Making the Public Aware of the Science

January 27, 2011 · 0 comments

by Skyler Goldman, Florida Institute of Technology, Student Contributor

I sometimes feel like the whole purpose—or at least the effective application—of meteorology depends on being able to communicate to people who are not as knowledgeable in our subject.  And yet the difficulty of this task is overwhelming. This was acknowledged from the outset at the Presidential Forum on Monday.

“We don’t serve you, the scientists, very well, and I want to change that,” Claire Martin, the chief meteorologist of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation said of the communication between scientists and the public.  It’s an important statement, and one that seemed to be agreed upon by the rest of the panel.

“Scientists live and die by how their work is represented,” Tom Skilling of WGN Chicago said, adding that if they are not represented well, then they have no interest in communicating with the broadcast meteorologists and other meteorologists who communicate with the general public.  It’s an issue facing our entire field, especially with important climate change topics knocking on the door.

It’s a simple concept: if the scientists who are doing the work of studying our changing climate are not getting the credit they deserve nor getting their entire story out there accurately, then they could lose interest in dealing with those responsible for communicating the science.  In a society of three-minute weather broadcasts and one-page weather reports, it’s a delicate balance between telling the whole story and leaving something out.  Someone—either scientists or journalists—is not going to get their way.  So how does our field get around it?

An audience member threw out an interesting point.  If the public is paying for the research, then shouldn’t they be able to read the work in a language they understand?  This scientist cited a paper he wrote in “regular” English as opposed to “scientific” English, and said that it was instantly rejected by the editor for sounding too “unintelligent.” This scientist suggested that journals publish two versions of every paper, one for the scientific community and one for the general public.

The idea is somewhat revolutionary, and it was denounced by another scientist who claimed that he wasn’t sure that the public would even “care about his work.”  Why go through the trouble?

But shouldn’t the public get to decide what they care about?  I think those of us in the sciences tend to overlook just how intelligent the public can be.  Making more scientific work available to the public in plain language would increase awareness.  Then, of course, the public would need to have access to such articles.  Unless you’re in college or working in the field, you’re probably not even aware that these journal articles exist, let alone have a subscription.  It’s not like you can browse meteorology journals at Barnes and Noble or Borders.  Access to science should not be limited by a caste system based on wealth or education.  It should be available to all so the public can make their own decisions. Perhaps the public would be better prepared for weather and climate if they could form their own opinions.

Tom Skilling said that we as meteorologists “haven’t done a good job of preparing the public [for climate change].”  Martin Storksdieck added that we “have done a poor job of telling not only what we can do, but what we can’t.”  Perhaps the scientists wouldn’t be misrepresented if the general public could read their work.  Maybe we don’t have to re-write articles as the one scientist suggested, but it would be a start.  Sure it requires more work, but whoever said communicating was easy?