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As scientists we are trained to speak in uncertain terms, to couch evidence in probabilities, and to be accurate about our inaccuracies.  The consequence: an insider language.

To be fair, we are not trying to sound overly intellectual (at least not always). Rather, we are not taught nor rewarded for other communication types. In addition, I don’t know if we realize the extent of disconnect between scientific knowledge and the non-science, “ordinary” American. I didn’t. But if there were ever a time for us to realize this and to do something about it, it’s now.

Need to be convinced? How about these startling poll numbers?

  • About 33% of Americans think humans have existed in their current form since the beginning of time. Yet only 2% of scientists believe the same.  In addition, there is no credible science challenging the theory of evolution, so how can 1/3 of Americans still question it?
  • Only about 50% of Americans think people are behind climate change, but there is little to no scientific doubt on this subject.
  • And maybe the worst: There are still 11% of Americans who think there is no global warming at all.

These disconcerting numbers and more is revealed in a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, which was also discussed in The New York Times article: “Survey Shows Gap between Scientists and the Public.

And it all leads to one conclusion: If we as scientists do not get better at communicating to the general public, there could be serious consequences for conservation and the environment.

Since starting my job at The Nature Conservancy about a year ago, the number of times I have been told that we “don’t know how to tell our story” would be comical if it weren’t so true. Granted, the problem is not limited to scientists, but we certainly do not provide the most compelling fodder for others to work with. By not telling our story well, we will fail to attract new donors.

But perhaps even more insidiously, we are failing to change people’s behavior and attitudes and will continue to. Seriously, if 50% of the people in this country — a country that by every measure is extremely well-educated and one that is a huge contributor to global climate change — think people are not causing global warming, we are in trouble.

It’s time to be concise, clear and provocative with our science. We can no longer talk only to each other or a select few others. We must do better.  We need to be simple, clear, and dramatic — accurate, but dramatic.

(Image: “Cobweb theorem.” Credit: SmileAngel112 under a GNU Free Documentation License.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.

Comments

  1. Science today is overly influenced by politics. Computer models predicting global warming is no different than a psychic. It has been getting cooler over the last 7 years and what happened to all the scientist predicting global cooling back in the 70′s with the same alarmist warnings? The argument over CO2 causes global warming has no evidence and even if it did cause warming anthropogenic contribution is only 3%. Global warming is a politically motivated religion serving their own agenda, certainly not the planet nor humanity. CO2 is life, not death.

  2. I wonder if the scientists don’t take pride in their cerebral “insider language.” There are other groups of people who also have their insider language. Jazz players, for example. And they see themselves as “enlightened” and superior to other musicians. I don’t think this is a new thing.

  3. Computer models = psychic predictions?
    Earth getting cooler over the last 7 years?
    Human caused global warming is not backed by any evidence?
    Human influence in global warming is only 5%?

    It may be true that the global warming phenomena could and may be used as a political tool to accomplish immoral ends, but that doesn’t mean you can make claims without backing them up. Citations please.

  4. When I think of some of the environmental educators I’ve been exposed to in my life time – David Sukuki, Al Gore, Discovery.ca to name a few – the message has been crystal clear, for decades. Our leaders have compromised interests, our population is distracted by the temptation to consume at alarming rates and people fighting for change are being shot down. When someone counters this – we all need to ask them to prove it!! ‘Prove to me that we are not in a global environmental crisis.’

  5. If readers think that computer models are no different than psychic readers, we are in serious trouble indeed. The science that provides evidence of human-caused climate change is solid, and based on real observations, real correlations, real shifts in ecosystems. The computer models are used for prediction of future trends, are determined by math and environmental data rather than palm reading, and in most cases the predictions underestimate rather than overestimate the speed at which the climate is changing. Rick, the temperature in your local area may have cooled over the last 7 years, but a common misunderstanding about climate change is that it happens everywhere all the time. Global warming is an overall AVERAGE warming of the planet, despite LOCAL cooling trends here and there. Look at the average temperature of the globe, including ocean temperatures, over the last 100 years and you will see that it is going up and up and up.

  6. We don’t speak an “insider language” because it fills us up with self-righteous pride; we use this type of communication because it’s our job.

    The scientific process often involves very technical language because the subject matter itself is extremely complex. Our job is to take these complex subjects and make observations, perform experiments, and analyze the resulting data in a meaningful way. It is not our job to explain the conclusions or implications to the average person. That’s the job of science journalists — the real culprits here.

