This past weekend the American Association for the Advancement of Science held it’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C. One of the segments of the meeting featured climate scientists and journalists who participated in an open discussion on why the American publics understanding of climate change is at odds with the global research consensus on human causes. The current interaction between science and the media can be best portrayed in a jocose dispute at the meeting:
Near the forum’s conclusion, Massachusetts Institute of Technology climate scientist Kerry Emanuel asked a panel of journalists why the media continues to cover anthropogenic climate change as a controversy or debate, when in fact it is a consensus among such organizations as the American Geophysical Union, American Institute of Physics, American Chemical Society, American Meteorological Association and the National Research Council, along with the national academies of more than two dozen countries.
“You haven’t persuaded the public,” replied Elizabeth Shogren of National Public Radio. Emanuel immediately countered, smiling and pointing at Shogren, “No, you haven’t.” Scattered applause followed in the audience of mostly scientists, with one heckler saying, “That’s right. Kerry said it.”
One of the central themes of the meeting seems to be that there is no single factor leading to misunderstanding – making possible solutions even more imprecise. Thomas Lessl of the University of Georgia believes there is no quick fix to the broken system, voicing the need for the entire enterprise of communicating science about climate change to be reformed. Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, voiced the need for further public engagement to fill the gaps in understanding between soundbites and scientific literature. As the scientists slide into their post-normal roles one characteristic of the media rings true:
Tom Rosenstiel of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism pointed at the media, focusing on its overall contraction in the past two decades. Shrinking budgets have led to a proliferation of quick, cheap reporting, as well as discussion and commentary formats that rarely provide informative discussions of actual science results.
“What is shrinking is the reportorial component of our culture in which people go out and find things and verify things,” he said. Truth has little chance to make itself known in the new narrow and shallow public square.