W. Tad Pfeffer on the dangers of dissent

"One of the things that troubles me most is that the rapid-fire publication of unsettled results in highly visible venues creates the impression that the scientific community has no idea what's going on."

- W. Tad Pfeffer, quoted in The New York Times

A major PR problem facing the scientific community is how to honestly portray the unstable nature of the leading edge of new knowledge, and the uncertainty of its details, without giving the impression that its underpinnings are not sound. In a recent article in the Times, journalist Andrew C. Revkin uses climate change as a case study to explore this problem. Most science, he notes, proceeds in a "two-papers-forward-one-paper-back intellectual tussle", but the public only notices when an issue becomes pertinent to their daily lives and the media takes an interest. The result of heavy coverage of conflicting findings can then lead to what Revkin calls "journalistic whiplash" for the public. Formerly this phenomenon predominated mostly only in health coverage, but recent conflicting reports about melting ice fields, hurricane ferocity and oceanic temperature are apparently leading to a lot of confusion about whether human-induced climate change is happening at all.

Pfeffer, an ice sheet expert from the University of Colorado, worries that the entirely natural "evolution of objective scientific understanding" inherent in climate change science will inevitably be misunderstood by the public. Indeed, several polls have suggested that people are losing belief that climate change is actually happening.

Who is to blame? The headline-hungry media must surely take a large share of credit. But Revkin also mentions over-eager press officers at scientific institutions who inflate their researchers' results – and scientists themselves, for not communicating more effectively. What can be done to improve matters? Sites like consist of scientists bringing their message directly to the public, which is a good start. And experts asked to speak to the press should provide not just the facts, but a clear interpretation of them, along with their wider significance; otherwise, they will leave a vacuum that the press, advocates or politicians will be only to happy to fill with their own spin.

You can read the entire the article here.