15 March 2010
Do researchers have an obligation to help the general public understand the relevance of their work? One academic thinks so – despite sporting scars from his effort.
Climate scientists are paid to do climate science.
Their job is not persuading the public.
– Gavin A. Schmidt, senior climatologist with NASA’s
Goddard Institute of Space Studies.
New York Times, 2 March 2010.
By William R. Freudenburg
For the Daily Climate
I write as a card-carrying professor – and not a professor of journalism – and I write to say that I come far closer to agreeing with Gavin Schmidt today than I would have ten years ago.
I've always seen myself as the kind of professor who really does try to communicate not just with fellow specialists, but with the broader public that we seek to serve – or at least with journalists, who know a heck of a lot more about communicating with the public than we do. My college roommate was a journalism major, and I've hung around with journalists many times since. Over the years, I've found myself impressed with journalists’ skill sets, which are almost unknown in the academy.
I have gone to every "how to communicate with journalists" training session offered at any of the universities where I've spent time over the years. I always return journalists' calls, even when they come from publications I've never heard of, and I try to do so as quickly as possible. I do my level best to communicate in ordinary English, even when that takes far more time than would the standard academic jargon, and I try never, never, to say, "look it up yourself."
Recently, I even decided to try harder. In the aftermath of Katrina, I made a commitment to do literal "tithing." For the rest of my career, I vowed, I would spend at least 10 percent of my time on publications that will get me absolutely no points with my fellow academics (and may even cost me a bit, because they're "too popular").
Since professors need to spend quite a few hours every day on unproductive stuff, that's an expensive commitment; some weeks, 10 percent of my time amounts to 100 percent of the time I would have for anything that wins me any academic points. And as a more tangible indicator, I even crossed over to what many academics consider to be The Dark Side, joining the Society of Environmental Journalists – doing so under my own name.
But in all my years, I have NEVER seen the kinds of attacks that have been aimed at climate scientists in recent years.
But the facts are, this effort to reach out isn't easy, and frankly, it's not very rewarding.
First, we're paid for "contributions to knowledge" – the academic publications. If we spend any time on persuading the broader public, it needs to come out of our own hides.
Second, when we do try to reach out to the broader public, it can bring spectacularly low rewards. Not only do our colleagues think we're nuts, but the journalists we think we're "helping" can start wondering about us, too.
Third, it can be costly in personal ways. At the American Association for the Advancement of Science meetings last month in San Diego, I was amazed at the number of my mild-mannered scientific colleagues who admitted, in private conversations, the pressures and/or threats they've received. The lucky ones were like me: We've heard from a dean or two that, although they "appreciate" our efforts to reach out to the broader public, they've been hearing complaints about us from people who "didn't fully understand" the value of academic freedom. Usually, those deans will thank us for our service but then "wonder" if we might want to spend a bit more time back at our computer screens and lab benches.
At my age, those conversations don't have many real consequences. But at one lunch, three of the five of us at the table had received literal death threats, and even though everyone said, "I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing," you could hear the voices quavering a bit.
I've spent more than a third of a century studying technological controversies. I've had threats, and I've had police escorts. I've dealt with people who were trembling with rage and with others who took swings at me. But in all my years, I have NEVER seen the kinds of attacks that have been aimed at climate scientists in recent years.
Yet that's not what bothers me the most.
What really bothers me is the stunning lack of balance in U.S. media reports on climate science. In Europe, newspaper coverage gives a pretty accurate reflection of what the leading scientists are saying. In the U.S., the scientific findings are “balanced” against the views of people who know how to spin juicy quotes but can’t even spell “climatology.” When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases a major report, its main conclusions get a few stories, while most of the attention goes to small errors that don’t affect its substance – and that show up about once every 1000 pages. On the other hand, when the American Enterprise Institute publicly offered $10,000 to any "scientist" willing to attack the climate science for money, that was somehow not treated as a scandal. There was barely a mention of it in the American press, and even after that information trickled out, the AEI and similar think tanks continued to be treated as perfectly credible sources for juicy quotes – without even a disclaimer to note that the quotes came from AEI, "which was revealed last year to be offering pay for reports that repeated its party line."
So I need some help: When I give advice to younger academics, what argument can I legitimately offer to them? Why should I urge them to spend more of their time reaching out to journalists? It doesn't make sense – not when the net effect is to divert precious hours from their research and then have their words "balanced" with a skillful but scientifically indefensible turn of phrase from someone hired last year by the Heartland Institute.
William R. Freudenburg is Dehlsen Professor of Environment and Society in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also president-elect of the Association for Environmental Studies & Sciences.
© William R. Freudenburg. All rights reserved.
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