This 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:
- Dr. Judith Curry
- Dr. Kevin Trenberth
- Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon
- Dr. David Shultz
- Dr. Gavin Schmidt
- Dr. Kim Cobb
- Dr. Marshall Shepherd
- Dr. Edward Maibach
- Prof. Scott Mandia
- Dr. John Abraham
- Dr. Katharine Hayhoe
- Dr. Michael Mann
– Kirk Englehardt
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was originally published as a guest blog post on scilogs.com September 3, 2014.
1. Tell me about your research focus/area of expertise in 140 characters or less.
Global energy and water cycles for the entire climate system and their variability, and how they change with climate change.
2. How do you view your role in communicating science?
I am proactive, and respond to many queries every week, trying to educate writers, media people, and the public. Over many years I have built up contacts in the media who come directly to me. In addition, I am a member of a Google group concerned about climate that has a very mixed membership, including some from the media, which helps. And there are also various options through the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), my work. Occasionally they put out a press release of new work: they used to do this a lot more often. Bob Henson, the NCAR staff writer, also features my work from time to time. It then goes on an NCAR/UCAR release (mass emailing) and is posted on the UCAR website. I do not tweet or have facebook, although members of the Google group do. I do keep my web pages up to date with published articles.
3. In your view, how has your role in communicating science changed in the past 10 years?
Newspapers have declined, specialists in reporting have vanished, and it has become much more difficult. My own role changed radically with “climate-gate” and because of that, I decided to get into the fray more. I received hundreds of very abusive and foul language emails in response to one of my emails that went viral. Most climate scientists who publish a visible and important paper get some abusive emails these days, and it turns off many of my colleagues who retreat into the ivory tower. My own obligation to go public more comes from the climate-gate experience, and because I have the breadth to be able to answer all questions in some way, or refer the query to others. Experience counts.
4. Do you think it’s important for scientists and other researchers to be directly involved in outreach activities? If so, why?
Yes, but most don’t for reasons above. It is not easy for a novice to do this well. Quite a few do try but do not have good experiences as they have not taken courses or they don’t have a mentor to help. It is helpful to learn some basic techniques and reframe questions to consist of parts where you can say something useful and explain why you can’t say something useful in other areas. Many journalists ask the wrong questions, but most are happy as long as you give them something. Knowing what you know and can say in the right way takes some experience. It is also a question of rewards and whether young scientists get credit for outreach. Many organizations, like NCAR, say they promote outreach, but in fact, I get little or nothing for most of what I do. I do not feel I get credit, any bonus in salary, or reward or recognition for what I do. I mostly have to rely on self-satisfaction. [Editor’s Text Modification Note, 3 pm CT, Wed.: At UCAR there is an annual award for outreach, which Trenberth says he has never received.] Having more positive feedback from employers and those who benefit would help a lot. But if you have something to say that is relevant to society, then there can be satisfaction in communicating. Expecting rewards, however, is apt to lead one astray.
The experience can be positive also in terms of developing leadership potential and in figuring out how to deal with other scientists. Often other scientists do not give you kudos for you being quoted in the media, and it is easy to get misquoted and create a negative impression. But the experience does count for something and can help in one’s effectiveness in committees.
5. Do you use social media for science outreach? If so, how – and why?
Not really: mainly via others. I don’t believe I have the time or that it is an effective use of my time. I am not the sort of person who gossips or tells stories well. By nature I am introverted. I am happy to explain what I think we know, but I am much less comfortable in personalizing it. I am probably boring.
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?
It has influenced what I spend time on and a lot of my time might be considered wasted as I respond to queries. It means I am not doing other things – or I am working longer hours. My funding has been adversely affected. However, I have developed a few fans. I like to think I do things with integrity and when I do express personal value judgments I try to make it clear that these are my opinions. Also, I do not suffer fools well, and I am apt to speak up where many others sit on their hands. So I do call people [out] on flawed science. I have been able to explain my positions reasonably well, although sometimes it has taken years, and now some things are associated with my name, such as the “missing energy” – which relates to at least 2 things, 1) the mismatch between an inventory of where heat is going vs. the space-based measurements of the energy imbalance, and 2) the recent hiatus in global warming (defined as the rise in surface temperatures).
