09 February 2010

Climate Science in the Media

Climate Science in the Media

A Discussion Document from the Science Media Centre


The SMC was set up to help scientists become more effective at engaging with the media when controversial science stories hit the headlines. For 8 years now we have been on the front line between scientists and the media, working on stories like GM, MMR, human-animal embryos, swine flu, Nuttgate etc. As a result we have built up a considerable body of expertise about the best ways for scientists to approach the media at times of frenzy.

Now we find ourselves in the middle of ‘Climate Gate’ (described in the Guardian, complete with new logo, as 'Climate Wars') with a seemingly unstoppable tide of negative stories about climate science, and more and more people talking in epic terms about the collapse of trust in scientists. Along with many of you, the SMC has already worked tirelessly on this issue and in many ways the scientific community are to be praised for getting out there and engaging with the public and the media at such a difficult time. But there are also causes of concern with some scientists openly lashing out at the media while others retreat very firmly back into their labs and in the opposite direction to any media interviews.

We have decided to put together a discussion document for scientists and science press officers encapsulating some of the lessons we believe science has learned from previous media frenzies. This is by no means a definitive guide to approaching the media and is not intended to be prescriptive in any way. We don't have all the answers and suspect that some of you will disagree with some of the advice but our role at the SMC is to encourage and support scientists to engage with the media when their issue hits the headlines. As the MMR debate may finally be resolved after 12 years, we felt it would be good to stimulate debate about how science – and the media – can get this one right.

Points for Discussion

1. We need to start hearing more from the silent majority of climate researchers.

One of the problems with the original GM debate in 1998 was that most of the country's best plant scientists remained silent. Because of that, some well known scientists, and not the experts on GM – people like Susan Greenfield and Robert Winston – ended up stepping up to defend the integrity of science and fight what they saw as an anti-science backlash. But the problem with that was that the British public never got to hear about the science from people who knew most about GM and who were best placed to describe the potential risks as well as the benefits. We have learned from the recent debate about human animal embryos that the debate benefits from seeing and hearing from those scientists and clinicians at the forefront of the research. Climate researchers are more likely than general science spokespeople to fully understand (and therefore more ably communicate) the uncertainties, nuances and complexities of this area of science. We need to identify and champion more media spokespeople from the silent majority of climate researchers and make them available to the media. The SMC is planning a special Introduction to the News Media for climate research next month and we will send details soon.

2. Never leave a vacuum.

Surely one of the most important lessons learned from debates about GM and MMR is that where the best scientists say no to an interview their seat will simply be taken by a campaigner or a politician or a commentator with less of an appreciation of the science and evidence than them. Many scientists are not enjoying the polarised framing of the climate debate and are reluctant to agree to interviews which could include questions about UEA emails, errors in IPCC reports, Pachauri’s position etc. But climate researchers saying no to these interviews simply means that policy makers and the public will hear from someone with less expertise. At a time when many members of the public are engaged in thinking about and debating climate change it is absolutely essential that climate scientists do not turn away from their responsibility to ensure that the debate is informed by accurate and evidence-based information. With good media training and support from science press officers, there are many ways that scientists can seize the agenda and use interviews to communicate key facts about science and the way science works.

3. The benefits of being open about the uncertainties, gaps in knowledge and disagreements outweigh the risks.

We know that some scientists are feeling rather bruised by being accused of failing to address uncertainties and I am fully aware that it's usually the media, not scientists, who edit out the nuances and uncertainties. However, we have also spoken to scientists who conceded that they felt that admitting to uncertainties was dangerous when so-called ‘sceptics’ are waiting to pounce. Gavin Schmidt, a leading climate modeller, last week admitted in an interview with Nature News that the “insane” culture of suspicion that climate researchers are working in is “drowning our ability to soberly communicate gaps in our science”. But failing to be open about these gaps has only played into the sceptics' hands and undermined public trust. It is a similar picture with areas of disagreement. As Research Fortnight points out, there have been fundamental debates between scientists behind closed doors on how to present the science, with some believing that political decisions should be made on a consensus based on the best available evidence, and others who argue that this is a dangerous course because science is ever-changing.

We believe scientists need to use this current crisis to reflect on communicating uncertainty. They need to recognise that being more proactive and honest about the areas that are less certain or subject of disagreement would result in better-informed coverage and more public trust. If journalists think that there are disagreements or gaps in knowledge that are being hidden they are much more likely to start hunting around trying to 'expose' them than they are if all the information is on display. We need journalists and the public to better understand that disagreement is a normal, healthy feature of science and that unlike politicians scientists do not have to be 'on message' or arrive at an agreed line!