  7. Although not a scientist, I am certainly a believer in science. Common sense dictates that this world is headed for more manmade calamities and catastrophies than we will be able to deal with, most simply because we are killing our beautiful planet by extracting its very blood supply (aka OIL). Of course it is for the sake of the purest form of greed in history: the quest for power and wealth. The very nature of gravity will bring down our world’s life sustaining topsoil and pull it(our outer layer) down into a hell that our extremely wealthy industrialized oil mongers are creating for us all day by day. Although it, in fact, appears a gamely competition to “Big Oil”, it is actually like replacing a dense and solid piece of wood (oil) that can support anything with a piece of styrafoam (water) that will surely collapse under pressure. I would not even be surprised if this very fact is the root cause of the so called global warming issue we all hear so much about whenever the news is broadcasted. Our World is most likely on the very brink of collapse before our very eyes. What will be, will be. This is even predicted in a very non-scientific book aka the Holy Bible.

  8. ‘Prove to me that we are not in a global environmental crisis.’ – CA

    This is an example of the rationale that actually diminishes the credibility of science inquiry. Proving that something doesn’t exist is not within the power of scientific inquiry. Too many people are using the umbrella of science to explain their emotions and gut feelings.

  9. I am a physicist, and a supporter of the Nature conservancy, but I see global warming as incomplete science and fear mongering. One of the biggest clues of fear mongering is that all the consequences of warming are bad. Nobody talks of any possible good effects. The advocates of global warming say that all the scientists agree therefore it must be happening. A consensus of agreement does not mean a scientific fact. Al Gore is NOT a scientist. His opinion is not to be respected. In the same way, just because everyone believed the world was flat didn’t make it so. In addition, many prominent scientists do not agree with the global warming predictions. Please read “The Deniers” by Lawrence Solomon.
    The nature conservancy should divorce itself from this tactic of fear . When global warming does not appear the environmental community and science itself will lose trust with the public.

  10. Rebecca, consider doctors. Their language is one of precision, their intention is to be precise. They do this with the best of intentions, and in the heat of surgery, being precise and efficient is absolutely necessary.

    But, when trying to communicate with their patients they must bring it to a 3rd grade level for rapid understanding. Not easy to do, but definitely required. But, if the patient doesn’t respond in the desired manner, is that the fault solely of the doctor?

    Consider that it is widely accepted (notice I didn’t say “known”) that being overweight is not great. Or, that smoking is not particularly healthy. Yet, look at behavior. There’s a rubber band stretching between science and acceptance of the science. And, another between acceptance of the science and behavior. Reaction is not immediate. You have to pull on the rubber band a lot to get something moving.

    Scientists need to be precise. We need visionaries to take us to the moon.

  11. Yes! to speaking without jargon for scientists. AND they need to design their experiments so they actually show something we don’t already know! For example, that trees make an environment better. This is a given for nature’s sake!

    Doris Jeanette

  12. Just wanted to say “amen” to the topic of this post. The inability of scientists (and science journalists) to communicate to the general public is frightening and dangerous.

    But I must respond to the comments as well: I agree that science journalists need to do a better job of getting this information out there. But I think it is irresponsible to push off the blame onto them. If you (as a scientist) truly believed what you were doing was important for the public to know, you would (should) find a way to get that information to the people.

    As far as fearmongering goes, it is true that in the general media, only negative consequences are being mentioned. This is what makes “news.” There are certainly native species that will benefit from warmer weather, though it seems that invasives will benefit more. The primary concern is that, either way, things will change — and considering how much and how quickly we’ve altered the landscape, we don’t know how well nature will be able to keep up. In the end, nature will be fine; it may take a while to recover, but it will. However, it may be a very different place from what we know now, and we don’t know whether it will be hospitable for us. That is what people are worried about.

    Al Gore is NOT a scientist, but that does not mean that he doesn’t deserve respect. You know what? He’s doing more than most people to get the science out there. And he knows that, unfortunately, humans are not rational animals, and fear is what brings change. Complacency in a changing world can be just as dangerous as fear.

    I have not read The Deniers, though I will look into it. From what I’ve read about it, though, it doesn’t seem to be disproving global warming; it is only stating that, as you said, some scientists do not agree with the specifics of the predictions. However, the scientists themselves have said that they do not like being called “deniers,” as they are not arguing that change isn’t happening. They just have different ideas about how it *might* happen.

