Climate Change Communication: Taking the Temperature (Part 3) – Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon


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: This interview was originally published as a guest blog post on September 10, 2014.

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

Applied climatology, air pollution meteorology, weather forecasting, atmospheric dynamics…or anything else that’s interesting and useful.

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

As a State Climatologist, I have a specific mission: to help my state make the best possible use of weather and climate information. There are already plenty of people generating weather and climate information, so a lot of my job is to translate the information into a form that someone out there can use. The communication is two-way: I have to work with the users to find out why they want the information because often it’s information they don’t know about that would be the most useful to them.

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

Ten years ago, I was running a web site, giving a few talks a year, and fulfilling data requests. Now I’m on my third blog, our Facebook page generates more traffic than our web site, and I log 12,000 highway miles a year giving talks and presentations around the state. Those changes were driven by technology, by the 2010-20xx Texas drought, by climate change, and by experience. By “experience”, I mean that fifteen years ago I wasn’t a climatologist at all, and as I’ve learned more and more about the field, I’ve found that I have more and more to say about it.


http___website-com4. Do you think it’s important for scientists and other researchers to be directly involved in outreach activities? If so, why?  

It’s important for some scientists to be directly involved in outreach activities. Not every scientist is or would be good at outreach. The typical first outreach experience goes like this: scientist explains a bit of science to the reporter, the reporter writes it up and gets it wrong, and as a result, the public ends with a less accurate understanding of science than before. The scientist has used his or her own time, and neither the scientist nor the public has benefited. But then, that’s why we need many scientists making things understandable to reporters, so that the public can get the right understanding.

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

We have a fledgling Facebook account, but I don’t tweet.  I’m afraid that finding, sharing, and generating content through twitter would require too much attention and would detract from my other duties. We’re still exploring the best use of our Facebook account – I think it will end up being a haven for news about interesting weather events or weather trivia.

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?

Outreach presently takes up 30% of my time while research takes up 15% of my time. Those numbers change from month to month, but it’s safe to say that I could be doing at least twice as much research if I wasn’t doing outreach. Any way you look at it, that’s a major impact. I’m not aware of any impact of outreach on my ability to obtain research funding.

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? 

Most of my blogging addresses scientific misinformation or misconceptions. I don’t care what your position is on global warming, most of what you know about the science of climate change is wrong. Which, of course, means that there’s a lot to write about. I don’t do much commenting on other people’s blogs. It takes way too much time to police the blogs that specialize in misinformation. I’d rather fix information that’s mostly correct already.


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

Whoa, there’s a loaded question! What is the desired outcome of a disagreement? Is it to demonstrate to the audience that you disagree, to attempt to persuade the author or audience that you are correct, or to start a productive dialogue? Whatever the purpose, the best approach is to outline the points of agreement before touching on the points of disagreement. This avoids a common misinterpretation: that you’re saying “YOU ARE WRONG” rather than “This step or bit of information is wrong.”  It’s remarkably hard to keep the discussion focused on the original area of disagreement so it’s best to try to bound the issue at the outset. Such a dialogue is much more successful with scientists than with non-scientists. The opinions of non-scientists tend to be based more on impressions or thought-leaders than by weight of evidence, so their counterarguments tend to take the form of additional information that is only loosely related to the matter at hand.

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

I feel so strongly about the importance of public awareness of the nature of scientific consensus and disagreement that I’ve helped found a blog to expose it: The blog presently has about twenty scientific contributors, and there is a comment section for contributors that’s separate from the comment section for the rest of the public. This makes it possible for the public to watch scientists agreeing and disagreeing with each other’s opinions. It’s really the antithesis of the “messaging” that is the focus of most blogs on matters of public interest. I think the public has no clue about what the scientific issues and arguments related to climate change are actually about. They certainly don’t get a clear picture from the media, which tends to only highlight the latest and most surprising research results, that is, the research results that are most likely to be wrong! I hope our web site can provide a representative sampling of current scientific opinion, something that the public otherwise has a very hard time accessing. I should add that I regard public understanding of the processes of science — experiment, debate, evaluation – to be much more important than public understanding of scientific knowledge. The public has some hope of being able to correctly identify and utilize reliable sources of scientific knowledge, but they have no hope of being able to identify any but the most obvious flaws in incorrect scientific arguments.

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? 

They serve a rhetorical purpose, but neither scientists nor public individuals tend to see themselves as being adequately defined by a particular group label.

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? 

So many lessons, so little time… I think the most important might be to know your audience, and recognize that each person lives in a different world, each with a different set of facts. Anything you tell them has to make sense in the context of everything else they think they know. Second would be to remember to be human – you want people to get a sense of you as someone who shares their humanity, not someone living off in another plane of existence. You can sum both of those up in one word: accessibility. You have to be accessible, and what you say has to be accessible.

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?

I’m a meteorologist. What makes you think I can predict the future?

Additional Resources:

Full Bio for John Nielsen-Gammon

Office of the Texas State Climatologist Website

Office of the Texas State Climatologist Facebook Page

Climate Abyss Blog

Climate Change National Forum

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