Climate Change Communication: Taking the Temperature (Part 1) – Dr. Judith Curry


climate-series-headerThis 12-part series includes interviews with prominent climate scientists from a variety of universities and government agencies. This series provides a closer look at how these well-known scientists are communicating, the risks they are taking by publicly engaging in the climate discussion, and how their outreach activities have affected them personally and professionally.

I hope you enjoy reading this series as much as enjoyed putting it together.

This series includes interviews with:

– Kirk Englehardt


EDITOR’S NOTE: On January 1, 2017, Dr. Curry resigned her tenured faculty position at Georgia Tech. She explains her decision in her Climate, Etc. blog. This interview was originally published as a guest blog post on August 24, 2014.

1. Tell me about your research focus/area of expertise in 140 characters or less.

My research expertise is in the atmospheric and climate sciences, including the science-policy interface.

2. How do you view your role in communicating science? 

Climate science has become hotly politicized, with many scientists playing an advocacy role. I regard my role as to speak up for the integrity of climate research, including reminding [others] that climate change is a very complex, wicked problem associated with deep uncertainties. My blog Climate Etc. provides a fair and open space for debate on the science, the impacts, proposed solutions and the politics.

3. In your view, how has your role in communicating science changed in the past 10 years? 

I first became active in communicating science in 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, when I coauthored a paper on hurricanes and climate change that was published in Science two weeks after Katrina made landfall.

While global warming was mentioned only obliquely in the paper, the press focused on the global warming angle and a media furor followed. Our 15 minutes stretched into days, weeks and months. Academic guerrilla warfare broke out between our team and scientists that were skeptical of our research, all of which played out in the glare of the mainstream media. I took a step back and tried to understand all this craziness and learn from it. I even wrote a journal article on this, “Mixing Politics and Science in Testing the Hypothesis that Greenhouse Warming is Causing a Global Increase in Hurricane Intensity.” Following the publication of this article, I spent a fair amount of time commenting on blogs that were discussing this paper and landed on some skeptical blogs where I became a fairly regular commenter.

When the Climategate emails struck on November 19, 2009, I was interacting closely with the skeptical blogosphere where the story was breaking. I tried to calm the waters and posted 3 essays in the blogosphere (1)(2)(3)

My engagement in the blogosphere stepped up considerably following Climategate. In August 2010, I decided to start my own blog so that I could discuss topics of my choosing, and not merely respond to queries from journalists or questions being posed from the blogosphere. Major themes on my blog include uncertainty in climate science, decision making under deep uncertainty, and the sociology of climate science.

4. Do you think it’s important for scientists and other researchers to be directly involved in outreach activities? If so, why?

I personally think that academics need to grow their impact outside of a small community of scholars in the ivory tower. There is growing concern about the fundamental value proposition of the large amount of public funding invested in research universities. Too often, scientists focus only on their peer academics and ignore the potential public interest in their research – e.g. from industry, policy makers, students and life-long learners. Outreach activities from academic researchers are important to support economic competitiveness, public health and safety, and sound decision-making. Unfortunately, academic researchers aren’t rewarded from their universities for outreach activities, and there has been little support from universities in guiding faculty members to be effective in outreach.

5. Do you use social media for science outreach? If so, how – and why?

I began experimenting in 2006 with the blogosphere as a mechanism for engaging with the public. In 2010 I established my own blog Climate Etc. to provide a forum for discussing issues related to the climate change debate. During the past year, I have started using twitter also – at first just to point to my blog posts, but I am working on becoming more effective in my tweeting. At this point, my preferred mode for science outreach is social media – there is potential to reach a much larger and more diverse audience. And I feel more comfortable with the written word rather than with verbal communication.

I’m exploring social media as a tool for engaging with the public, group learning, exploring the science-policy interface, and pondering the many dimensions of the wicked climate problem. I’m trying to contribute to the public debate and support policy deliberations and to educate a broader and larger group of people, and finally, I would like to learn from people outside the group of my academic peers (and social media is a great way to network). I am trying to provoke people to think outside the box of their own comfort zone on the complex subject of climate change.

graphic3-300x300Here’s how I do the calculus for my own intellectual activities. As per google scholar, I have a total of 12,000 citations of my publications (since my first publication in 1983). Climate Etc. gets on average about 12,000 ‘hits’ per day, and 300-400 comments. I can spend my time blogging, discussing topics on which there is significant public interest, or I can write an academic paper, pay $1500 to get it published (hopefully in a high impact journal) so that a few people can read it behind a paywall. Since I am a senior tenured faculty member, I have the luxury of choosing to spend a significant amount of my time on social media outreach and engagement, which is growing my impact as a scholar in ways that I think matter.

6. Have your outreach activities had an impact on your scientific research? Are there any examples of positive or negative impacts you’ve experienced personally?

Commenters on my blog have provided me with countless links to publications that I otherwise would be unaware of. My blog posts have resulted in 5 invited papers related to the philosophy of climate science (a new area of research for me). I have also found two new research collaborators through my blog. Most importantly, my blog stimulates me to think about big picture issues, which is the opposite of the more reductionist mindset with which I had been approaching research problems. Engaging in social media has helped develop my writing/communication skills and abilities to synthesize, integrate, and provide context.

