a shot. I am sort of sitting on the fence and maybe a bit more than slightly skeptical about climate change, so I am your target audience. I will order the book.

    However, I will not ask for a refund, you have convinced me that you are sincere in your concern about our planet. I am also sure you have not written the book in order to make money, it would not be fair to ask the money back. I am concerned about our planet too, maybe because of different reasons.

    If I have the time I will try to post a comment on your web site.



  22. 122
    Richard Reiss says:

    A follow-up recommendation on communication. A helpful perspective on this entire thread — maybe an essential perspective — can be found in a book by Jim Webb, “Born Fighting.” It explains, in detail, some of the geographic and demographic quirks of the US; Webb is the Senator from Virginia, who served in President Reagan’s cabinet as Secretary of the Navy.

    There are historical reasons the US is not the UK, when it comes to the role of science, government and policy, though it was settled by English speaking peoples.

    Webb’s book is partly based on a book by the historian David Hackett Fischer, “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America.” But Webb’s book carries the role of history into the present, and he adds his own life story for depth.

    If Greg Craven (btw, huge fan of your work) is still reading these comments: take a look at Webb’s book, maybe even reach out to him for advice. (A blend of your thoughts, perspectives and experiences would be ideal — even if someone else needs to carry the torch now in your stead.) My own conclusions after reading Webb’s book is that for the people that matter, the voices that matter will come from the military and the church.

  23. 123

    Speaking of attempts to communicate the science, I’ve just published a new Hubpage on classic GW science–specifically Arrhenius and his life, work and times. Like the preceding three articles, it takes a personal approach to the historical science, putting the science in context. (And like Gavin’s “Climate Change”, I try to include lots of pictures–though I can’t claim mine are quite that cool, or quite that specifically relevant!)

    Short URL:

    And thanks once again to those from this community who have taken the time to peruse previous installments in the series!

    (BTW, you can buy Greg Craven’s book from that page, too!) ;-)

  24. 124
    Joe Hunkins says:

    Advocacy is the slipperiest slope in science, and it’s best avoided by “real” scientists. In fact my biggest beef with climate science is how often the good science is enlisted in support of bad or questionable mitigation action. Leave the propaganda to the documentary filmmakers!

  25. 125
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Richard Steckis says:
    “Your examples are basically appealing to catastrophe. Attribution of cause and effect in science can only be done statistically and empirically and not through model simulation. Model simulation can give us a anecdotal view but not predictive view. Using models for prediction falls into the realms of forecasting and therefore must comply with established forecasting principles for them to be accepted for that purpose.”

    What in the heck are you talking about? Where do you think the concept that one is statistically evaluating, using the empirical evidence, comes from? And your statements and dichotomy regarding models are simplistic and wrong. Models can most certainly predict, they do it all the time. And we evaluate those predictions with empirical data.

  26. 126
    Greg Craven says:

    Jari (re #121): Thank you so much for the response. I am sincere in the refund offer. Perhaps, if I never actually write a check to anyone, my offer will be dismissed as another disingenuous marketing ploy (see the 1-star review on my book’s Amazon page). So I encourage you to actually ask for it if you are at _all_ inclined! :-)

    And what I really, really, really ask of you is that you share your thoughts with me and others when you’re done. Positive reviews from people already sympathetic to climate change action is great for warm fuzzies, but doesn’t help me evaluate my work and improve it. I’ve only gotten one negative review, and as you can see from the comment thread following that (on the Amazon page), the reviewer stopped answering the questions I was asking in trying to understand what I could have done differently.

    Share your thoughts on Amazon, here, or on the discussion pages set up for just that through (via


  27. 127

    Regarding the tone of posts, let me reiterate that the target audience should not be the denialist with whom you are engaged, but the third-party reader who may be more open to reason.

    Therefore, you don’t want to blow your own credibility by coming across as just snarky. A balance between sweet reason and wit seems indicated–to me, at least. Hopefully that lets you avoid being a jerk on the one hand, or boring on the other. And of course, accuracy and specificity are essentials. And, cite–!

