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Keeping Out of the Box

Stephen Schneider

During three decades spent studying the highly charged issue of climate change, I've not been bashful about offering my scientific conclusions—or even my opinions about appropriate public policy. Acting both as a research scientist and as a policy advocate poses some special challenges, and prominent among them is the matter of dealing with the press.

Figure 1. One need not be EinsteinClick to Enlarge Image

To my mind, the popular media haven't done the best job of covering the science behind this contentious topic. The roots of their difficulties are easy to understand. The first problem is their need for brevity: They have little time on the air, or space on the page, to delve into details. In addition, in covering controversy, especially when there are polarized political positions, journalists generally strive to report "both sides." Got the Democrat? Better get the Republican, too. Doing so ostensibly provides journalistic balance. But achieving the same evenhandedness in describing complex questions typical of science can be considerably more difficult, because there are rarely two mainstream views on any given subject. There may be a complete spectrum of reasoned opinion—or there may be considerable consensus among knowledgeable experts, with the only dissenting voices coming from a few extremists or special interests.

Still, many reporters have been trained to "get both sides." So by agreeing to an interview, a scientist risks getting his or her views stuffed into one of two boxed storylines. In the case of my specialty, climate change, it's either "you're worried" or "it will all be okay." In talking to reporters, I routinely discuss a wide range of possibilities. Yet mostly I find just one part of what I said represented, only to be "balanced" by a different scientist who is attributed with a polar opposite view. This pattern is frustrating, especially because I do indeed want to communicate both that some scary possibilities are not improbable and that scientific uncertainties preclude high confidence in most specific predictions. Being stereotyped as an advocate implacably committed to one particular position makes it difficult to communicate such nuanced messages in the popular press. It also does little to bolster one's reputation as an objective interpreter of the scientific facts—and it even encourages personal attacks.

But this sad state of affairs isn't just a glitch in how members of the press operate. Scientists invite such trouble unwittingly, because we often project the appearance of being locked in unending debate. Why do we do that? In science, a good reputation is not earned by repeating the established consensus. Rather, most of us focus our efforts at the cutting edge, where new results and hypotheses compete for eventual validation. The frontier of knowledge is indeed littered with contention at times, and so debating one another is precisely what we typically do—and should do—at our scientific meetings. But when the rest of the world wants to learn about what we are discovering and listens in using the "ears" of journalists—people trained to sniff out conflict—they often get the impression that scientists can agree on nothing.

It is this mutually reinforcing behavior that leads to much reporting about false dichotomies. And the solution requires some consciousness-raising on both sides of the microphone. Journalists need to learn how to communicate multiple positions (and the relative credibility of each), while explicitly describing what has been acknowledged as the mainstream view of the scientific community. Likewise, we should go out of our way at meetings to present review talks that stress what is indeed well established before we lapse into our sparring about fine points on the cutting edge.

Better science reporters already know how to find consensus statements; these come regularly from bodies like the National Research Council, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and so forth. So, too, do media-savvy scientists or scientific societies (the American Association for the Advancement of Science in particular) know that time must be scheduled for review sessions and press conferences offering multiple points of view—not just polar opposites. These activities help separate established results from more speculative ideas, which, of course, get most of the play during scientific sessions.

Better communication of science to the interested public would also result if graduate curricula included some training in media relations and how the worlds of political advocacy and science policy operate. Similarly, journalism schools should consider balancing the mantra of "balance" with "perspective." Political journalists covering science need to learn that not all opinions deserve—nor should they receive—equal billing in a story. Rather, their mission should be to provide a perspective on the relative credibility of the various claims.

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