Posts Tagged ‘Science communication’

In the immortal words of Father Jack Hackett…

March 25, 2013

180px-Jack_award“Award! Award! Award!”

To be more specific: I found out a few weeks ago that I’ve been awarded the Royal Meteorological Society‘s (RMetS) Michael Hunt Award, which is “for excellence in increasing the understanding of meteorology or its applied disciplines among members of the general public”. Get me!

And don’t worry, I’m sure it wasn’t given to me for this blog, which has only rarely been updated in the last year or so – I blame having kids and my change from postdoc to lecturer, which have occurred since I started blogging. I also do other outreach/public engagement things like school visits, Skeptics in the Pub talks, science festival events and wotnot. It’s usually a lot of fun and to get an award for doing it is great!

Oddly enough, though, my previous post on this blog was slightly critical of a recent RMetS Meeting on climate change communication; I’m glad that they didn’t hold that against me!

So, to continue that theme, I thought I’d make another couple of points about RMetS and how it communicates with the outside world…

Most of RMetS’ effort goes into their meetings and publications, which are excellent for academics but what about everyone else?

I know that they run events in schools and at science festivals, which is great.

The previous RMetS Chief Exec had a blog for a while (it was quite fun, I enjoyed the posts about his watch) and it’s now become a more general society blog but I think that there’s still room in the weather and climate blogosphere (ugh, never though I use that word seriously) for coverage of big issues. For example, The Carbon Brief has only been going since 2011ish and it has become an excellent resource. Whilst I suspect that RMetS want to keep it a bit more light-hearted, there’s still some low hanging fruit here that I’m sure RMetS could grab. Even the columns in the (recently departed) “theWeather” magazine would have made excellent blog posts that I’m sure would get widely read but they were never (as far as I know) made available online.

I loved “theWeather” magazine and it even won an award or two but, given the way that publishing and reading habits are changing, perhaps it wasn’t the time to launch a subscription only print magazine.

I just hope that the RMetS can find more of a place online where most people do their communicating these days, particularly in terms of climate change. (Whether that’s a good thing is another matter!)

What I would do is set up a network of early career meteorologists, climatologists, oceanographers etc. to run a collaborative blog on the RMetS website. One of the most interesting and exciting things I’ve done outreach-wise was the EPSRC-funded (now EPSRC-non-funded) NOISEmakers ambassadors scheme. It was great meeting up with scientists that you wouldn’t normally work with and discuss ideas (perhaps a little bit like the JASONs but not as serious!) In my case, this led to writing some nice general audience pieces, starting my own blog, networking with other people about communication and even working on papers and research proposals with people I met through NOISEmakers.

Finally, I also thought I should find out who Michael Hunt was and found this clip on youtube, you can see Hunt at 3.39, he’s got a good look!

Communicating Climate Science (but don’t mention the b-word)

November 8, 2012

Blog.

There, I said it.

Which, as far as I can remember, is more than it was mentioned in the 7 talks or during the panel discussion at yesterday’s RMetS meeting on Communicating Climate Science.

Just to re-iterate, in a 3 hour meeting about Communicating Climate Science I don’t remember anyone saying the word “blog”.

Also to be clear, I thought the meeting was really interesting and well worth going to to. But, looking back on the event, I’m amazed that I don’t think anyone mentioned the impact of blogging on climate science communication, how it could be used better by the community or even that it exists.

Which is odd because two of the speakers are very good bloggers (Alice Bell and Adam Corner) and I noticed a few in the audience (e.g. Tamsin Edwards and Bob Ward, who seems like a blogger without a blog, unless I’ve missed it!)

So, did anyone else notice this or did I just nod off at the wrong moment?

How much does Antarctica contribute to sea level rise? (And how should that be communicated?)

October 26, 2012

There’s an interesting new paper in Nature (King et al.) this week that looks at how much the Antarctic continental ice contributes to sea level changes. It initially caught my eye as it uses data from the GRACE satellites, which are very cool! They are twin satellites that can detect tiny changes in the distance between one another. These distance changes are driven by changes in the gravity field so it is then possible to work out how that relates to changes in mass at Earth’s surface.

King et al. aren’t the first to use GRACE to look at Antarctic mass change but they have used a new model of the way ice sheets affect the Earth’s surface. When this new model is used, you get quite a low number for the contribution of Antarctic mass loss to global sea level: 0.19mm ± 0.05mm (this is less than half of previous GRACE estimates of Antarctic mass loss to global sea level).

The first result I found for global average sea level rise for 1993-2009 was: 3.3 ± 0.4 mm per year (thanks wikipedia!) so you can see that it is a small contribution.