4. Scientists are entitled to stick the science.

A recent emergency press briefing held by the SMC in the middle of the media frenzy surrounding ‘Climate Gate’ was remarkable in the sense that several journalists were demanding that the scientists – who were extremely robust about the strength of the science– go beyond the science to make statements about public perception, the UEA emails, and Pachauri's position at the IPCC. In short, some journalists were accusing the scientists of ‘only’ talking about the science. While scientists are of course entitled to go beyond their science and call for action or comment on wider issues, we believe that scientists are also entitled to stick to their science. One journalist told the scientists that their robust defence of the science and the scientific process was not enough to 'win' the battle for public support; but the primary responsibility of scientists and indeed the SMC is not to 'win' public debates. We believe the primary responsibility of scientists – and it is a huge responsibility in itself - is to ensure that public debates on contentious issues are informed by accurate, evidence-based science.

5. We need to seize on the renewed interest in climate science to ensure that the science is heard.

The SMC's philosophy is that when science hits the headlines it’s always an opportunity to get science and the scientific process over to a mass audience when they are most interested. The fact that all eyes are currently on climate science represents a significant opportunity to engage the media and the public. That means we should all be considering running more press briefings on different aspects of the current row, making sure that researchers are ready to do media work on every new study, and offering more opinion pieces, joint statements etc.

6. It's science that is sceptical and self correcting - and we should shout about that!

The SMC has always argued that it should be scientists, and not the critics of science, who identify the risks of new technologies, correct past mistakes and draw attention to studies that challenge the mainstream view. As people have pointed out, 'sceptic' was once a term that scientists were proud to adopt and we think they should reclaim the mantle. Bob Watson, CSA to Defra, told Research Fortnight that he himself had been a sceptic in the past but as he said "the basis of my scepticism was evidence not ideology'. It's also worth pointing out that it was glaciologists that identified the error in the IPCC report on glaciers. The SMC believes that if there is any gold-standard research that casts any doubts on previous studies or revises projections for warming downwards or even shows some of the benefits of a warmer climate, these should be embraced and publicised with equal vigour to the rest of the evidence.

7. Welcome journalistic scrutiny

The SMC’s philosophy - “We will get the media to ‘do’ science better when scientists ‘do’ the media better” - was a reaction against a culture of complaint in the scientific community who too often shouted only from the sidelines without actually getting involved. Of course scientists have the right to debate the media coverage of climate science and we have spent 8 years complaining about the lazy and unhelpful practice of balancing every climate researcher with a sceptic – a practice that now happens a lot less because press officers and journalists have challenged it with editors. But condemning the media for scrutinising science will do little to restore public or media trust in science. The role of journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable and to shine a light on power. While it may not feel like it this week, climate change is now an establishment view backed by all political parties and most business leaders; scientists have no more right than politicians or footballers to demand protection from journalistic scrutiny. We can demand accuracy and balance and more attention to uncertainty and nuance, but we should not demand immunity from investigation. We are supremely confident that climate science in the UK has nothing to fear from more scrutiny. The evidence will out and where the evidence is incomplete we all need to know – that’s what journalism is for.

8. Scientists should welcome public debate

The SMC also feels that the scientific community should be welcoming and embracing debate on climate change. Many commentators have pointed out that the debate about GM that raged in 1998 was about much more than the science. As Professor Mike Hulme recently pointed out, the debate over climate change is also about much more than science. Many of us have noted that even those most firmly backing mainstream science react badly to attempts by some to say that the science is in and the debate is closed. One of the features that characterised the public debate over human/animal hybrid embryos was the stem cell researchers’ tireless enthusiasm for debating with their critics, including pro-life MPs and Catholic bishops. Some will say that climate change is too important to be treated as just another science controversy. But the exact same argument can be used the other way round: that, whatever the outcome of the science and whichever way you look at the evidence, this issue is just so important that it must be openly debated at all turns.

9. Hang on in there - it will calm down

Media frenzies always come to an end. The media coverage of animal research, MMR and GM crops is now completely different and much better quality than that in the midst of those furore. While the current feeding frenzy is uncomfortable for climate scientists, if they can step up to the plate now when the public and policy makers are most engaged they are likely to be rewarded with a more mature and better informed debate in the future.

Also worth remembering that polling experts contend that people formulate their opinions about such issues over the longer terms as Michael Simmonds, Managing Director of Populous told the BBC last week: "People tend to make judgements over time based on a whole range of different sources."

10. Debate the media coverage

While scientists debate science ad nauseam they are less engaged in the debate about how to communicate and convey that science to the media and the public. There are some encouraging signs that the current debate is focussing the minds of leading climate scientists on the need to engage the media and the public in more sophisticated ways and all the speakers at the SMC briefing conceded that they need to get much better at communicating uncertainty, risk, probability and complexity. With the help of social scientists and media academics, we have learned many lessons from studying the media debates over issues like GM and MMR. Indeed, the scientific community felt so strongly that the media work around human animal embryos was a shining example of how to get it right that we got together and published a pamphlet (see “When animal research hits the headlines”). We hope to further stimulate this debate by running brainstorms on the media coverage with science press officers and journalists and also running a special Introduction to the Media session aimed at those researchers who currently do not engage with the media.

The purpose of this document is to provoke discussion among scientists and science communicators about media coverage of climate science. It is a public document and you are welcome to share it with your colleagues. As always, we would love to hear your thoughts on any of the points raised.

Science Media Centre, February 2010