I have been doing this now for many years, much longer than most. This probably also stems from my unique background. I started off as a weather forecaster, offering views on what the weather would be in the next few days (when I was in New Zealand). Hence it was natural to me to assess the climate system and offer views on how that was developing and explanations for what has recently happened. This began with the El Niño phenomenon, and expanded to all interannual variability of climate, and then to climate change. I do not know any other climate scientists who were once weather forecasters.
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?
Yes, several times. I have published rebuttals in refereed literature, and this has had some effect, but the latency is too great to have a major effect: it takes too long. I have written some rebuttals for RealClimate, which are more timely, and some blogs. But I do not have my own blog and so it is more as an opportunity arises. I have also spoken up in meetings openly criticizing some others, and I have been crucified in denier web pages, tweets, and blogs by these others as a result. I try to ignore these but I am pretty sure they have hurt me in various ways, such as through funding. The best examples are those vs. Roger Pielke Jr.
8. What do you consider to be the most effective and ineffective ways to disagree about scientific topics?
I have principles and do not criticize behind people’s back: I do it in a public forum or in an open publication. But this is not how most deniers of climate change operate. Perhaps I am not effective? But the challenge is to reach others, not one’s own cronies.
9. Public trust in science is critical. What role do you believe both consensus and disagreement play in building or eroding that trust?
Consensus can help, such as via the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but it is the lowest common factor and is watered down and weak. It is not state of the art. Lack of agreement confuses the public and science writers, though. There is a lot of substandard work that can be misleading. I think disagreements are important, but they have to be very carefully done with a solid rationale and evidence, not just opinion.
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?
There are certainly groups who never read the other side’s case. There are many who have opinions locked in and no amount of evidence will sway them. So those are not the ones I try to reach: rather it is the uninformed masses that matter. Some of this occurs through stories written for various media by reporters or bloggers – in newspapers, magazines, online reports etc. However, it is also through public lectures, especially those that include a healthy Q&A afterward. It often provides an opportunity to correct misinformation.
I also like to talk about not just the science but also what to do about it and different worldviews. It is helpful to acknowledge different worldviews and value systems and discuss them out loud. Mostly that kind of thing is hidden and not openly exposed. Recognizing vested interests, the inequities among nations, how much one values the future generations, the precautionary principle, sustainability issues, and issues related to doing nothing, vs. mitigating climate change (stopping or slowing the problem) vs. adapting to it (or living with the consequences). I may bring in the “tragedy of the commons”. These have been part of my approach for many years. Part of the goal is to get people to think about why they feel about the issues the way they do. Many have a gut feeling but have not thought about it rationally. Explaining why one has the values one does is then part of the challenge.
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?
Progress is very slow. Most of the time you are speaking to the converted, and it is hard to reach the rest. The most successful outreach has been from lectures to audiences who were there for other reasons, and who were forced to become enlightened by facts. But they would not have attended a voluntary meeting/lecture. It can be time-consuming and it is hard. Questions come from far and wide and one needs to build experience and become very broad in order to be able to answer them. Most scientists are too narrow and do not have the background and expertise to be able to face a general audience. So one approach is to proceed in a controlled and friendly environment and build skills. Practice makes perfect.
12. What do you think the future looks like for science communication/outreach as a vehicle for enhancing public trust in science? What should the path forward look like?
You can bring a horse to water but you can’t make him drink! We have to keep trying but the misinformation campaigns are often very well funded, much more so than any public education efforts. It sure helps if the President is engaged, as he has been more recently. The vested interests, especially in Congress, are major concerns and the dreadfully corrupting influences of money and lobbying in the US are major problems, not helped by the Supreme Court decision related to this issue. I fear that things have gone a long way in the wrong direction as a result.
- Dr. Trenberth’s personal web page http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/
- Dr. Trenberth has done outreach to other scientists via the World Climate Research Programme