  13. I am an engineer, and have taken trouble to read a lot of background material. When “man-made” global cooling gave way to “man-made” global warming, and finally even the warming trend became temporary, those seeking to use scare tactics to regulate the masses switched to “climate change”. Of course it changes! Climate has been changing since the beginning of time. For as long as researchers have been able to look back, via tree rings, ice cores, fossil records, etc., there is evidence of climate cycles, mostly of a natural origin. There is also evidence that CO2 levels change roughly in tandem with global temperatures. Now for the difficult bit: All though prehistory, CO2 has been a LAGGING indicator of global temperature – in other words, increasing plant and animal activity during warm periods CAUSES the observed increase in CO2!
    Everything points to human activity as being the least important factor in global temperatures, and other natural cycles, such as solar activity as being the major factor. Furthermore, evidence points to the water vapor cycle as being the great moderator of global temperatures (negative feedback), with a much greater leverage than CO2.
    The commentator is right that scientists need to communicate clearly, but they need to clearly communicate real facts backed up by evidence and provable hypotheses, not computer models which show what the author wants them to show.
    Real scientists vigorously debate the facts until the theories can explain the facts and predict ACCURATELY what will happen. Real scientists do not simply accept a vote by the majority, or even a loud minority, as a “consensus”.
    So, Nature Conservancy, if you want to purchase and negotiate to preserve great places, you have my support, but if you want to support unproven theories which the ruling class is using to obtain totalitarian levels of control over us, you will not receive my support ever again.
    Support real scientific research, do not just jump on bandwagons.

    And just so that the environmentalists don’t get me wrong, I am all for reductions of actual noxious emissions: SO2, NOx, Hg, heavy metals… I am simply against wrecking our economy and curtailing our freedoms chasing a ghost (or tilting at windmills).

  14. Scientist in this area could certainly improve communication, however using the rationale that “…..but there is little to no scientific doubt on this subject.” is not the best endorsement for getting people to believe a “fact”. The scientific community has been wrong on other facts in the past and people have a long memory:
    - smoking is not bad….smoking is bad
    - blacks are inferior to whites
    - coffee is bad for you, good for you,
    - sun bathing went from good to bad
    - leeches, bleeding, etc
    bad for you, good for you

    The key for most people is making the facts relevant to people who don’t believe or accept. How does believing that people are behind climate change impact the poor couple making minimum wage and struggling to pay the rent every week? Their horizon is not 100 years, 10 years or 1 year. At best believing human created climate change just increases their guilt for making the decisions that society forces on them to just live every day.
    Key for the community is to articulate in a way that the mass of common people care, that benefits them, and hopefully they can take action to address.
    Selling scientific advances to the public does not have to be dense and complicated…..computer devices, cell phones, GPS, are extremely complicated, but the benefit to consumers are simple and well understood.

  15. Two things:

    1. Part of the reason that laypeople don’t give credence when the term theory is used is due scientists using the word “theory” regardless of whether the appropriate term is “theory” or “hypothesis”; that is, too many times the term “theory” is used when what is be spoken about is actually “hypothesis” (speculation; informed speculation, but, nevertheless speculation).

    2. Rick, global cooling does not negate the reasonable conclusion that there is global warming. If it weren’t for the fact that the amount of global warming outweighed the amount of global cooling, the earth would be heading in the direction of cooling. As it is, the planet would be warming at an even faster rate if it weren’t being slowed by cooling.

  16. This should seriously be considered. The detail and way that the science of things is included in discussion is almost like a double-edged sword. Well, it’s kind of like a double-edged sword. If you try to share the science ‘simplified’ you’re accused of being superficial. There’ll be people who dismiss what you have to say because there’s no ‘meat’ so to speak. Yet, if you attempt to include some of the data and information what you may have been attempting to accomplish with the information is lost as people’s eyes glaze over. I know from my own personal experience that most people only want the facts and just the facts. This is especially true in public meeting situations where the amount of time a person has to try and present and share anything with scientific bearing should be made known. We have to carefully structure scientific information/data into a more concise form for general presentation and then be prepared to go into detail should someone want more. It’s the knowing when and to what degree to do this that is the challenge. Sometimes, with our ‘instant-gratification’ driven society today the true science gets ignored altogether.

  17. I have confidence that although we scientists do indeed communicate using esoteric jargon, we are aware of who our intended audience is, and choose our words accordingly. My guess is that the 50% or so who don’t believe choose not to believe and will reach to find justification for not believing.

    Once one has accepted that climate change is real, conscience demands that a less consumptive, less wasteful life style is in order. For many, that prospect is scary. Refusing to believe is much less painful.

  18. not a scientist. not even close. just a simple nobody.
    my opinion (not fact) on all this: the earth has warmed and the human species has thrived as a direct result. our growth as a species on this planet is the direct result of a temperature range that supports our existence. at some point the temperature range will get either too hot or too cold and this will significantly reduce or even eliminate human existence on earth.
    none of this changes my awe in the earth’s beauty. The earth will exist in harmony with either the too hot or too cold scenario, long after humans have been affected.
    i applaud the nature conservancy and all those who treat the earth with respect. But the earth’s ultimate destiny, like ours, is to live and die. one day she too will die from within when the fires at her core stop. Similar to the way our own human hearts one day give out.
    scientists – continue to study and present your facts. they are fascinating and teach us all great things, but stay real in understanding the difference between projections and facts. projections are estimations and facts have happened.

