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Sticking Your Head Above the Parapet

Can scientists "go public" and still be good scientists? That's a question on the mind of many emerging environmental leaders as they ponder how to best mesh their research career with their personal commitment to make the world a better place.

Gavin Schmidt, climatologist at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was in town last week to present the Kuehnast Lecture, an annual event sponsored by the University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate. He stopped by IonE at the invitation of the Boreas Leadership Program to share his insights as a working scientist heavily involved in communicating about science to the broader public. 

Speaking from his own experiences as founder of RealClimate, a blog that collects and disseminates science-based information about global climate change, Schmidt encouraged his audience of graduate students and postdocs to bring their science - and its implications - to the public. But he warned it might not be pretty.

"If you're going to stick your head above the parapet - which I think you all should do - don't take it personally" when you get attacked, he said. "As you become public property, people attribute things to you out of your control." Google his name, for example, he said, and you'll find his "Internet doppelganger" being accused of "saying things I've not said, holding attitudes I don't hold, all to further an agenda that I do not subscribe to."

The challenge, Schmidt said, is that conversations about scientific topics can bring to the surface deeply held beliefs and attitudes that often trump reason. As a result, people may feel threatened and respond by attacking the information and the science behind it. "That's easier to do than adjust perceptions," Schmidt said.

How to respond? Not by butting heads, Schmidt said. "[That's] like wrestling in mud with pigs. The pigs like that, and you just get covered with mud."

Instead, he recommended, look for the hidden nugget - the valid point amid the rhetoric that can (and should) be addressed. Then address it in the context of the values and motivations of your audience. For example, if you're talking to skeptics about climate change, talk insurance. People buy homeowners insurance even if they don't believe their house is going to burn down. Addressing climate change may make sense in the same way.

Schmidt ended by encouraging his audience not to abandon their values. 

"If people have something to say, I absolutely, strongly recommend they say it," he concluded. "Scientists aren't people without values and opinions. Science is a process by which we learn about the world despite our values and beliefs. If you argue that all science is value neutral, that's an unsustainable position."

Editor's note: Gavin Schmidt was named recipient of the American Geophysical Union's  inaugural Climate Communications Prize Oct. 18. The award, which was established by AGU earlier this year, recognizes excellence in climate communication as well as the promotion of scientific literacy, clarity of messaging, and efforts to foster respect and understanding for science-based values related to climate change.

Image courtesy of Perry Rhodan via Wikimedia Commons; thanks to Libby Tilley for the idea


Yes, they will still be good scientists, plus they have to go public, at least some of them, especially in this time of crisis. Otherwise who will explain science to the public? Who will fill the huge divide between scientists and the general public? Sound policies have to be anchored in correctly-understood science, and for that new institutions filled with scientists, sociologists and psychologists will have to be created, in order to research on the most clear, unambiguous and effective ways to communicate science.

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This page contains a single entry by Mary Hoff published on October 18, 2011 10:13 AM.

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