  28. 128
    Fred Moolten says:

    The solution to the problem is to pass a robust healthcare reform bill such as one currently proposed in the House or by the Senate HELP Committee. This will provide an enormous morale boost to those who see society as a community within which we share an obligation to care about each other. That enthusiasm will translate, with luck and skill, into effective advocacy for a communal response to the even gtreater challenge of climate change.

    My claim, while not intended in a literal sense, may be less irrelevant than first sppears. Much of the foregoing commentary, in my view, has tended to confuse the United States with the entirety of the civilized world, but in fact, a sense of communal responsibilty for our environment is generally greater in Europe and elsewhere than it is here, despite the reality that these other societies bear far less responsibility for creating the problem in the first place. To my mind, therefore, the need here is less for an approach targeted specifically to science, than for a politial and cultural transformation that reduces our emphasis on selfish individualism and recognizes our shared responsibility for each other as humans, as well as for other species who share this planet with us, and are less capable of looking out for themselves.

    To some extent this can be accomplished in the political sphere, as the current Administration is attempting, but I believe that it will ultimately depend more on a generational shift, as those with the entrenched mindset – anti-intellectual and suspicious of reformers – disappear through attrition (sooner rather than later if we don’t pass healthcare) and are replaced by younger individuals who retain some of the idealism of youth even as they age.

    In the meantime, we can profit from guidance offered above on how better to communicate, but until those we talk to are more sympathetic to the message, what we say and what they hear will continue to occupy separate wavelengths.

  29. 129
    llewelly says:

    Re: 118, if a scientist tries to convey solutions as part of a presentation or doco on the topic of solutions, then all well and good. But be prepared for being pidgeonholed as a commie, greenie, or whatever the latest term is for someone on the political left.

    I guess my comment is more US-centric than I thought. In America, everyone who agrees with the evidence is branded a greenie and a communist, whether they speak about solutions or no. Silence is not a defense here.

  30. 130
    David B. Benson says:

    Michael Turton (103) — Its probably not wise to think of the climate as “recovering”. The climate simply responds to the forcings and is most unlike the mass-spring analogy.

  31. 131
    Geno Canto del Halcon says:

    I think many scientists could benefit from becoming members of Toastmasters, as a simple, effective way to improve their oral presentation skills.

  32. 132
    Geno Canto del Halcon says:

    I’m an electrical power systems engineer. I sympathize with the challenge scientists have in communicating their findings to a skeptical public. But not all of the problems are in convincing denialists. There is also a need to better educate those who support climate change mitigation measures. For example, because such a large percentage of our electrical power comes from burning fossil fuels, I cannot figure out why otherwise smart people think they will save the world with electric cars. Much of the energy to charge their car batteries is going to come from the local power grid, and therefore comes from the burning of fossil fuels (at least, in the USA that is still true), with a premium added: generating plant and electrical system losses. True, a growing percentage of our electrical energy is generated by wind and solar – but a massive program to force us into electric cars will delay the retirement of fossil fuel plants, because of increased system demand, and the demand on an already over-stretched transmission & distribution infrastructure. In the near-term, at least, electric cars are not only not a solution, they likely will contribute to the problem. (I drive a Prius.)

  33. 133

    To Ray, Mark and Jim:

    I understand your comments. Obviously we disagree on the effectiveness of civility. Thank you for replying (with civility)

    My claims about the effectiveness of civility are based largely on my father, (Mr. Civility) and also on Stephen Carter’s book CIVILITY. My dad has gone on now, but Carter’s book is still around.


  34. 134
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Kevin McKinney says, “…you don’t want to blow your own credibility by coming across as just snarky”

    Snark is a scientific tradition. What is more, science requires not just adherence to but devotion to the truth. What approach would you suggest for those who repeatedly lie or who repeat a lie out of ignorance? Do you think the scientists below harmed their credibility?

    Wolfgang Pauli:

    “I don’t mind your thinking slowly; I mind your publishing faster than you think.”

    “If I understand Dirac correctly, his meaning is this: there is no God, and Dirac is his Prophet.”

    “This paper is so bad it is not even wrong.”

    Niels Bohr:

    “Your theory is crazy, but it’s not crazy enough to be true.”

    “Stop telling God what to do with his dice.”

