Communicating climate science to a suspicious public: How best to explain what we know?

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Erik Meade Conway, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, United States and Randal Jackson, JPL, Pasadena, CA, United States
In 2007, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory decided to establish a climate science website aimed at explaining what scientists know about climate science, and what they don’t, to the English-speaking public. Because of my prior work in the history of atmospheric and climate sciences, I was asked to help choose the data that would be displayed on the site and to write the basic text. Our site went “live” in 2008, and quickly attracted both widespread media attention and sponsorship from NASA, which funded us to expand it into the NASA Climate Change website, climate.nasa.gov. It’s now generally the 3rd or 4th ranked climate change website in Google rankings. A perusal of the NASA Climate Change website will reveal that the word “uncertainty” does not appear in its explanatory essays. “Uncertainty,” in science, is a calculated quantity. To calculate it, one must know quite a bit about the phenomenon in question. In vernacular use, “uncertainty” means something like “stuff we don’t know.” These are radically different meanings, and yet scientists and their institutions routinely use both meanings without clarification. Even without the deliberate disinformation campaigns that Oreskes and Conway have documented in Merchants of Doubt, scientists’ own misuse of this one word would produce public confusion. We chose to use other words to overcome this one communications problem. But other aspects of the climate communications problem cannot be so easily overcome in a context of Federal agency communications. In this paper, we’ll review recent research on ways to improve public understanding of science, and set it against the restrictions that exist on Federal agency communications—avoidance of political statements and interpretation, focusing on fact over storytelling, narrowness of context—to help illuminate the difficulty of improving public understanding of complex, policy-relevant phenomenon like climate change.