On issues like global warming and evolution, scientists need to speak up

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By Chris Mooney
Sunday, January 3, 2010

The battle over the science of global warming has long been a street fight between mainstream researchers and skeptics. But never have the scientists received such a deep wound as when, in late November, a large trove of e-mails and documents stolen from the Climatic Research Unit at Britain's University of East Anglia were released onto the Web.

In the ensuing "Climategate" scandal, scientists were accused of withholding information, suppressing dissent, manipulating data and more. But while the controversy has receded, it may have done lasting damage to science's reputation: Last month, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 40 percent of Americans distrust what scientists say about the environment, a considerable increase from April 2007. Meanwhile, public belief in the science of global warming is in decline.

The central lesson of Climategate is not that climate science is corrupt. The leaked e-mails do nothing to disprove the scientific consensus on global warming. Instead, the controversy highlights that in a world of blogs, cable news and talk radio, scientists are poorly equipped to communicate their knowledge and, especially, to respond when science comes under attack.

A few scientists answered the Climategate charges almost instantly. Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, whose e-mails were among those made public, made a number of television and radio appearances. A blog to which Mann contributes, RealClimate.org, also launched a quick response showing that the e-mails had been taken out of context. But they were largely alone. "I haven't had all that many other scientists helping in that effort," Mann told me recently.

This isn't a new problem. As far back as the late 1990s, before the news cycle hit such a frenetic pace, some science officials were lamenting that scientists had never been trained in how to talk to the public and were therefore hesitant to face the media.

"For 45 years or so, we didn't suggest that it was very important," Neal Lane, a former Clinton administration science adviser and Rice University physicist, told the authors of a landmark 1997 report on the gap between scientists and journalists. ". . . In fact, we said quite the other thing."

The scientist's job description had long been to conduct research and to teach, Lane noted; conveying findings to the public was largely left to science journalists. Unfortunately, despite a few innovations, that broad reality hasn't changed much in the past decade.

Scientific training continues to turn out researchers who speak in careful nuances and with many caveats, in a language aimed at their peers, not at the media or the public. Many scientists can scarcely contemplate framing a simple media message for maximum impact; the very idea sounds unbecoming. And many of them don't trust the public or the press: According to a recent Pew study, 85 percent of U.S. scientists say it's a "major problem" that the public doesn't know much about science, and 76 percent say the same about what they see as the media's inability to distinguish between well-supported science and less-than-scientific claims. Rather than spurring greater efforts at communication, such mistrust and resignation have further motivated some scientists to avoid talking to reporters and going on television.

They no longer have that luxury. After all, global-warming skeptics suffer no such compunctions. What's more, amid the current upheaval in the media industry, the traditional science journalists who have long sought to bridge the gap between scientists and the public are losing their jobs en masse. As New York Times science writer Natalie Angier recently observed, her profession is "basically going out of existence." If scientists don't take a central communications role, nobody else with the same expertise and credibility will do it for them.

Meanwhile, the task of translating science for the public is ever more difficult: Information sources are multiplying, partisan news outlets are replacing more objective media, and the news cycle is spinning ever faster.

Consider another failure to communicate from the global-warming arena: the scientific fallout after a devastating trio of hurricanes -- Katrina, Rita and Wilma -- in the fall of 2005. Just as these storms struck, a pair of scientific studies appeared in top journals suggesting, for the first time, that global warming was making hurricanes more intense and deadly. Other scientists vociferously disagreed, and the two camps fell into combat.

So while public interest in hurricanes was at a high after Katrina, much of the science reporting at the time portrayed researchers bickering with one another ("Hurricane Debate Shatters Civility of Weather Science," announced a Wall Street Journal cover story). Judith Curry, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a co-author of one of the contested studies, told me recently that the experience made her realize that "this was really the wrong way to do things, trying to fight these little wars and knock the other side down."

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