Natural History Writer and Environmental Journalist
1) Break down the old order. Don’t wait for science and environmental writers like me to cover your work. (Though we’re glad to do it!) More and more scientists across all the disciplines you can imagine are skipping us middlemen and -women, and going right to the public. Start a blog. Write about your work where the public can read it. Promote your blog on Twitter and other social media. Engage in conversation. You’ll find there are people hungry for what you have to offer. Whether it’s through your institution or on a free public blogging tool, in your own name or pseudonymously, whichever mode best works in your specific setting: you have a printing press and you need to use it.
2) Speak the vernacular. There are concepts that are defined one way in the scientific world and another way in common speech. Where scientists might use the word “theory” to mean a rigorous framework of established facts, your readers will understand it as something like “hypothesis” or “arm-waving guess.” Make your work personal and accessible. That doesn’t mean dumbing it down: it just means being patient enough to explain the nuances when they arise.
3) Tell stories. Every piece of research, every blip in your data can be rendered as narrative. Annual layers in ice sheets, palynological samples from end-Pluvial lake beds, tree rings all offer stories. Learn from the example of John McPhee, who translated the geology of the Interstate 80 corridor across North America into five volumes of epic prose poetry. Tease the narrative from the data and then share it with us. Most of us don’t learn by scatter plots or error bars: we learn by storytelling. Tell us a story.
4) Remember that “the public” is an abstraction. We are diverse in our needs, desires, sympathies and understandings. Some of us need to be offered a lifeline of hope. Some of us need a cataclysmic kick in the seat of the pants. Some people respond best to concrete scenarios about how climate change will affect their daily lives. Others are motivated more by effects on wildlife, on favorite remote bits of the planet, or by the science itself. Still others won’t respond until you describe what their grandchildren will face. Some of us struggle with sixth-grade algebra; others are postdoctoral mathematicians. Beware of one-strategy-fits-all advice. We are diverse and we need diverse approaches. And that’s good news, because it means…
5) The best way for you to approach communicating with the public is to follow your passion. There’s no need to fit your communication into a one-size-fits-all overarching strategy laid down by someone like me. “Follow your passion” may seem distressingly like Californian self-help language, but the topics about which you’re most passionate are those you’ll do the best job of communicating. You won’t reach every single person, but those you miss might be best approached by another climate scientist with different passions anyway. There are people out here with whom you and you alone are supremely suited to connect.
6) Do this now. Convey urgency, not only in your communication but in the way you approach that communication. You threaten the business plans of the most profitable corporations in the world, and they will lie and cheat and lie even more to undermine what you say. And every day they continue is one less day we have to avert the worst of the disasters we all know are coming. But the “scientist who goes up against the complacent status quo to warn of doom” is one of those science fiction tropes every single one of us knows by heart, and we also know by heart who turns out vindicated in the end. Hop to it. And get in touch with me if I can help.
Chris Clarke is a natural history and environmental writer, an editor and photographer. He is currently working on a book on Joshua trees, which will be based on over a decade of research. Check out his ReWire blog for KCET.org.