What's Hot in Climate Science Today? Communicating

By Chris Mooney | December 15, 2010 11:53 am

My latest DeSmogBlog item is up. It’s about our packed panel yesterday on “Communicating Climate Science” at the AGU meeting, and some of the lessons provided therein. A very brief excerpt:

[Susan Joy] Hassol gave a memorable overview of the many wonk words that climate scientists use that backfire in communication with the public—or just fail completely to convey what scientists actually mean. “Anthropogenic,” for instance. How many times, she noted, have you heard someone try to sound smart and say “anthropomorphic” instead? And those are the ones that are trying to get it right.

Other words that backfire or have different meanings than scientists think? “Radiation.” “Errors.” “Models.” “Theory.” Oh, and especially “aerosols.” When people hear about aerosols, Hassol emphasized, they think of spray cans. What a perfect way of reinforcing the widespread misconception that climate change has something to do with the hole in the ozone layer.

And there was much more. You can read the full piece here.


Comments (7)

  1. Matt B.

    “Anthropogenic” is a misnomer. It means “person-making”, not “person-made”. Hydrogen makes water. Mutagens make mutations. Anthropogens make people.

    And there really does need to be a stricter distinction between “theory” and “hypothesis”.

  2. Chris,

    The interest in science communication is very encouraging, but based on your description of the event over Desmog blog, it sounds as if the event simply served to reinforce a Deficit Model view of communication.

    The impetus for the session and for communication was defined as preparing scientists to go to battle against the Marc Morano’s of the world and then based on your description, you issued a call-to-arms to scientists based on a vulnerable, scientifically illiterate public and then the next speaker followed with tips on how to better communicate technical terms and avoid jargon.

    The session (and then writing up the session at the partisan Desmog blog) only serves to reinforce a faulty mental model among scientists that they are under attack by the Marc Morano’s of the world (and Republicans) and that the best response is to pump ever greater and more simplified technical information out to the media and to the public.

    Am I wrong? Please tell me that there was greater context to this session then what you describe.

    As I wrote a few weeks back, this all seems to be urging scientists to engage in Deficit Model activism which is only likely to seed polarization among elites and leave the wider public disinterested and confused.


  3. TTT

    And my defense of Chris’ methodology and reasoning got cut. I sure won’t make that mistake again. You want this self-declared expert left unopposed even to bash you? You can have him.

  4. Chris Mooney

    @4 if you want to make civil criticism, have at it. you failed that test the last time.

  5. Nullius in Verba


    Avoiding the confrontational/aggressive/defensive approach, not treating the general public as stupid and ignorant, and listening to the people in a two-way dialogue all seem to be positive steps. But it isn’t simply a matter of not connecting to values people are interested in that has caused the problem. The general public have a mixture of abilities over a wide range, but it does include people who are technically aware and sometimes very competent; often scientists or engineers in other areas of study. The flaws in the ‘message’ as it has been presented (which is not the same as the technical science) have led to scepticism in these people, and their views have spread – being influential with friends and colleagues, and with people with less technical ability but who find their viewpoint either more convincing or more to their liking.

    In your proposed action plan, how would you advise dealing with such people? Talking to them? Fighting them? Ignoring them? Rubbishing them?

    If the general public listen and understand your message, but nevertheless still decide that they don’t agree with your policy proposals regarding the response, is this an acceptable outcome? Are you listening to them only to figure out how best to persuade them to your view, or are you truly listening?

    There’s a video here that I think you would probably find interesting, if you haven’t seen it before. I think it sums the approach up quite neatly.

  6. Sean McCorkle


    That sounds like it was a really terrific panel discussion. The issue of misunderstandings over vocabulary is enlightening and really resonates on a personal level, as I am often guilty of using some of those very terms (and others) with non-scientists, naively thinking they’ll understand it in the same way I do.

    I see an EOS article by Hassol that talks about this. I wonder if there’s a larger body of literature or research in this area. Attention to avoiding jargon pitfalls could be a whole chapter in the science communication toolkit (or educators, for that matter). Its very nuts-and-bolts. Its easy to envision training sessions along these lines: an instructor could drill scientists, verbally explaining a topic to a layman, pointing out the problematic vocabulary as they’re speaking and suggest other wordings that might be more effective.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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