    Thomas Huxley:
    “If the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.”

    Richard Phillips Feynman:
    “If I could explain it to the average person, I wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel Prize.”

    John von Neumann:

    “With four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.”

  35. 135

    Ray, I appreciate the wit you’ve anthologized–it’s a good deal more than “just snark.”

    However, you yourself have made a clear distinction between science and the blogs, no?

    What I usually do with those who repeatedly utter falsehoods is write “Once again, your opinion that (fill in the blank) is at odds with the great bulk of the actual evidence.” Then I’ll give examples of the evidence, since the main point of being on the blog is to get that evidence out to those who may be open to it. By uttering the falsehood, Joe Denialist has just given me another opportunity to get the truth out.

    If I can get some wit in there, so much the better. It’s not half as good as your examples, but as a recent example I wrote something like: “I’m reasonably sure that AGW is neither a plot to enrich the developed world at the expense of the developing world, nor vice versa; but I’m quite sure it can’t be both at once!”

  36. 136
    Andrew Hobbs says:

    Richard Steckis #105

    “Attribution of cause and effect in science can only be done statistically and empirically and not through model simulation. Model simulation can give us a anecdotal view but not predictive view.”

    You are wrong because you have it almost exactly reversed. Empirical evidence by itself (and the associated statistics) can only determine correlation. It will never allow attribution of cause and effect. To allow attribution of cause and effect you need predictive theories or models, to test which fits the circumstances best. We may dispense with such a pedantic approach in everyday trivial cases but even here we sometimes end up with the wrong conclusions.

  37. 137
    1234567890 says:

    @Geno Canto del Halcon
    That`s why we need to change the way how we generate energy. Renewable is the key to solve this. Another effect of cleaner air means less health issues.

    The time of fossil fuels is over, every approach into tar-sands, mountaintop removal, coal or methane gas is doomed.

  38. 138

    #62 Richard Steckis

    Actually I would argue that all weather now has the global warming signature in it, around it, or on it depending on your point of view. We are on a different path with AGW. Take another look at the attribution assessment:

    It’s simple, since the climate is on a different path, and since weather is a sub-system of climate, all weather is under the umbrella of the parent system, and thereby subject to its influence to various degrees. The new path, AGW, is the parent system with natural variability (weather) occurring inside of it. So essentially it breaks down to weather occurring on a different path, that of warming.

    As far as signal to noise, that will get better over time, but the hurricane strength is a pretty solid indicator

    The number of acres burned in contrast to the number of fires is also a good indicator

    Context is Key.

  39. 139

    #64 Mark

    Oh yeah, Martian heat rays… I forgot all about those ;)

  40. 140

    #95, #133 John (Burgy) Burgeson

    I don’t think there are any civility haters here. But my point still stands to reason as far as I can tell.

    If Jesus had read Stephen Carters book, would he have ‘not’ turned over the tables in the temple?

    The other little problem with civility is ‘feigned civility’ to present an argument that is, by its construct, designed to solicit an answer that can then later be called uncivil, is more uncivil than the solicited response, imo.

    In other words, what is more uncivil, the responder to the silly attack, or the one who picked the fight in the first place by creating a false argument that is instigative in nature. Judges tend to rule against the guy that started the fight in this type of case.

    Also, I don’t believe you are responsible for the level of civility in this thread, though you may have had some influence on some posters. It’s a bit of a stretch for you to claim “So many good posts have followed my suggestion for civility.” Most people here are generally quite civil.

    Also, I do not believe Ray, Mark and Jim are saying civility is ineffective, but rather giving examples of other means that also have value in the communications stream.

    And for third party readers, quelling (squashing) a silly point succinctly (sarcastically) can certainly be a valid (valuable) form of argument in order to drive the message home.

    Climate communication is tough and there are many ways to make a point. We as a community need to keep doing our best to get the relevant information across.

  41. 141

    #100 RichardC

    I think you do not understand the problem(s) very well at all.

    “eco-wackos such as those who run and frequent this site”.

    hmm… well…

    In general, it is important to understand that if we wait that long then we may no longer have the luxury of doing something safe and meaningful to protect the human race from the impacts of the inertia and feedbacks that are reasonably expected.

