At the autumn meeting of the American Geophysical Union, a group of communicators and scientists examined the strengths and limitations of social media and blogging in communicating climate science. Zeke Hausfather, a blogger and regular contributor to the Yale Forum, the think tank of journalists, scientists, educators and communicators that analyses the challenges of climate change, observed that although blogs sometimes seem to play “an outsized role”, they are essential tools for climate scientists, in part because they can attract an influential audience. “I really enjoy the under-appreciated job of trying to convince the sceptics” Hausfather said.
He offered a number of pointers for climate scientists with regard to blogging:
- Show you are not afraid of views that diverge from your own and even from what is generally considered to be the overwhelming scientific evidence,
- Don’t assume bad faith on the part of all climate sceptics,
- Avoid being cynical or sarcastic,
- Avoid attributing equal weight to all indicators and arguments,
- Don’t engage in “futile battles”, spending time trying to convince those who are not open to considering others’ views,
- Look for common ground with those who disagree with you, which, over time, can serve as a foundation for changing one’s views and broadening agreement.
Video producer Peter Sinclair, author of the “Climate Crock of the Week/” portal against those who deny climate change, and contributor of monthly “This Is Not Cool” videos to The Yale Forum, said his early videos had been well received but did not attract a satisfactory audience. So he decided to take a “creative combat” approach and follow the advice of legendary showman PT Barnum: “If you want to attract a crowd, start a fight“. Sinclair selected sceptical blogger Anthony Watts, of “Watts Up With That” for criticism, and benefited from the attempt to pull his (Sinclair’s) video down from YouTube. The Sinclair video went viral and laid the foundation for boosting the audience for his subsequent material. Today Sinclair works with Ohio State University climatologist Jason Box and will soon be engaging in an innovative crowd-sourcing initiative – to be funded through Kickstarter, the largest fund-raising platform for innovative projects – to make a research trip to Greenland to track ice melt.
Penn State University climatologist Michael Mann, one of the world’s most influential experts in this area, talked about the strengths and limitations of various communication tools, covering full-length scientific books, blogs and social media like Facebook and Twitter. He pointed to the technical complexity of manuals and books, which are often in conflict with the public’s apparently shrinking attention span and have a limited audience. Mann said social media avoid some of these limitations, but have some limitations of their own, such as Twitter’s 140-character ceiling. Even so, said Mann, Facebook and Twitter help him communicate climate change, especially to people not often directly exposed to the subject. For example, his more than 6,000 Twitter followers now include actress Pamela Anderson. To chuckles from the audience, he said that her re-tweet of one of his tweets reached an audience almost the size of the annual audience of his site Realclimate.org. “I have no pretensions that the people who follow Pamela Anderson do so to get better information on climate change,” he joked. Asked if engaging in social media – Twitter in particular – might raise doubts about a scientist’s credibility, Mann said he thought an evident willingness to engage with the general public, to step out of the academic ivory tower, sent a positive message about science’s openness to society.