Science and the Media

2010 January 11
by Chris Vernon

I recently attended the QRA annual conference in Durham. For three days we mostly discussed sea level rise, and the large quantity of snow under foot (Durham was blanketed in six inches of snow for the whole week). One session was on science and the media. Here was a room of over a hundred scientists representing millions of pounds of public research money, what was our relationship with the public?

In a far ranging discussion here are a few points that stuck out to me:

Despite many years of training few scientists have training to understand the media. This is becoming well recognised and most universities are starting to offer training, especially for their more prominent academics but it remains the exception rather than the rule. A book that I think all scientists should find time to read is “Don’t be such a scientist” by Randy Olson. It was recently reviewed on Real Climate.

Journalists tend not to have subscriptions to scientific journals, they literally can’t see our science. Even if they could, many papers would remain illegible due to the specialist terminology and assumed knowledge. A proposal from the floor was for journals to require from paper authors a “layperson version” of the paper. It could be a short summary, written for a general audience, with a figure or two. This would be available on the journal’s website for free providing much needed public content for the journal and a way for the core message of the science to find a wider audience.

There exists a tension between knowledge and uncertainty. Too often specialists aren’t willing to give the certainty media craves. The situation may arise where an editor has a story, they phone their pet scientist, known and trusted for advice. Most likely is that the scientist won’t be the expert so will refer the editor on to someone else. Someone the editor doesn’t know and doesn’t have time to develop a relationship with. There’s a four-hour deadline after all. The point is the editor only needs to know the general stuff and the scientist probably knows enough, more than the editor anyway. If the scientist refers the editor either the true expert will baffle the editor with way more information than they need or the editor will just write up the story themselves. We should be braver, run with what we do know, with caveats if need be. The expert fine detail isn’t always required or even desirable.

NASA climate scientist James Hansen makes a very good point in a 2007 paper:
Scientific reticence and sea level rise

Reticence is fine for the IPCC. And individual scientists can choose to stay within a comfort zone, not needing to worry that they say something that proves to be slightly wrong. But perhaps we should also consider our legacy from a broader perspective. Do we not know enough to say more?

One fascinating question to the room was how many have written on the web, a blog or Wikipedia? Only a few admitted blogs, no one raised their hand to Wikipedia. Scientists tend only to publish in peer-reviewed journals, however the general public and the media don’t read them. Oops. They read the web but scientists aren’t writing on the web! In a room full of sea level rise experts none had contributed to the Wikipedia article on sea level rise. Who had written it!? There is no encouragement or recognition for scientists to communicate in the forum most people get their information from. I will keep writing this blog!

The discussion did come back to sea level rise, what image represents sea level rise? Shouts included Katrina, Tuvalu etc. however it was pointed out these examples are scientifically controversial. The problem is how do you communicated mm per year without using these emotional, controversial images? It’s a scale issue. The science works on scales that people aren’t interested in. People care about weather not climate. The useful response was to reframe mm per year into insurance premiums, 200-year flood events becoming 50-year events and so on. Same science but human language.

Predictably the media’s treatment of climate change with 50:50, “balanced” debates was raised. Journalists are trained in politics, economics and law where there are often two sides worthy of equal coverage. Journalism is all about finding the other point of view, it simply doesn’t handle science well. It was suggested that the BBC at least is improving in this area now.

Whist the debate focused on science and the media, the actual decision makers with respect to sea level rise at least, are often local government. There doesn’t seem to be much of a communication channel between the sea level scientists and local governments at all.

Finally, The Oil Drum was founded by a couple of US academics [edit: see 2nd comment]. Key to their motivations was dissatisfaction with the traditional academic publishing process. It simply took too long to go from idea to published paper and once published few people read it. Blogging reduced a process that took months, to days or even hours and increased eyes by an order of magnitude or three. Blogging also enables academics to more easily write outside their recognised specialism.

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Katelet permalink
    January 11, 2010

    You suggest there should be ‘short layperson versions’ of papers. Surely this is already done, in the form of press releases which many establishments write when they publish a paper of interest to the media? I like to think that these are written with input from the scientists who wrote the original paper, though I’m not sure how often this is the case!?

  2. January 11, 2010

    Grin, thanks Chris, but as one of the “couple of academics” who founded The Oil Drum, I really don’t think what you describe expresses my position at all.

    Why did I start blogging? I used to write a diary many years ago, and this seemed one way of chronicling some of the odd things I was then involved in. My first effort had not that much to do with energy but I started adding posts on energy to it when I noticed that some in the MSM were getting some of their information wrong. Kyle also had a blog, and we had “discovered” each others sites (can’t remember how, but probably because we both accessed a group of academic blogs). He also had some posts on energy and I believe it was at his suggestion that we combined the effort and started a blog that we called TOD.

    Initially I had expected that it would get a few dozen readers (and be about like Bit Tooth) – but Kyle worked his tail off doing what he calls “blog whoring” to get us some attention, and I can remember still my astonishment at glancing at Kevin Drum’s column in what was then Washington Monthly, and finding him quoting us. The site grew, and changed from the relatively relaxed, not that closely checked, personal story type of post to the more technically driven, and closely annotated (courtesy of the trouble I got into commenting about climate issues) material that you see today.