    So, no. Waiting is not an option. If it all happens that way, then such is life and death in the fast lane, to the degree applicable.

    I for one am going to continue to WASTE MY TIME on trying to create more relevant education.

  42. 142

    #113 Mark

    And at least with sarcasm, they don’t get the appearance of validity they so sorely desire (since they don’t have anything else: not facts, not theory, not evidence, not anything.

    Here, here.

  43. 143

    #127 Kevin McKinney

    The target is both the denialist and the third party reader. Eventually the denialists will learn also.

  44. 144

    Re: Ray’s nice compendium of scientific snarkieness.

    Ray approves of these remarks. I do not. To me, they ridiculed a person and so demeaned themselves.

  45. 145
    Fred Moolten says:

    Regarding 136 and 105, I believe it’s an overgeneralization to claim that empirical evidence can’t determine causality but only correlation. That is correct when one has no control over the variables, but a controlled experiment can derive causality from empirical data.

    For an example relevant to climate science, it’s reasonable to claim that the correlation between rising CO2 and rising global temperatures is correlative only, and that the causal relationship can be strongly inferred, although not conclusively proved, by excluding reasonable alternative explanations. (In another arena of science, the same principle applies to human data on the relationship between smoking and cancer).

    On the other hand, if one fills a tube with air, adds varying amounts of CO2, and measures changes in infrared absorption while keeping all other variables fixed*, it is possible to use the evidence as proof of a causal relationship between CO2 concentrations and absorption.

    *Technically, one can’t increase CO2 concentration without reducing the concentration of O2, N2, etc., but these latter changes will be too insubstantial to matter significantly, and their role can be excluded by other experiments.

  46. 146
    Chris Colose says:

    One can perform attribution by comparing spatio-temporal patterns between observations and models. In this sense formal attribution is moreso based on spatio-temporal patterns and the underlying physics rather than the simulated response amplitude to a given forcing. Theoretically then, one can perform attribution even when subtracting off a trend induced by some forcing.

    For comment 105, attribution is not the same thing as prediction, so using models in itself is not the equivalent of forecasting. This depends on the purpose of using the model.

  47. 147
    Gail Z says:

    I think scientists are too hesitant to connect real world, empirical evidence with climate change. They also need to be told that the same greenhouse gasses causing climate change also produce pollution that is killing people and plants, now. That’s something the public might care about, if they ever stopped watching the teevee long enough to notice. Today I read a local horticultural magazine and was astonished to see that professional nurserymen are bemoaning the condition of trees and other plants, but haven’t put it together. Atmospheric physicists and botanists should start having conversations over the water cooler.

    Here’s what I sent the writers, and the NJ Department of Agriculture:

    Dear Sirs:

    I picked up a copy of Gardener News and notice that many articles are unwittingly describing the effects of carbon emission poisoning on vegetation. These effects mimic the symptoms of drought, blight, excess rainfall and fungus but are in fact also well-documented to be produced by exposure to atmospheric toxins.

    Just because the gasses produced by burning coal, gasoline and ethanol are invisible, it does not mean they are not deadly. The scorched and falling leaves, thin tree crowns and forest canopies, bare branches, and dropping pine needles are ubiquitous in New Jersey and up and down the Eastern Seaboard. The hundreds of trees that were damaged in a thunderstorm in Central Park was not from mere weather – the trees are weak, and they are covered with lichen, a harbinger of death.

    It’s quite likely that the relatively sudden and dramatic decline in trees is a result of the mandated addition of ethanol to gasoline.

    It’s well known that burning gasoline emits CO2, which reacts to UV radiation, creating ozone. It’s less well recognized that ozone is very detrimental to plants – and even less discussed is that the damage from ethanol may be worse. Ethanol emits acetaldehyde which is the precursor to peroxyacetyl nitrates (PANS), that are highly dangerous to vegetation (and people: see

    Before attributing this widespread and universal damage to individual diseases, excessive rain, pests, previous drought, and other blights on vegetation, which is what foresters, ecologists, and conservationists usually do, please consider this fact: the leaves of plants in ponds show the identical process of chloration – a loss of the ability to create chlorophyll. In the classic response to ozone and PANS, the leaves close their stomata, basically causing the organism to suffocate.