With regards to the ‘negatives’, there are certain global warming ideologues that are influential members of the scientific community that regard me as the antichrist, or at least as a heretic. This makes getting fair reviews of my papers a bit of a challenge (but I have been able to work effectively with editors to counter this). By speaking out and challenging the consensus, I have almost certainly eliminated myself from further professional recognition (e.g. awards) and future administration positions.

7. Have you ever come across scientific misinformation or misconceptions, online or elsewhere, which you addressed directly? How did you do it, and what was the result?

In February 2011, I did a series of 3 posts on the topic of ‘hiding the decline’, one of the infamous phrases from the Climategate emails. (1)(2)(3).

The first post was triggered by a post on another blog, quoting UK Government Chief Science Advisor Sir John Beddington:  It is time the scientific community became proactive in challenging misuse of scientific evidence. This whole issue has been an enormous black eye for the credibility of climate science. My motivation in addressing this issue is that if there is a problem, let’s acknowledge it, get to the bottom of it and fix it.

The three posts elicited almost 50,000 ‘hits’ and over 3000 comments – these are big numbers for my blog, especially circa 2011. Part III summarized constructive suggestions for conflict resolution. The Hockey Stick Controversy still lives in the public debate on climate change, particularly in context of the lawsuit Michael Mann has brought against the National Review Online and Mark Steyn.

8. What do you consider to be the most effective and ineffective ways to disagree about scientific topics?

If you have done a really careful job of assessing uncertainties, you substantially narrow the scope for disagreement. Acknowledge the disagreement, put forward the arguments from both sides, and state why you find one side more convincing.  An ineffective way to disagree is through arguing that there is a consensus on your ‘side’. The most ineffective, and offensive, way to disagree is to call your opponents ‘deniers’, ‘anti-science’, etc.

The more insidious way for a majority group to marginalize dissenting scientific arguments is through the gatekeeping associated with the peer review process. This is a particular concern of mine since professional societies have been writing issue advocacy statements that ‘legitimizes’ the gatekeeping. (1)

9. Public trust in science is critical. What role do you believe both consensus and disagreement play in building or eroding that trust?

Credibility is a combination of expertise and trust. Without trust, scientists lose their privileged position in public debates. First and foremost, scientists need, to be honest, and this means not hiding uncertainties or exaggerating impacts. Attempting to manufacture a consensus by marginalizing anyone who disagrees with you will lead to loss of public trust.

If scientists are careful about assessing uncertainties, then the space for disagreement is vastly reduced. Philosophers and social scientists are beginning to pay attention to these issues. For scientific progress, it is important to challenge the consensus. However, for urgent social problems, some consensus is needed on how to proceed. The challenge is for tension among scientific plurality, dissent, and consensus making to work productively to advance the science and support decision making.

10. Individuals in the scientific community and the public are often labeled and grouped depending on their particular views. What do you consider to be the impact of these groupings?

For a scientific topic that has policy relevance, the science tends to get politicized, which acts to polarize scientists and the public. The most pernicious development in the climate science ‘wars’ is name-calling on both sides – denier, anti-science, fraud. On a complex topic like climate change, there is a broad range of perspectives and attempting to label individuals into two groups diminishes opportunities for actual thinking and collaboration.

11. What lessons have you learned from your outreach activities, and what advice do you have for other researchers who want to do more outreach?

Listen – you need to understand and respect the people you are trying to connect with. Be honest, and don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’

Focus on engagement – the two-way street – rather than unidirectional communication.

If you have become an issue advocate on a topic related to your research expertise, make sure you understand the line between communication and propaganda.The use of ‘science’ to serve propaganda has a negative impact on the public perception of science and its trustworthiness. Scientist/advocates irresponsibly involving themselves in propaganda damage the public trust in science. Don’t sacrifice your professional integrity for the sake of issue advocacy or 5 minutes of fame.

And finally, communication with the public can be contentious, so be prepared to be attacked by people whose preconceived notions and favored policies seem threatened by your communication efforts. Honesty and integrity are strong armor, so don’t be intimidated!

12. What do you think the future looks like for science communication/outreach? What should the path forward look like?

As understanding of the interface between science and society grows, multiple roles for science communication will emerge, providing both challenges and opportunities for individual scientists and the institutions that support them. Until universities start rewarding faculty members for science communications/outreach, faculty members are taking a risk with their career if they become heavily involved in science communications/outreach. Universities that want to encourage science communications/outreach need to provide not only incentives but also guidance.

Connect With Dr. Curry:

Additional Links:

Photo Credit: Gary W. Meek Photography 2012 (Curry Photo)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was originally published as a guest blog post on August 24, 2014.

One thought on “Climate Change Communication: Taking the Temperature (Part 1) – Dr. Judith Curry

  1. Pingback: Climate Change Communication: Taking the Temperature – Series Conclusion › Guest Blog

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