    Don’t think it had anything to do with ease of publication – which has never been a particular problem with me, our PR office is quite good (I was in Scientific American a month or so ago) and actually some of what I write about deals with what I teach and do research into. (One of my current tasks here is to write a white paper on where Energy will be 20 years from now and how does our campus position ourselves to be there). I do get calls from the media at fairly regular intervals (the last one was on something to do with the climate during Copenhagen), but – as with many colleagues, usually find that 30 – 45 minutes of conversation ends up in a single quote that you hadn’t really thought that important.

    I actually suppose that one of the drivers for continuing with the blog became to provide me with something technical to do after I retire, still seems a good idea, though I am 2 years past the date I initially intended going, it is now only 7 weeks away (but who is counting?)

    On the more general topic of communication I do think that this is a major problem for both scientists and engineers. I am fortunately well enough trained (thanks to LRGS) to be able to express myself generally comprehensibly, but part of that has been also because I have taught abroad and had to learn to express myself more simply to be understood. I thus find myself helping rewrite material for others not that well blessed, and who would rather never talk to a reporter in their life.

  3. Chris Vernon permalink*
    January 11, 2010

    Thanks for clarifying that HO! Not sure where I got my idea from… 🙂

  4. January 11, 2010

    You’ve raised an important issue. The “layperson version” of papers is an good idea and goes further than the press releases that are issued on publication of some papers.

    You say ‘Whilst the debate focused on science and the media, the actual decision makers with respect to sea level rise at lease are often local government. There doesn’t seem to be much of a communication channel between the sea level scientists and local governments at all.’

    Living slightly below sea level at hight tide I’m rather interested in this. In some ways the situation is even worse than you imply. Decisions are made by elected members of councils, who though they may be advised by their local government officers, do not always follow the advice, having more of an eye on the popular opinion of their electorate. There is the task of communicating the science both to the officers and to the elected members. These may be two rather different tasks.

    On the other hand, the Environment Agency, whose officers are much better connected to the science, do have a powerful influence on local government policy, and can have the final say in some situations such as sea defence works.

  5. anonymous permalink
    January 12, 2010

    I think there is a fundamental mismatch between the tentative results of narrow studies and the massive cultural shift that environmentalists hope for. Flood events once every 50 years instead of 200? Ok, so that’s one flood in my whole life. Is that it? Isn’t it only the emotional and contraversial images that caused people to change their minds / behaviour in other periods in history? I don’t imagine it was cold reports such as: previously 1 in 200 slaves was killed in terrible conditions crossing the atlantic, now its 1 in 50. A photograph of that dead slave, even if it doeesn’t represent the experience of the majority shows much more clearly the imperative to act.

    Scientists base their work and reputation on rational presentation of (sorry) boring provable facts, but all the psychological studies I’ve seen shows that the vast majority of human beings don’t do things because its ‘morally right’ they behave on the basis of their immediate community’s behaviour norms.

    If images of Katrina cause people to behave the way you believe to be necessary, correct and in order to prevent something else that you can unequivocally, scientifically, connect to climate change, philosophically does it matter whether you can prove that actual image has an undeniable connection to the behaviour you are trying to stop?
    Even if, by keeping your own slave you don’t cause the death of some other slave on a ship in the atlantic, if the picture of the dead slave causes you to set your own slave free that is the right result?

    This is the reason why charities offer you the chance to sponsor a child or an animal with a name and a history and a personality, even when your money goes to support 3 fresh water wells in a anonymous locations. Maybe it would be nice if everyone did act on the moral imperative to do so, but the evidence doesn’t back that up.

    There is a lot of talk of human beings’ inability to consider long term threats, and if scientists talk only in terms of equivocal cold facts that don’t translate into peoples’ imagination of their future, its hardly surprising that many feel it unnecessary to act.

  6. Iain permalink
    January 12, 2010


    Thanks for putting this out. I’m glad the session struck a chord. The issue of how we publish our scientific findings in a manner and in a location where non-scientific community can appreciate them is something that we need to really pursue. Actually seems to me that the QRA can take a real lead on this.

    One additional point that came up from the floor was the question of why does the media insist on 50:50 impartiality on this issue. There certainly is a legacy of this in the past, e.g. Maxwell Boycoff, at Oxford University, has documented this nicely in his 2007 Area paper, the abstract of which states…

    ‘The journalistic norm of ‘balanced’ reporting (giving roughly equal coverage to bothsides in any significant dispute) is recognised as both useful and problematic incommunicating emerging scientific consensus on human attribution for global climate change. Analysis of the practice of this norm in United States (US) and United Kingdom(UK) newspaper coverage of climate science between 2003 and 2006 shows a significant divergence from scientific consensus in the US in 2003–4, followed by a decline in 2005–6, but no major divergence in UK reporting.’

