Into the breach

Authors


Figure 1.

The challenge of communicating scientific findings, particularly when science underpins contentious, consequential issues, reminds me of a song I once wrote. The tune, Blame it on Biology, explores the trials of a couple navigating a tough moment: “When we try to figure out just what some fight is all about, English is what we both speak, but it may as well be French and Greek”.

In a quarter century of reporting on the interface of science and society, I've seen hosts of scientists, officials, advocates, and journalists – including yours truly, once in a while – mishandle efforts to convey environmental risks. As in personal relations, success in communication comes from understanding impediments to the flow of information at critical junctures, knowing which tools can help convey ideas effectively and accurately, and working at both ends of the knowledge pipeline to have the best chance of a rational response.

A particular challenge in science communication, of course, is that there is no longer a conventional pipeline. Just a decade ago, for a given issue, research was undertaken, papers written, press releases prepared, and a related story composed by a reasonably trained science reporter. When news broke, whether the wreck of the Exxon Valdez or the release of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there was a decent chance someone who knew about oil toxicity or the heat-trapping properties of CO2 would report the story.

Specialized journalists now occupy a shrinking wedge of a fast-growing pie of light-speed media. This reality threatens to erode the already limited public appreciation of science. But the situation also presents a great opportunity – and responsibility – for scientists, their institutions, and their funders. Institutions that thrive in this world of expanding, evolving communication paths are those willing to engage the public (including critics) and to experiment with different strategies. The alternative is to hunker down, wait for misinformation to spread, and then – after the fact – sift fact from hype.

NASA has harnessed a network of amateur astronomers to help track and report on asteroids that might someday strike Earth – and debunk hype when it pops up on Twitter. A multitude of environmental fields have similar networks – composed of birders, hunters and anglers, farmers, students and teachers – who can help convey and clarify information. Another example of communication innovation is a 2009 post on my Dot Earth blog, Postcard from the Pleistocene (http://j.mp/dotPleist). A joint US–Russian team was set to travel by barge down the Kolyma River in eastern Siberia, to study the potential for permafrost to disgorge methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In the old days, I might have wangled the resources to join the expedition, but in this case Andy Bunn, a professor at Western Washington University, and several students on the trip, e-mailed audio, photographs, and personal observations that formed an enticing multimedia package.

The explosion of tools for creating graphics and video also allows anyone to select the ideal medium for a message. One example is an animated illustration (http://j.mp/nejmAnim) that accompanied a 2007 paper in The New England Journal of Medicine (http://j.mp/NEJMobese) charting how obesity appeared to spread and ebb in a large population over time through social networks. Likewise, Adam Nieman, a British illustrator with a doctorate in science communication, is adept at turning data into images that force the mind to consider familiar ideas in new ways – for instance, by viewing the volume of the world's seas as a small, teardrop-like sphere adjacent to the planet (http://j.mp/dotNieman). Another approach is to encourage students or the public to communicate science – one of the best summaries I've seen on geoengineering, the batch of controversial actions that may help counteract or slow greenhouse warming, is a YouTube video shot by students (http://j.mp/GeoTube).

Of course, another technique is to stick with the status quo and hope for the best. I don't recommend this, unless you're comfortable seeing more exchanges like one that unfolded in November 2006, during the oral arguments in the US Supreme Court over efforts to force the Federal Government to regulate CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. James Milkey, Assistant Attorney General of Massachusetts, corrected Justice Antonin Scalia on a point of science: “Respectfully, Your Honor, it is not the stratosphere. It's the troposphere”. “Troposphere, whatever”, Justice Scalia replied, “I told you before, I'm not a scientist”. Over a brief flutter of laughter from observers, he added, “That's why I don't want to have to deal with global warming, to tell you the truth”.

This is clearly not a reaction any scientist would care to see repeated. But a replay is likely unless more scientists screw up their courage and jump into the communication breach.

Ancillary