Home » Articles » How can climate scientists better communicate their work to the public? by Larry Pryor

How can climate scientists better communicate their work to the public? by Larry Pryor


Associate Professor, Annenberg School of Journalism

The U.S. public admires scientists, surveys show, but their work products less so. Somewhere, between laboratory and voting booth, causal connections have become severed and trust has evaporated. Scientists, individually, blame themselves, but the responsibility for bridging gulfs should rest most of all with their institutions, the AAAS, NAS, Royal Society and the gaggle of sub-associations that are passing the buck.

The stress of how to cope with climate has revealed how much science communication needs reform. Failures, from small to mega, corrupt the public sphere. An example of “small”: the inability of the science community to help our society comprehend temperature scales. Why must the average person in the U.S. be required to subtract 32 from Fahrenheit and divide by 1.8 to reach centigrade? Could we not at least have both measurements in our evening weather forecasts? Why have one standard for the technical elite and another for us commoners?

An example of big failure: Scientists use a form of impersonal narration in their writing that leads to confusion and ambiguity. “Nature” and “Science” magazines, for example, struggle nobly to translate and distribute knowledge. They have marvelous Web sites, but if the original product is muddled and obscure, society is left with weak public policy, shallow media stories and, at best, an indifferent public.

And the biggest problem: Science still lacks theoretical foundations in epistemology and metaphysics. As a result, ethics gets trashed . (Traditional economists are only too happy to oblige.) As a result, public policy experts and politicians lack structures that could bring clarity to the emotional intensity that is understandably stoked by proposals to limit carbon emissions or to geoengineer nature.

To paraphrase novelist and literary critic Herbert Gold, scientists need to build causal connections with society. Living apart as hard-working, misunderstood onlookers fails to offer the public some sense that everyone’s lived experience has the possibility to be a source of happiness. Some way must be found to interpret the scientific consensus on climate into policy that merits universal and willing action by the public.

We can look to the law for models. Granted parts of this domain remain incoherent and unjust, but eloquent jurists often convince the public of the relevance of doing the right thing. We need fundamental principles of fairness in climate ethics that would have, for example, the clarity and public acceptance of “due process of law.” Climate science needs its versions of Wendell Holmes, Jr. Bring back, oh Lord, the great communicators – Stephen Schneider, Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan. Einstein, too.

Larry Pryor is a ESCInitiative contributor and an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He has worked as a reporter, writer, editor and photographer, first at the Louisville Courier-Journal and later at the Los Angeles Times.

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