The newest arrival in the climate science blogosphere is Isaac Held. This is notable in a number of respects. First, Isaac is a top-tier climate scientist who is hugely respected in the community. For him to decide that it is worth his time to blog on the science should be an important signal for other scientists. Secondly, Isaac is a federal NOAA employee at GFDL in Princeton, and the blog is on the official GFDL website.
People blog for many reasons, but the most common is it that they think they have something to say and that it isn’t being widely said already. Coincidentally, there was a letter in Physics Today (Mar 2011) that brought up the reason why I started blogging. It was from James Kent, who worked in the communications department of WHOI in the early 2000s. He says:
The wrinkle I offer that I discovered many scientists would be marginally comfortable offering their opinions if asked but saw it as an entirely different thing to initiate the expression of their opinion. Passive participation was OK; active was not.
A case in point was the 2004 opening of the science fantasy film The Day After Tomorrow , in which the cryosphere goes global in about 90 minutes. Thermodynamic impossibilities aside, at last Hollywood was using the term “paleo-climatologist,” and we at WHOI had a chance to capture the public’s attention, riding on the science-fantasy coattails as science fact-tellers.
I met with a handful of climate scientists before the film opened and discussed how we, as an institution, might take advantage of the moment. The scientists all wanted to run, not walk, from such foolishness.
So we passed. The The Day After Tomorrow came and went. we posted a climate change FAQ to our website and waited for the phone to ring. As I recall, it never did.
It was precisely this lack of proactive communication related to TDAT that drove my decision to start blogging. NASA had initially warned all scientists off discussing the movie, or any science facts or fiction related to it, though later relented and put together a briefing on the topics (which I helped with, but was never posted on a NASA website). Apart from static web-pages at WHOI and LDEO (and maybe a few other places), almost no outreach was done, very little interaction with knowledgeable scientists provided, no Q&A sessions, no press releases, basically almost nothing. A few newspaper articles asked scientists what they thought, but that was about it. Thus perhaps the thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people, who might have had science questions that arose after watching the movie, had nowhere to go. I thought this was a tremendous lost opportunity and starting thinking about ways to provide some of that missing interaction. Subsequent discussions with a few other scientists, eventually, led to this blog.
In my experience, when it comes to climate scientists, they perceive that what is missing is the context, background and the understanding needed to interpret climate data, a policy proposal or the latest paper. A large part of this knowledge is relatively well-known inside the community but is somewhat rarer in the general public. What is clear, is that when people search for this knowledge – perhaps after seeing a headline, watching a movie or reading a brief summary of a new paper – they most often come across ill-informed or disingenuous commentary instead of real scientific information. Having more scientists providing accessible content can only improve that situation. (Just to be clear, this is not a statement that all disagreement on climate policy would disappear if people were more informed, rather a wish for people to use better/more appropriate/less nonsensical arguments for their point of view). What is most needed is layered information that allows people to go into as much depth as they want, starting from a soundbite or headline, without necessarily having to read and assimilate the technical literature.
Isaac’s entrance into the field of blogging is an important step forward, especially with the implicit support of NOAA for this new venture. Hopefully, more NOAA scientists (and indeed, NASA, DOE, other agency and university scientists) can be encouraged to contribute their voices and points of view as well. Note that RealClimate has a standing invitation to all working climate scientists to submit guest posts on science-related topics – so don’t be shy now!