It was a bit of a weekend of climate communication in Edinburgh. Yesterday morning I went along to Dynamic Earth, where the Natural Environment Research Council was hosting an event called UnEarthed. Ed Hawkins was there with a display about their Weather Rescue project.
Yesterday evening I went to go and see Katharine Hayhoe give a talk. It was really very good; informative, entertaining, passionate; everything that you would expect from an excellent science communicator. The focus was the idea that facts aren’t enough, that you need to find innovative ways to engage with people, rather than simply plying them with more and more facts.
The suggestion was that there are a number of steps to effectively engaging with those who might be dismissive of the risks associated with climate change. Try to appreciate other people’s positions and look for shared values, try to find ways to connect, explain what we do, and don’t, know (including that scientists agree), and try to be inspiring.
These all seems like quite reasonable suggestions that are probably more difficult in practice than they are in theory. I would really quite like to be able to better communicate; to be more passionate. However, I think it’s partly not in my nature (this post was probably one of my more passionate ones, and even it doesn’t really qualify), it’s partly been beaten out of me (figuratively, rather than literally), and it’s partly a consequence of scientific reticence. I think scientists sometimes feel that their role is more to inform than to influence, and this does somewhat constrain how they communicate.
We did have a brief discussion at the end of the talk about how science communicators could be more passionate, and how there are some who think that they should remain dispassionate. My own view is that we should be very careful of buying into the Pielke-like attempts to define how scientists should conduct themselves in public. I think scientists are as entitled as anyone to communicate passionately about a topic that they regard as important. On the other hand, I also think that some feel more comfortable aiming to simply provide information that others can use as they see fit
The one concern I have with the “facts aren’t enough” message is that it doesn’t mean that facts aren’t important; even though they may not be enough, we don’t want to discourage those who feel more comfortable presenting facts than trying to find innovative ways to engage. Even those who can find ways to engage effectively with those who have a tendency to be dismissive of the risks associated with climate change still need “facts”.
I must admit that even though I found Katharine Hayhoe’s talk very interesting and thought-provoking, I’m still not sure how I can better engage publicly. Someone did once suggest to me that maybe we should consider leaving science communication to those – like Katharine Hayhoe – who can identify, and engage, with those dismissive of some areas of science. I didn’t really agree then, and I still don’t really agree, but it is something I do consider. What I do think, though, is that we certainly need more people who are able to engage effectively, and passionately, with those who seem reluctant to accept that climate change carries risks that we really should be trying to address.