    I would like to direct you to this report which describes exactly the condition of vegetation in New Jersey. I would question two statements that I believe may be out of date – one is that some species are more susceptible than others. Currently, it’s impossible to find any species that isn’t affected. The other is that PANS are less of a problem than ozone.

    The evidence of this phenomena is readily detectable in an objective, cursory inventory of any woods, park, back yard, farm, arboretum, mall parking lot, pond, or nursery. It is irrefutable that the composition of the atmosphere is the primary causative agent for what is rapidly becoming an existential threat. Note that there is not one species that normally photosynthesizes that is immune, and that trees of every spectrum of age, and plants in every situation, whether wild or in nurseries, in pots or ponds or in the ground, share the same degree of impact.

    If we do not stop squandering fuel we are headed straight for ecosystem collapse and mass extinctions, not to mention crop losses.

    I am not a chemist but if it could be determined to be primarily linked to ethanol, we can consider ourselves lucky. We could stop this wholesale slaughter of trees and go back to the slower path of destruction through climate change.

    You who are directly involved in agriculture and landscaping should be in the forefront demanding that the government take swift and strong action to enact clean energy legislation, because it is your livelihood that is at stake. Of course everybody who eats, and every species that depends on trees for fruit, nuts, shelter, and shade has everything to lose as well. But you will be the first to be impacted when your crops fail to produce adequate income for you, and people and businesses give up purchasing and planting shrubs and saplings in their landscapes because it will be a waste of money. Eventually they will notice that nothing they install will thrive.

    Please fell free to write or call if there is anything I can clarify; and/or visit where there are many links to scientific research, and photos documenting the carnage.


    Gail Zawacki
    Oldwick, NJ

  48. 148
    Lawrence McLean says:

    Re #147 Gail Z:
    I had a look at your site, regarding the condition of the trees. By the way, for background I do understand the reality of AGW, and how serious it is. Proudly maybe even an “Eco Wacko”!

    I doubt that the problem that you are observing in the trees can be attributed (at least directly) to greenhouse gasses. The situation looks a lot more like the disease that here in Australia we call “dieback”. Primarily due to fungus infection of the roots. In nature many pathogens tend to be localized, or move very slowly. Humans are spreading all sorts of pathogens affecting plants and animals very quickly very far, pathogens that many organisms have no immunity to. Sadly in the case you witness there is no cure. You just have to plant new trees, in some cases the same species can survive if exposure to the pathogen is present from germination.

  49. 149
    RichardC says:

    141 John said, “In general, it is important to understand that if we wait that long then we may no longer have the luxury of doing something safe and meaningful”

    Already been done. The time for that argument was decades ago. Humanity waited until now, and waiting a few more years won’t change the equation. Basically, I’m saying we already missed the boat. Since we have very powerful people spending serious bucks ensuring that any doubt at all will be magnified into a 50-50 “debate”, the gain to be had by arguing is nil. We’re at the point where the next warm phase in weather (we’re deep in the bottom of a cool phase now) will tell the tale. Until then, nothing will be done. The current obsession with global warming instead of oceanic death is part of the problem. It begs people to go with the obvious solution of sulphating the stratosphere. You’re playing right into the deniers’ hand. Global warming MUST be abandoned as a talking point. It is far too easily solved, so harping on it just makes “us” look dishonest and/or stupid. Think about it. Global warming is debatable and easily solved even “if” true, but oceanic death is NOT debatable and NOT solvable other than by curtailing fossil fuel usage.

  50. 150
    Gail Z says:

    To Lawrence McLean,

    Thank you for your interest. No doubt there are pathogens rotting roots of trees. However, this does not explain the observed decline of annuals in pots and water plants in ponds. And planting new trees is no solution, since young saplings are suffering just as visibly as middle aged and old trees. I might add that this blight is moving extremely quickly, amongst every species that depends upon photosynthesis. If you read the report from Virginia, linked in the letter, it becomes quite obvious that it is greenhouse gasses polluting the air that are causing wholesale vegetative loss.