Anyway, I tweeted a link to this paper from my @Antarctic_news twitter account and then noticed a story about the paper in the Sydney Morning Herald and tweeted a link to that as well.

Someone quickly pointed out that the headline in the SMH was wrong – it said Antarctica was contributing 1mm to global sea level when it should be less than that (0.19mm ± 0.05mm). It turned out that Ben Cubby, who wrote the SMH article, had already noticed the mistake (and our tweets) and the headline was corrected by the next day. This is why the article has a rather clumsy headline now!

But the chat on twitter didn’t end there. Quite a few tweets were exchanged between myself, Ben and Barry Woods, who felt that Ben should have said ~0.2mm per year in his article rather than “less than a millimetre per year”, which is what he did say (and was probably why the sub-editor made a mistake with the headline).

Personally, I feel that either (~0.2mm or less than 1mm) would have been ok so tried to defend Ben’s choice of words. Both options sound quite small and, without the context of average global sea level change (which I doubt many people hold in their head), the more accurate figure doesn’t really add much. Moreover, the full passage that includes the “less than a millimetre per year” bit gives some important qualitative information that does contextualise the result:

While the continent contains enough frozen water to raise global sea levels by 59 metres should it ever all melt, the findings show it is currently contributing less than a millimetre per year. Professor King said the findings showed that sea levels had already been rising faster than they had for centuries without much extra water from the Antarctic ice sheet.

That last bit, which I’ve emboldened, seems to convey that the Antarctic contribution is small in comparison to global changes without using either of the numbers (i.e. 0.19mm ± 0.05mm and 3.3 ± 0.4 mm per year).

Someone else suggested that is was in the interest of “environmental activists” to maximise the contribution of Antarctica to sea level rise but I’m not sure that even makes sense: the view from King et al. seems even more worrying i.e. sea levels are rising without a large contribution from Antarctica.

So what was the point of this blog post? Maybe it was so that I could articulate my thoughts without twitter’s 140 character limit but I was also wondering what other people thought about how to communicate findings like this. Should journalists always use the figures straight from papers or are phrases like “less than a millimetre” ok if they make the article more accessible?

King MA, Bingham RJ, Moore P, Whitehouse PL, Bentley MJ, & Milne GA (2012). Lower satellite-gravimetry estimates of Antarctic sea-level contribution. Nature PMID: 23086145

Book review: Teaching What You Don’t Know by Therese Huston

March 27, 2012

Click to find it on Amazon

Short version

Brilliant, even if you know what you’re talking about. Loads of ideas for making university teaching and learning far more enjoyable for everyone.

Long version

So, the first module that I’ve had to coordinate on my own turned out to be something that only overlaps slightly with my research area – I got the Sustainable Development module. In this respect, the title of TWYDK jumped out at me as a potentially useful resource. UPDATE (28/03/2012): when I first posted this I didn’t mention that the book is based on American universities – I am assuming that analysis and ideas equally applicable elsewhere.

I suppose I could’ve just shown the brilliant xkcd comic on this topic (see below) and called it a day but I’m not sure that the students would have appreciated that.

Joking aside, the prevalence of academics teaching at university level on subjects that they have little or no expertise is something that Huston discusses at length from the perspective of the teacher and the student. The argument that I most associated with was that for “survey courses” or “cutting edge courses” (which I hope my SD module was) the experts are many different people for different topics and these topics develop very fast. In that respect, having a module led by someone with only limited experience in the area is not much of a problem.

Structure

I decided quite early on to go down the Problem Based Learning route for my module as I’d helped teach on a module at the University of Manchester that used the PBL model and I’d seen many of the students really engage with it. Huston also recommends this as a useful method of delivery for “content novices” as the key is defining interesting and relevant questions rather than compiling hours of lecture material.

As I’m now approaching the end of my module for the first year I’ve run it, I’m glad I did it this way and definitely feel that TWYDK gave me a bit more confidence to try something beyond a standard “Module = 12 x lectures + 1 coursework + 1 exam” model. I think that most of the students have taken to it as well and I’ve jotted down more ideas from TWYDK to improve the module again next year.

More than just TWYDK

Whilst going through the book, however, I started to pick up ideas for other lectures I give on topics that I do know well. In some cases these were very simple ideas but maybe being a “content expert” means that you ignore the little tricks to try to get the students to actually “learn” in favour of just delivering all your hard-earned wisdom.

I suspect that I engaged with this book because it tackled a specific problem but, in the process of reading it, made me think about more general teaching points. This is probably where TWYDK is such a success where more textbook-like higher education manuals barely get opened (you know, like that one with the blue stripe across the middle of the cover and pristine spine ;) that you see in most lecturers’ offices, mine included).

