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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!
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‘Unscientific America’: A Review

Filed under: — mike @ 8 July 2009

Author Chris Mooney (of “Storm World” fame) and fellow “Intersection” blogger, scientist, and writer Sheril Kirshenbaum have written an extraordinary, if rather sobering book entitled ‘Unscientific America’. What I found most refreshing about the book is that it not only isolates the history behind, and source of, the problem in question—the pervasiveness and dangerousness of scientific illiteracy in modern society–but it offers viable solutions. This book is a must read for anybody who cares about science, and the growing disconnect between the scientific and popular cultures (the problem of the so-called “Two Cultures” first discussed by C.P. Snow).

‘Unscientific America’ explores how we’ve come to the point we’re now at, examining the historical factors behind the diminishing prominence of science and scientists in the popular culture of the U.S. since its heyday in the years following WW II. The authors uncover more than enough blame to go around. They find fault with the media, both in how it portrays science and scientists (e.g. the icon of the ‘mad scientist’), and in the decreasing news coverage devoted to issues involving science and technology. They find fault in the way policy makers often abuse science (cherry-picking those particular scientific findings which suit their agenda), and in the behavior of corporate special interests who, in areas such as our own area of ‘climate change’, have often deliberately manufactured false controversy and confusion to dissuade the public from demanding action be taken. At this point, the scientists among you might begin to feel absolved of any responsibility for the problem. Don’t–Mooney and Kirshenbaum won’t allow us to escape blame, and with good reason. As they point out, we ‘eat our own’, when it comes to colleagues engaged in public outreach and science popularization. Case in point: Carl Sagan–a hero to many of us who value science outreach. One of the darker episodes in modern U.S. science history was the blocking by Sagan’s fellow scientists of his entry into the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Evidently, a majority of his colleagues resented his having become a household name–something they presumably considered unbecoming for a scientist. What sort of message does it send when the most effective science communicator in modern history was shunned by his colleagues for his efforts? Certainly not a good one. This is just one example, and there are many others–it is not surprising that so few scientists to choose to pursue the path of outreach and public education. The reward systems in academia and the scientific world typically do not favor scientists who choose to expend considerable time and effort engaging in public discourse. And here of course, it is as much that system, as the scientists themselves, which is to blame.

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Breaking the silence about Spring

Filed under: — eric @ 11 April 2009

Did you know that in 1965 the U.S. Department of Agriculture planted a particular variety of lilac in more than seventy locations around the U.S. Northeast, to detect the onset of spring — in turn to be used to determine the appropriate timing of corn planting and the like? The records the USDA have kept show that those same lilacs are blooming as much as two weeks earlier than they did in 1965. April has, in a very real sense, become May. This is one of the interesting facts that you’ll read about in Amy Seidl’s book, Early Spring, a hot-off-the-press essay about the impacts of climate change on the world immediately around us – the forest, the birds, the butterflies in our backyards.
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Communicating the Science of Climate Change

Filed under: — mike @ 12 January 2009

It is perhaps self-evident that those of us here at RealClimate have a keen interest in the topic of science communication. A number of us have written books aimed at communicating the science to the lay public, and have participated in forums devoted to the topic of science communication (see e.g. here, here, and here). We have often written here about the challenges of communicating science to the public in the modern media environment (see e.g. here, here, and here).

It is naturally our pleasure, in this vein, to bring to the attention of our readers a masterful new book on this topic by veteran environmental journalist and journalism educator Bud Ward. The book, entitled Communicating on Climate Change: An Essential Resource for Journalists, Scientists, and Educators, details the lessons learned in a series of Metcalf Institute workshops held over the past few years, funded by the National Science Foundation, and co-organized by Ward and AMS senior science and communications fellow Tony Socci. These workshops have collectively brought together numerous leading members of the environmental journalism and climate science communities in an effort to develop recommendations that might help bridge the cultural divide between these two communities that sometimes impedes accurate and effective science communication.

I had the privilege of participating in a couple of the workshops, including the inaugural workshop in Rhode Island in November 2003. The discussions emerging from these workshops were, at least in part, the inspiration behind “RealClimate”. The workshops formed the foundation for this new book, which is an appropriate resource for scientists, journalists, editors, and others interested in science communication and popularization. In addition to instructive chapters such as “Science for Journalism“, “Journalism for Scientists” and “What Institutions Can Do“, the book is interspersed with a number of insightful essays by leading scientists (e.g. “Mediarology–The Role of Climate Scientists in Debunking Climate Change Myths” by Stephen Schneider) and environmental journalists (e.g. “Hot Words” by Andy Revkin). We hope this book will serve as a standard reference for how to effectively communicate the science of climate change.

