Marshall Shepherd and the Challenges of Communicating

American meteorologist visits Emory to talk about communicating climate.

“Not knowing your audience is like throwing darts at a dartboard with the lights off’, Anthony Leiserowitz

Communicating Ain’t Easy

Marshall Shepherd at Emory University, October 16th, 2017

Dr. Marshall Shepherd is an expert in both weather and climate. He teaches at the University of Georgia and serves as Director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program in the same university. He routinely appears on CBS Face The Nation, CNN, Fox News, The Weather Channel, and others.

Although there is little to no academic debate about the matter, the public is still debating whether anthropogenic climate change is real or not, as if it was a matter of faith. In the United States, according to a study made by Yale and George Mason University, one in three citizens [33%] say that global warming is caused mostly by natural changes in the environment. Also, only one in ten Americans understand that nearly all climate scientists [over 90% of them] are convinced that anthropogenic global warming is happening. Science is robust and the public is confused, why?

According to Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol reasons go from economic crises, to a dis-information campaign, to scientific illiteracy, to the way the media and scientists handle this “debate”. Marshall Shepherd talked about this last reason: how can scientists communicate climate change to the public?

Communication between scientists and not scientists will inherently happen because we share the same world, and we need to understand what is happening around us. However, scientists need to “speak English” – they need to speak in a way where we can all understand.

Dr. Shepherd mentioned six main challenges of communicating climate change to the public:

  1. Overcoming perceptions and psychology: how to make the public understand the severity of a climate threat [such as a heat wave]?
  2. Science is NOT a belief system: one cannot believe that climate change is happening, one can know whether it is happening or not.
  3. The “Dunning Kruger effect”: we tend to think we know more than we do, and to underestimate that which we do not know.
  4. “Too many graphs, too much jargon, not enough common ground”: we need to understand our audience in order to communicate with it. Finding a common ground is key.
  5. Climate literacy: we still need to understand the difference between weather and climate. As Dr. Shepherd described: “weather is your mood; climate is your personality”.
  6. Climate zombie theories: we need to “combat” the “theories” that support themselves in fallacies instead of facts.

Building the bridge between scientists and the “common people” is indeed a challenge, and one we need to overcome now [rather than later] if we want to have a chance in stopping the warming process we have started. It is not easy, and it is not simple – communicating is a science on itself. But it also cannot be that hard, there are the enough incentives to give it a try, and a lot of people are committed to this task.

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