Things I wasn’t so keen on…

Well, most of the book is based on a series of interviews with university teachers, I think Huston says that it’s around 20 interviews, I could be wrong. Whilst this set off my anecdote vs. data alarm bells I suppose a good teaching idea is still a good teaching idea so I’m willing to let it go! And other parts of the book are based on more robust stats so that made me happy.

My only other point of concern is that the book just kind of ends. In the introduction Huston suggests dipping in and out of chapters as you need to know stuff but I found that it flowed quite well and read it cover-to-cover. The only disappointment with this is that there isn’t a chapter bringing it all together. (In fact, the final chapter is advice for administrators, which I still read and found useful as it gave me a different perspective on my contribution to the department teaching load.) Still, who am I to talk? I couldn’t be bothered to think up a decent end to this blog post.

Details

Hardcover
Pages: 330
Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN-10: 0674035801

Michael Mann on TEDx – the scientization of politics

December 7, 2011

Michael Mann (of “hockey stick” fame) has just has a TEDx talk published.

It’s bookended by the things you’d expect – a quick run through of climate science and potential solutions – but the bits in the middle are probably the most interesting.

Climate science is often accused of becoming too politicised (usually because of the role of the  IPCC) but Mann’s argument here is that it happened the other way round: that politics became “scientized” in order to cast doubt over the scientific findings that do not align with paticular political views. At one point he refers to Merchants of Doubt, a book which presents evidence from the last 50 years covering a number of scientific topics that have caused problems for certain industries, and Mann’s case seems to add to those stories.

John Mitchell and Simon Singh at the RMetS AGM

May 19, 2011

I went along to the Royal Meteorological Society‘s AGM yesterday. I realise this sounds pretty dull but they have a couple of talks before the AGM proper, which were very interesting. (I’m also ashamed to admit that I left the meeting before they got down to the AGM business as I was giving a talk in Guildford that evening.)

The meeting was held at the Bank of England Museum and Mervyn King, who is apparently a bit of a weather geek, gave a short introduction looking at the links between the Bank and meteorology. I thought the most interesting story was on the historical importance of wind to Bank – available credit would have to be increased when easterlies prevailed as ships could sail up the Thames and then decreased again as westerlies returned. Naturally, he also mentioned climatic impacts on the economy.

The first proper talk was by Prof. John Mitchell from the Met Office. He was being awarded the society’s Symons Gold Medal (congratulations John!) so his talk was a celebration of that.

His presentation – “What we know and what we don’t know about global warming” – was based around a series of basic questions, similar to the style of Skeptical Science. He covered topics like: Is CO2 increasing? Is the increase down to humans? Does CO2 affect climate? Is the climate changing? Why is the climate changing? What might future changes look like? Are global temperatures changing as models showed? All interesting stuff, particularly the last point where John showed some updated work from a 2000 paper by Myles Allen where the observed 2009 global temperature was in the middle of the range projected in 1996.

The point that really caught my eye, though, was on recent temperature changes. I think it was some work by Peter Stott that John was showing on the difference between 50 and 10 year temperature trend distributions in model runs forced by natural factors and a 0.2K/decade forcing (I could be wrong about this last point, I can’t remember the setups and didn’t jot them down). Anyway, whilst the 50 year trend distributions where almost completely distinct for the two types of run, the 10 year trend distributions had a considerable overlap, which is pretty interesting given what global temperatures have been doing over the last 10 years or so and what that says about global warming (i.e. possibly nothing you wouldn’t expect from a climate being forced in the way Earth’s climate is being forced).

The second speaker was Simon Singh, who spoke about Science and the Media.

There was a little time spent on climate change; Simon showed a brief email exchange he had with Martin Durkin after the broadcast of the Great Global Warming Swindle in 2007. It seems that Martin’s responses to polite criticism are as sophisticated as his documentaries. Indeed, the presentation of Martin’s emails could also be the first time that c**k and f**k have been used at a RMetS AGM. This, I think, is progress.

There was also an interesting question for Simon about the similarities between the “hide the decline” episode and an edit Simon showed us that he had made to one of his own documentaries (substituting “primes” with “numbers” in an interview with a mathematician to make it understandable for a wider audience). Simon argued that they were quite different situations as the removal of unreliable proxy data was done for scientific reasons whereas his edit was done for communication reasons. I wonder if there isn’t more of an overlap, though. I’m not sure we’ve properly acknowledged the needs of different audiences and how scientists decide to summarise their work for them.