2008 Year in review

Filed under: — group @ 31 December 2008

Way back at the end of 2006, we did a review of the year’s climate science discussion. It’s that time of year again and so we’ve decided to give it another go. Feel free to suggest your own categories and winners…

Most clueless US politician talking about climate change (with the exception of Senator Inhofe who’d always win):
Sarah Palin:

Well, we’re the only Arctic state, of course, Alaska. So we feel the impacts more than any other state, up there with the changes in climates. And certainly, it is apparent. We have erosion issues. And we have melting sea ice, of course. [….] You know there are – there are man’s activities that can be contributed to the issues that we’re dealing with now, these impacts. I’m not going to solely blame all of man’s activities on changes in climate.

Most puzzling finding from 2006 that has yet to be convincingly replicated:
Methane from plants

Most reckless extrapolation of short term trends:
Michael “All global warming has been erased” Asher (Daily Tech)

This year’s most (unsurprisingly) abused study:
Keenlyside et al. initialised climate forecasts (and no, they didn’t take our bet).

Climate scientist with biggest disconnect between his peer-reviewed papers and his online discussions:
Roy Spencer

Most worn out contrarian cliche:
The “Gore Effect”. This combines the irrelevant confusion of climate with weather and the slightly manic obsession with Al Gore over the actual science. Do please grow up.

Most bizarre new contrarian claim:
Global warming is caused by undersea volcanoes (and pirates!).

The S. Fred Singer award for the most dizzying turn-around of a climate pseudo-skeptic:
Dennis Avery: “Global warming is likely to continue” (2006) , to global warming is “unstoppable” (2006), to “Say Good-Bye To Global Warming And Hello To Global Cooling!” (2008).

Pottiest peer on the contrarian comedy circuit:
Viscount Monckton of Brenchley

Least unexpected observations:
(Joint winners) 2008 near-record minima in Arctic sea ice extent, last decade of record warmth, long term increases in ocean heat content, record increases in CO2 emissions.

Most consistently wrong media outlet:
The Australian (runner-up the UK Daily Telegraph). Both comfortably beating out the perennial favorite, the Wall Street Journal – maybe things have really changed there?

Best actual good news:
The grown-ups being back in charge starting January 20 (compare with this).

Most inaccurate attempted insinuation about RealClimate:
‘The Soros-funded’ Chris Horner

Most revealing insight into some US coal companies and year’s best self parody:
Frosty the Coalman (video available here)

Most disturbing trend for science journalism:
The axing of dedicated science units at CNN, the Weather Channel and elsewhere. Can Climate Central and blogging journalists take up the slack?

Happy New Year to all of our readers!

Books ’08

Filed under: — group @ 22 December 2008

As is usual, we have a brief round-up of books we have found interesting or noteworthy this year. While we mainly focus on new books, we include a couple of new editions of older books, and of course, our previous reviews might still be of some interest (2005, 2006, and 2007).
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Six Degrees

Filed under: — eric @ 25 November 2007

“Alarmism” is a term that gets bandied about a lot. It is often said that one should not call out “fire” in a crowded building. But it really depends, one might say, on whether the “calling out” is done in such a way as to simultaneously prevent a stampede and prevent anyone getting burned.

This riddle was very much on my mind as I sat down to write my thoughts on Mark Lynas’s book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (London: Fourth Estate, 2007). I don’t read much popular science literature, and I doubt I would have read this book if I hadn’t made the mistake of referring to it (in a negative manner) in the comments section of a RealClimate post. I don’t think my error was very grave. What I actually said was that if what I had heard about the book from the press materials were true, then the book was probably alarmist and not worth reading. But I don’t blame the author for asking me to read the book and see for myself. He said that the press (in this case Sunday Times (London)) had misconstrued what he says in the book, and he assured me that is was all based on very careful review of the scientific literature. I was thus both curious and obligated to read the book.

Mark Lynas will no doubt be pleased that I very much like the book. To be sure, it is alarming, but the question of whether it is alarmist is a more difficult one, and I don’t think the answer lies in debating the book. Rather, it lies in looking closely at the underlying science the book builds on. I don’t intend to do that here, but I do think that all climate scientists (particularly those that talk to the public) ought to read this book, and ask themselves a question. I’ll get to that question at the end, after saying a bit more about the book.

Six Degrees, as the title suggests, is comprised of six main chapters (plus an introduction and a conclusion). Each of the main chapters examine what the earth might look like as we raise the planet’s temperature by 1o, 2o, etc. degrees Celsius, based on what the scientific literature has to say about it. Laying out the book this way makes for a good logical progression of ideas, and a fair bit of suspense. Very few people, Lynas says, have got “the slightest idea what two, four or six degrees of average warming actually means in reality, and I’m sure he is right.

In Chapter 1, at 1o, we have predictions of, for example, an annually ice free Arctic ocean. Yes, quite plausible and supported by the literature, and perhaps occurring a little sooner than expected. At 2o, we have, “so whilst southern China can expect more flooding as the two-degree line is approached, the oceanic time lag means that it may take much longer for the rain-bearing summer monsoon to reach the drought-stricken north.” Yes, certainly plausible based on the studies Lynas cites. At 4o, we have “with global sea levels half a meter or more above current levels, [the Egyptian city of] Alexandria’s long lifespan will be drawing to a close. Even in today’s climate, a substantial part of the city lies below sea level, and by the latter part of this century a terminal inundation will have begun. … a rise in sea levels of 50 cm would displace 1.5 million people and cause $35 billion of damage.” Alarmist? Hardly. A 50 cm rise in sea level, is well within the conservative IPCC projections, even for temperature rises less than four degrees.

