Their Own Worst Enemies

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, March 29, 2010 | Go to article overview

Their Own Worst Enemies


Begley, Sharon, Newsweek


Byline: Sharon Begley

Why scientists are losing the PR wars.

It's a safe bet that the millions of Americans who have recently changed their minds about global warming--deciding it isn't happening, or isn't due to human activities such as burning coal and oil, or isn't a serious threat--didn't just spend an intense few days poring over climate-change studies and decide, holy cow, the discretization of continuous equations in general circulation models is completely wrong! Instead, the backlash (an 18-point rise since 2006 in the percentage who say the risk of climate change is exaggerated, Gallup found this month) has been stoked by scientists' abysmal communication skills, plus some peculiarly American attitudes, both brought into play now by how critics have spun the "Climategate" e-mails to make it seem as if scientists have pulled a fast one.

Scientists are lousy communicators. They appeal to people's heads, not their hearts or guts, argues Randy Olson, who left a professorship in marine biology to make science films. "Scientists think of themselves as guardians of truth," he says. "Once they have spewed it out, they feel the burden is on the audience to understand it" and agree.

That may work if the topic is something with no emotional content, such as how black holes form, but since climate change and how to address it make people feel threatened, that arrogance is a disaster. Yet just as smarter-than-thou condescension happens time after time in debates between evolutionary biologists and proponents of intelligent design (the latter almost always win), now it's happening with climate change. In his 2009 book, Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, Olson recounts a 2007 debate where a scientist contending that global warming is a crisis said his opponents failed to argue in a way "that the people here will understand." His sophisticated, educated Manhattan audience groaned and, thoroughly insulted, voted that the "not a crisis" side won.

Like evolutionary biologists before them, climate scientists also have failed to master "truthiness" (thank you, Stephen Colbert), which their opponents--climate deniers and creationists--wield like a shiv. They say the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a political, not a scientific, organization; a climate mafia (like evolutionary biologists) keeps contrarian papers out of the top journals; Washington got two feet of snow, and you say the world is warming? …

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