    Boykoff’s basic point was that striving for a balanced view of ‘both sides of the story’ led in the USA to the general public not appreciating the increasing scientific consensus that was coming together, but in the UK the same broadsheet media was better able to evolve their coverage to reflect this shift. (Interestingly, in Germany the news media seem to have been consistently promoting an IPCC line from very early on, e.g.

    Certainly in the BBC I think there is now little evidence of a 50-50 ‘balance’, as attested by the numerous climate skeptics complainants. Indeed, in a recent response to a FOI request on this issue (, the BBC made the following statement:

    ‘The BBC News approach to this issue has been very well set out in this entry on the BBC News website by environment correspondent, Richard Black, and environment analyst Roger Harrabin: BBC News currently takes the view that our reporting needs to be calibrated to take into account the scientific consensus that global warming is man-made. The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines state that “we must ensure we avoid bias or an imbalance of views on controversial subjects” and, given the weight of scientific opinion, the challenge for us is to strike the right balance between mainstream science and sceptics, since to give them equal weight would imply that the argument is evenly balanced. The BBC Governors and BBC Management jointly commissioned a report, “From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel – Safeguarding Impartiality in the 21st Century”, published in June 2007, which noted that:

    “There may be now a broad scientific consensus that climate change is definitely happening and that it is at least predominantly man-made… the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus”.

    BBC News policy is that while we do need to reflect the views of sceptics, we also need to put our reporting in the context of the mainstream scientific consensus; Roger Black and Roger Hermiston’s website article explained: “We are still living with criticism over our coverage of MMR when we gave the impression that each side was underpinned by approximately equal weight. We must get it right on climate”.

    In summary, BBC News takes the view that when the vast majority of scientists, who are expert in this field, believe there is evidence of climate change, and the associated research suggests that this is mainly caused by man’s activities, it would be unbalanced always to refer to the opponents of their view and could be detrimental to exploring the range of views among mainstream scientists, for example, and the range of solutions. This is in keeping with the Editorial Guideline on impartiality which states that “we seek to provide a properly balanced service consisting of a wide range of subject matter and views broadcast over an appropriate time scale across all our output.” That said, it is also right that we reflect the views of sceptics, and we should apply the same rigour in testing views about climate change as we do in any other area of journalism. ‘

    The point is – again vividly shown by the rage of skeptics – is that we climate scientists should be encouraged that the UK media is not ambivalent or antagonistic to the mainstream climate science viewpoint but that it does have a legitimate right to consider other sides of the story. It seems to me that our collective responsibility is to ensure that the views of the climate/sea-level science community, which are broadly consensual on the key issues of anthroponegic climate change, is clearly presented and communicated to the broadcast media.

    Whew, longer than expected – sorry.


  7. January 19, 2010

    Climate Progress makes a useful contribution to this topic today:

  8. Tom Wells permalink
    January 21, 2010

    People might be interested to read Science and the Media: Securing the Future – written by a group chaired by Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre, and commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

    Read and discuss the report here:

  9. February 4, 2010

    I attended two lectures on climate change in the last few days, both delivered to a non-scientific audience. Lord Anthony Giddens spoke at the ‘After Copenhagen’ Conference organised by Lincolnshire County Council and Prof. David Drewry gave a talk to the Louth Antiquarian, Naturalist and Literary Society.

    Giddens, a professor of sociology rather than a climate scientist, recently returned from being part of the government’s negotiating team at COP15, spoke persuasively on the urgent need for mitigation and adaptation. His audience were mostly representatives of local government and business and, whilst mostly professional people, must have included many with little knowledge of Earth systems science. He described three groups: the denialists, for whom he held short shrift; the majority of scientists represented by the IPCC with their cautious, conservative position; and the radicals, such as James Hansen, who are warning that change could come much more quickly that generally assumed. Giddens seemed inclined towards this latter position and warned his audience of planners and policy makers from local government and the Environment Agency to take heed of theses possibilities.

    We learned, during a later Q&A session, that the engineers planning local sea defences were using a sea level rise figure of 1.2 metres as the upper bound of their end of century projections. This is significantly higher than the figures in AR4 so it seems some people actually working in the field have already embraced the radical position.

    David Drewry’s talk was rather different. Drewery, once the Director of the British Antarctic Survey, though more recently a vice-chancellor, certainly has an earth systems science background and himself contributed to the IPCC. His audience were mostly retired people, few of whom would have had relevant scientific experience, but came together for a weekly lecture on a wide range of subjects of general interest.

    Drewry set out to show, with evidence from the poles, that AGW was real. But frightening the horses was not on his agenda. He sought to reassure his audience that change was slow and gradual, that future generations would have to adapt and that it would be sensible to mitigate where we could. He too discussed sea level rise, a pertinent issue for low-lying Lincolnshire, but showed only the graphs published in AR4 of the linear projections of past trends. He made no mention of dynamic glacier behaviour and non-linear responses. When questioned on this point in the Q&A he played the issue down. He was not going to step into the Giddens radical camp, but stuck resolutely to conservative IPCC line.

    I was left feeling more aligned to the sociologist and the engineers that with the climate scientist.

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