Fear and Loathing in Climate Science


Alvin Stone, Media and Communications Manager at ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science presents at the Big Science Communication Summit in June 2013. The session explores the common challenge that scientists leave sceptics to dominate their thinking in terms of media engagement and framing scientific research.

What was your science communication challenge?

The challenge is quite simply is that scientists are letting sceptics dominate their thinking in terms of media engagement and even how they are framing scientific research. There were two papers that highlight this. The first paper was an international collaboration on a paper considered to be a “career” paper that had more than 70 authors from 28 countries. All but one of the six authors from Australia and NZ refused to talk to the media because they didn’t want to deal with sceptics emails, FOIs or being generally harrassed.

The second paper was a direct response to the sceptics framing of warming using very thin data. The paper essentially comes back with good results but on very short term data, meaning its findings will likely have to be revised in another 10 years. However, in the meantime it gives the sceptic community a free kick and casts doubt on the rate of warming.

What was the solution?

The solution comes in two simple forms.

  1. Engage multiple scientists in media releases and where possible papers. In climate science we should avoid promoting the single talking head. The failure of Tim Flannery to be taken seriously on climate change by the Australian public is an example of why multiple voices should be used. It removes the possibility of targeting individuals and creates a sense of community consensus.
  2. Reframe sceptic talking points immediately. A prime example is the no-warming for 16 years meme. Scientists have responded directly to this for at least five years when in fact it is plain wrong. There has been a slowing in atmospheric warming but the warming of our oceans continue apace. Global warming includes the oceans. The community needs to say, no, it’s wrong, every time the meme is brought up and explain why. Instead it continues to accept the statement and then tries to explain it in terms of the atmosphere alone. This is one of the most powerful denier memes and it is still allowed to persist because of an acceptance of the frame and no community response.

What did you learn from the experience?

  • Communication professionals need to be more engaged in making scientists reframe responses immediately a sceptic talking point starts to dominate.
  • There needs to be discussions across groups of climate scientists to deliver the response in a consistent way with many voices.
  • Pro-active prepared media responses across groups, such as open letters, should be prepared in advance, so that response times can be quicker once a meme has developed currency.
  • We are not advocates like Environmental NGOs but we should start to employ some of the pro-active advocacy practices of these groups around the science of climate change.

Alvin Stone worked as an editor with Fairfax Community News and then News Local for over a decade before moving across to media communications. As a media communicator he has worked for WWF-Australia and most recently Primary Communication, a boutique agency specialising in corporate clients in the energy, transport, IT and not-for-profit sectors.

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