Keeping Out of the Box
Some Concrete Guidelines
In the meantime, how does a well-meaning scientist deal with the communications world as it is? There are no simple answers, but I'd like to offer some guidelines that work for me—at least sometimes. First and foremost, resist any temptation to make judgments about the superiority of your argument over others: Such comments will only stiffen the resolve of reporters intent on dredging up controversy. Next, explain the process with which you arrived at your conclusions to those asking for an expert opinion. There are several important aspects to flag. First, when you make value judgments, always preface any such offerings with the clear warning that the question called for a personal opinion, not an expert opinion of scientific understanding. For scientists asked to make forecasts, what can happen and what are the odds constitute science; what to do about it is a value judgment.
I often try to summarize what colleagues say, too, and to differentiate the process of scientific assessment (with its multiple rounds of peer review) from what are merely claims of individuals. Perhaps most important is the need to state the degree of certainty you assign to your assessments and to explain the degree of subjectivity needed to estimate that confidence level.
Finally, remember to use language that any layperson can follow. Jargon may be an efficient way to communicate with colleagues who know the lingo, but others often misunderstand it. For me, simple metaphors work best to communicate meaning, because they can convey both the urgency and uncertainty that go into making assessments of climate change. For example, I (and other climate scientists) often say that climate is like a set of dice, with some hot faces, wet faces, dry faces and so forth. This allows us to point out both that the random element in the weather is not going away with global warming and that we think people are loading the climatic dice in such a way that some of the more problematic faces will be turning up more often.
To explain that the surface heating that comes with global warming will intensify the hydrological cycle and is likely to increase the intensity of rainfall in already-wet regions, I might ask my interviewer a simple question: "If you put one pan full of water in the sun and one in the shade, which will evaporate first?" Everybody knows the answer to that. Again, such an illustration adds to clear communication, even though in global warming it is extra infrared energy that is heating the surface, not extra sunlight. Thus, to some sticklers my analogy is too crude. Yet without resorting to some simplification, it is nearly impossible to communicate the implications of the scientific results to a broad audience and thus to garner support in one's effort to make the world a better place.
I labeled this conundrum the "double ethical bind" in a 1989 interview with Jonathan Schell for an article he was writing for Discover magazine. For me, discussing a pan of water is helpful and similar enough to the climatic effect I want to describe that I can live with knowledge that it glosses over many complications—and I do write lengthy articles (and lengthier books) for those who want to know more about how I view the real physical processes.
As I said to Schell years ago, it's not at all easy to choose one's words when talking to reporters in a world of sound bites and adversarial policy debates. Ironically, many people who argue against my public-policy prescriptions have used selective quotation from that Discover article to attack my credibility. So let me do some selective quotation of my own from that piece, which gets the point across that I was trying to make to Schell back in 1989, something I still feel strongly today: "This double ethical bind we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both."
Unfortunately, I see this quote repeatedly manipulated by those claiming I advocate exaggeration; they deftly leave off the last sentence—expressing my hope that scientists be both honest and effective—and ignore the overall context of my remarks. In particular, they leave out what I meant by being honest in that Discover interview: vetting the "ifs, ands and buts" by producing popular articles and books, and when forced to provide sound bites, by using metaphors to convey both urgency and uncertainty.
In a world of policy advocacy, full quotation and respect for context are rare luxuries, so if you venture into this realm you'd better expect to be misrepresented some of the time. Steel yourself before taking the plunge. Good luck.