  19. Yes! Clear and concise! The 11% who don’t accept facts are loud and concise. All researchers should say loud and clear what their work has shown. It’s their responsibility and the purpose of inquiry.

  20. “As scientists we are trained to speak in uncertain terms, to couch evidence in probabilities, and to be accurate about our inaccuracies. The consequence: an insider language.”

    Yes and no. No: I think the world needs to speak more in “uncertain” terms, more in probabilities and less in “definitives”. I’ve read far far far too many comments to news items and am sickened to death by the “red”/”blue” divide that is overtaking commentators in the online world (and on TV), more interested in labelling/demonizing their opponents than engaging in actual discussions.

    Yes: scientists (and I am by profession a scientist myself although in a different field) need to speak laymen’s terms in order to get our points across. We have to entrain readers and listeners to understand ambiguities because that is the only way honest discussions will be able to happen, ultimately. Get away from acronyms where possible, and explain simply, with words as close to everyday as possible. This can engage conversation and discussion, and can provide the exchange of knowledge without making scientists seem like inhabitants of some rarified world others may not wish to inhabit.
    Probabilities and ambiguities are a necessary aspect of the world I live in. Whether from a scientific, political, economic, or personal/social viewpoint. Encouraging this way of thinking is essential, I’m afraid.

    (correction to original post… Message box is hard to view due to small size. Apologies.)

  21. 1) If we as scientists do not get better at communicating to the general public, there could be serious consequences for conservation and the environment.

    * Most research is published as research papers and as articles in specific classificationed journals and in books. The most confirmed research is then published in the educational curriculum books for college level all the way to elementary level. As for the interpretations of all scientific findings, from the technical lingo to the basic level of understanding for the average American that is uneducated in the research areas: Therefore, the college professors and grade school teachers, obviously, do their jobs to translate for the students. There are college students, and graduates, who could work as interpreter interns, to translate, as they do in their studies. There are also age appropriate (and understanding level appropriate) published literature, on many websites, that translate the technical information into easily understood language for school children, such as the EPA.com and Astronomy.com, for starters. There are also dictionaries, even specified field dictionaries, that list the field of research lexicons.

    * As for the comments posted… to some of you, thank you for your clearly educated responses… and to others, are you really freakin serious??? 1st For anyone to compare the computer generated models of possibilities to spiritual or occultic fortunetelling, you obviously have no idea about the technology behind, nor the immense data required, for the computer programs to compute the data. 2nd For any person to have the ability to learn to communicate on a higher plane or level, props to them, as long as they are not conceited in their abilities. 3rd It is true that a consensus of agreement does not mean a scientific fact. What does prove that global warming is actually occurring are the glacier melting rates and the shrinking and disappearances of ecosystems for the wildlife, such as the polar bears. Also, the topography maps comparing the sea levels and land becoming submerged by the oceans, even by ten years ago. Simply, the studies on the glacier changes and melting rates, alone, proves global warming to be a fact. 4th What is frightening and dangerous is the inability of the general public to understand basic concepts that the scientists are trying to convey through their research. There are lexicons and dictionaries for people that are truly interested in the subject matter. And this brings me to the unbelievable 5th…The computer models which “show what the author wants them to show” are actually showing the data from the research and experiments, that are added into to computer, to show the intensely hard to comprehend data by way of spacial presentation, aka they are interpreting their lingo into easily understood graghs and charts, for the visual understanding, so you can understand their research findings! The whole freakin point of the article in the first place! If you don’t want to see the visual models and charts and graphs, of their research findings, don’t look at the presentation, which just happens to be making it easier for the general public to understand. Oh, and real scientists don’t debate to prove theories. They research their subject matter and perform experiments, as in tests.

    I applaud those who work towards the embetterment of the earth and ecosystems, for the future generations natural necessities and environments need to be conscientiously protected by the present generation.

  22. 2) As for Al Gore, whether you like or dislike the man or his political views, he is taking a stand as an advocate for preservation of the earth and it’s ecosystems, as well as being an advocate for the future generations. How could anyone possibly put him down for being compassionate about the natural environment and it preservation for our children? He should be spoken well of for these vital initiatives that he has taken, for trying to improve the general public’s understanding and for seeking support on these issues.

  23. Immensely dissapointed with this article and the psychological process by which you assess credibility.
    Fossil Records and Irriducable Complexity both disprove the theory of evolution. You can look into those yourself I don’t need to cite anything for you, your a scientist and you are capable of research if your so startled by my claims.

    Global warming is happening and their is many facts to prove it. But the rate at which it is happening and on what scale doesn’t mean that human carbon footprints are affecting the outcome.

    Al Gore is politically motivated individual that is not concerned whatsoever for our planet but rather envisions himself at the center of a centralized carbon watchdog program that will try to control how we use energy. The people who should be worried about climate change are the people who live further from the equator. If your so worried then move.

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