Book review: Merchants of Doubt

May 5, 2011

Short review

Excellent examination of the background and tactics used by “experts” to delay the implementation of regulation on important scientific issues. Journalists in particular should have a read but I’d think it would be interesting and comprehensible to anyone.

Long review

This is a somewhat worrying story about a small group of scientists with a disproportionate level of influence.

They successfully spread doubt about issues as wide-ranging as smoking, defence, acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion, second-hand smoke and global warming. Their veneer of authority, despite a lack of relevant experience, appears to have been enough to manage it.

The book is very well researched and extensive references are provided. That said, the style and accessibility of the book remains at the “popular” end of the spectrum, which is good. There’s a website accompanying the book with many of the key documents cited in the book.

Most of the story takes place in the US but the lessons are not exclusive to that region.

There’s an awful lot of issues that come up from the book (media responsibility, motivation of the scientists in question, funding sources, ideology, scientists influencing policy) but I’ll just look at a couple of things here.

The Fairness Doctrine and journalistic balance

One theme that crops up over and over again is the insistence from the “doubt merchants” that they deserve equal time in media debates and discussions. This is really important and, I think, shows that this book should be required reading for journalists working on controversially perceived subjects. Because, as we see time and time again in the book, the controversy is often not based on the science.

I agree that there should be a responsibility placed on the media to be unbiased but, equally, journalists shouldn’t be pressured into presenting a debate as ongoing and/or equal simply because they have not researched the topic.

Or, as Oreskes and Conway put it:

“Balance was interpreted, it seems, as giving equal weight to both sides, rather than giving accurate weight to both sides.”

(Of course, this argument works both ways and also implies that scientists do not communicate well with journalists.)

Chronology

One thing I had a little trouble with in the book was following the separate strands of the story. Whilst the 5 main strands occur pretty much one after another, almost one per decade, there is considerable overlap. It gets quite hard to follow the stories as the characters are involved with more than one strand at any particular moment. I suppose Oreskes and Conway could have overcome this by focusing on the “Merchants” but that would probably be more confusing. Of course this problem only arises because it’s the same people getting involved in each issue.

What might have been nice, though, is if the authors produced an interactive timeline with book, something a bit like this:

I knocked this up pretty quickly but it gives an idea of the overlap of the different strands. I chose the start and ends points based on key events described in the book. I

Sustainable solutions

This isn’t really something that comes up in the book but it was certainly where my train of thought kept going. (This may, however, be because I’m currently planning a new module for one of our courses on sustainable development.)

So, for action to be “sustainable” it needs to be analysed from (at least) 3 interlinking perspectives.

The triple bottom line

Ideally your solution falls in the centre of the Venn diagram but compromises in one direction or the other are probably necessary.

It seems to me that, in the same way that radical, back-to-the-land environmentalists would sacrifice the economy and technology for the sake of the environment, many of the key figures in the book show a willingness to endanger the environment and social development for the sake of the free market. I assume the reason that we think the “doubt merchants” solutions are seen as more feasible than equally single minded environmentalists are that they have a veneer of respectability and authority from academic careers. However, their solutions run the same risks of having few winners and potentially many losers.

How do we get into the middle section of the diagram then?

I don’t know. I’m kind of interested in all three areas but I only really know anything about a relatively small area of environmental science.

Monbiot covers some of this problem, from the perspective of just one area, here.

Other reviews for Merchants of Doubt

Gavin Schmidt in Chemical & Engineering News focusing mostly on the role of scientists.

Robin McKie in the Guardian focusing on the attack on environmentalism.

UPDATE: Naomi Oreskes has recently won the Climate Change Communicator of 2011 award from George Mason University. On the weight of this book alone, it is well deserved.

Spectator Climate Debate – The Results!

March 31, 2011

I mentioned the Spectator debate last week but I didn’t go along as I was giving a talk in Manchester on Antarctic climate.

Someone from Climate Brief went along, though, and they have written a report.

Anyway, the motion was “The global warming concern is over. Time for a return to sanity.”

The results are quite interesting, which I guess I can comment on without having been there:

If the point of the debate was to change people’s minds then the “Against” panel clearly did a better job, so well done King, Singh and Palmer.

However, the clear message from the results is that the majority of people that go along to debates organised by The Spectator are not that concerned about global warming. I suppose you could also conclude (from the lack of change in the “For” votes and the make up of the panels) that this group of people are more interested in the policy implications of climate change than the science behind it.

I’m also wondering why Delingpole wasn’t on the “For” panel. He’s a Spectator contributor and has an interest in climate change. Any thoughts?


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