At 5o and 6o, the book really does start to sound alarmist, with the analogy to Dante’s Inferno – used to good literary effect throughout the book – coming very much to the fore. At five degrees, we have “an entirely new planet is coming into being – one largely unrecognizable from the Earth we know today. At six degrees, “… the pump is primed … not for flourishing palm trees in Alaska, but for the worst of all earthly outcomes: mass extinction.”

Aha, say the skeptics! It is alarmist after all. But is it? Lynas’s reference to the “entirely different planet” actually refers to the fact that at five degrees, the “remaining ice sheets are eventually eliminated from both poles.” That’s entirely true. And unlike in Gore’s discussion of sea level in Inconvenient Truth Lynas does emphasize the long timescales (thousands of years) in this case. Furthermore, there is published research that raises the likelihood of the significant loss of ice sheets at lower temperatures, and Lynas could have claimed certainty of a disappearing Greenland ice sheet in an earlier chapter. That he doesn’t do that is characteristic of the book: it doesn’t tend to go beyond the published literature. This is what Lynas claims at the outset — “all of the material in the book comes from the peer-reviewed scientific literature” – and I think he does an admirable job.

And that brings us back to the question I promised to raise at the beginning, which is this:

If a reading of the published scientific literature paints such a frightening picture of the future as Six Degrees suggests – even while it honestly represents that literature – then are we being too provocative in the way we write our scientific papers? Or are we being too cautious in the way we talk about the implications of the results?

Storm World: A Review

Filed under: — mike @ 18 June 2007

If you are a RealClimate regular, you are undoubtedly aware of our ongoing interest in the developments in the scientific understanding of potential hurricane-climate change linkages. This is an area of the science where a substantial body of significant new research has emerged even since RealClimate’s inception in late 2004. The scientific research in this area, and the media frenzy and political theatrics that have inescapably followed it, are thoughtfully placed in a broader historical context in a fascinating new book by Chris Mooney entitled Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming. Anyone who is at all interested in the scientific history that has led to our current understanding of Hurricanes and their potential linkages with climate change, will find this book a page turner. The book is a nice complement to Kerry Emanuel’s recent book Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes (which too is so readable that it lies on our coffee table). Mooney in a sense picks up where Emanuel’s left off. Like Emanuel, he explores the history of the science. But he uses this historical context, and his studies of the personalities of key actors, to explore how the current scientific debate can be traced back to a rift that has emerged over many decades between distinct communities of atmospheric scientists.
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By William and Gavin

On Thursday March 8th, the UK TV Channel 4 aired a programme titled “The Great Global Warming Swindle”. We were hoping for important revelations and final proof that we have all been hornswoggled by the climate Illuminati, but it just repeated the usual specious claims we hear all the time. We feel swindled. Indeed we are not the only ones: Carl Wunsch (who was a surprise addition to the cast) was apparently misled into thinking this was going to be a balanced look at the issues (the producers have a history of doing this), but who found himself put into a very different context indeed [Update: a full letter from Wunsch appears as comment 109 on this post]

So what did they have to say for themselves?
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Fraser Institute fires off a damp squib

Filed under: — group @ 3 February 2007

New addition: Download an annotated pdf of the Fraser report. An interactive pdf file, to be read on the screen, is here, and a printable version is here. Suggestions for further commenting are welcome. Additions to the pdf have to be short, and tied to particular pieces of text or figures. And of course we will only incorporate comments that we deem to be scientifically sound and cogent.


While most of the world’s climate scientists were following the IPCC fest last week, a few contrarians left out in the cold were trying to to organize their own party.

An unofficial, “Independent Summary for Policymakers” (ISPM) of the IPCC Fourth Assessment report has been delivered by the Fraser Institute. It’s a long, imposing-looking document, resembling, come to think of it, the formatting of the real Summary for Policymakers (SPM) document that was released on Friday after final negotiations of the IPCC in Paris last week. The Fraser Institute has assembled an awesome team of 10 authors, including such RC favorites as tilter-against-windmills-and-hockey-sticks Ross McKitrick, and other luminaries such as William Kininmonth, MSc, M.Admin — whose most recent paper is “Don’t be Gored into Going Along” in the Oct-Nov issue of Power Engineer. To be fair, he did publish a paper on weather forecasting, back in 1973. According to the press release, the London kickoff event will be graced by the presence of “noted environmentalist” David Bellamy. It’s true he’s “noted,” but what he’s noted for is his blatant fabrication of numbers purporting to show that the world’s glaciers are advancing rather retreating, as reported here.

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