Journalists and Scientists Agree: Climate Science is Complex and Complicated by Politics

Panel of Journalists. From left to right: Glen Feighery, Terry Gildea, Matthew LaPlante, and Judy Fahys.

Panel of Journalists. From left to right: Glen Feighery, Terry Gildea, Matthew LaPlante, and Judy Fahys.

By Laura Schmidt, Office of Sustainability

Earlier this month, the University of Utah hosted separate panels of scientists and journalists, both discussing how their professions communicate climate change. These panels were created and organized by Julia Corbett, professor of Communication, as part of a new class that “aims to help students effectively explain global warming to others.”

What do both panels agree on? Scientists and journalists both concluded that science is complicated to relay to the public and that politics is a main driver that complicates climate change communication.

Panel of Scientists. From left to right:  Julia Corbett, Jim Steenburgh, Simon Brewer, and Andrea Brunelle,

Panel of Scientists. From left to right: Julia Corbett, Jim Steenburgh, Simon Brewer, and Andrea Brunelle,

Agreement One: Science is Complex

Matthew LaPlante, a journalist and assistant Journalism professor at Utah State University, argues that one of the biggest obstacles for communicating climate change science is getting “scientists to talk like human beings.” Scientific language is notoriously inaccessible and difficult to interpret. Because scientific jargon tends to be restrictive to the wider public, LaPlante argues that scientists tend to communicate only with other scientists and graduate students.

While the panel of scientists probably wouldn’t refute that their research might be inaccessible to the public at large, two of the three panelists voiced that one of the roles as a scientist is to advocate for, and communicate about, his or her work. Simon Brewer, assistant professor of Geography at the U, says that it is important for scientists to communicate about their own work to “correct the imbalance of information” that is propagated by the media’s misunderstanding of their research.

The science panel also suggests that part of the trouble with relaying scientific information to the lay community is the difference in how scientists and the public understands the word “uncertainty.” To a scientist, a degree of uncertainty is present in any research question. Jim Steenburgh, professor of Meteorology at the U, explains that with any model there is a level of uncertainty. He says, “Few things are black and white…. Any prediction has uncertainty.”

Brewer agrees, saying that “in the public’s mind, scientists know the answers,” but in reality, scientists are always considering the degree to which their results are uncertain.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is helpful in explaining scientific certainty and uncertainty. They state: “To most of us, uncertainty means not knowing. To scientists, however, uncertainty is how well something is known.” Many of the scientists on the panel cite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and how they characterize certainty (see Table 1: Summary for Policymakers). The IPCC’s direct explanation of degrees of certainty help the general public better understand scientific findings.

IPCC Chart

Table 2 is taken from the IPCC’s newest report, “Twelfth Session of Working Group I,” released on 27 September 2013. It provides an example of how the IPCC communicates climate change.

Table 2: An example of an IPCC Table from the Twelfth Session of Working Group I

Table 2: An example of an IPCC Table from the Twelfth Session of Working Group I

Agreement Two: Politics Complicates Scientific Communication

Judy Fahys, a former reporter of the Salt Lake Tribune, says that politicians desire certainty, and nothing in science is absolutely certain. “Science is constantly being reevaluated,” says Fahys.

On the science panel, Steenburgh describes that further complication occurs because there isn’t one individual expert on the climate change crisis, which leads to a variety of views being asserted. He says that the lack of a key figurehead creates space for a debate, even if the scientific community has reached an overwhelming consensus about an issue, e.g. climate change. (See photos of James Hansen and Rachel Carson, both of whom, among many, could be considered scientific experts for the environmental or climate change movement.)

A) NASA Scientist James Hansen. Photo thanks to "World Development Movement". http://bit.ly/1ipzrKR  B) Rachel Carson, Marine Biologist and Conservationist. Photo thanks to "Euclid vanderKroew". http://bit.ly/1dERP4N

A) NASA Scientist James Hansen. Photo thanks to “World Development Movement”. http://bit.ly/1ipzrKR
B) Rachel Carson, Marine Biologist and Conservationist. Photo thanks to “Euclid vanderKroew”. http://bit.ly/1dERP4N

Politics are also fueled by beliefs, which alter the information that a person is receptive to hearing. “Beliefs continue to hold more power than science,” Fahys says. For many people, climate change is not a message they want to hear, and no amount of scientific evidence can sway someone who adamantly believes that the opposite is true.

The science panel also discussed the difficulty of speaking to the media and being drawn into a political conversation. The scientists feel that sometimes interviewers alter a scientist’s answers because they aim to fulfill a political agenda. The scientists say that despite sometimes being framed as a debate, climate change is not; It is abundantly clear that anthropogenic climate change is a real phenomenon that people must face.

Moving Forward

Both panels offer suggestions for communicating climate change through the difficult terrain of scientific complexity and politics. Brewer suggests that climate scientists keep “preaching to the choir.” Even though the science is informing those who already acknowledge the reality of climate change, reinforcing the message helps communicate the issue more clearly, he says. The scientists also suggest that translating climate change impacts from the global to the local level would be useful and help answer these questions: What does climate change mean for the everyday citizen? How will it impact people locally?

LaPlante argues that it is not the media’s role to alter behaviors even with regard to climate change. “It’s your job is to change your behavior,” he says. A journalist’s role is to provide information, which can lead to a paradigm shift if people are willing to change, but LaPlante asserts that the world is a big place and culture change requires time. Terry Gildea, the news director for KUER, adds that when people are ready to change their behaviors, they will look for credible information to validate their new behaviors.

Panelists

Science reporters: Judy Fahys, former reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune; Terry Gildea, news director for KUER; Matthew LaPlante, journalist and assistant Journalism professor at USU; and moderator Glen Feighery, former reporter and editor and associate Communication professor at the U.

Scientists: Andrea Brunelle, U of U associate professor of Geography; Jim Steenburgh, U of U professor of Meteorology; Simon Brewer, U of U assistant professor of Geography, and moderator Julia Corbett, U of U professor of Communication.

Laura Schmidt is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities. She is a graduate assistant in the Office of Sustainability.

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