Tuesday, 25 January 2011

How science needs to communicate better

How do any of us feel about climate change? Are we firm advocates that something must be done to avert catastrophe? Or perhaps 'deniers', steadfast in our belief that the warming of the earth is a natural phenomenon used by politicians to justify tax rises and businesses to make a quick buck?

Last night Sir Paul Nurse, nobel laureate and president of the Royal Society made an impassioned plea, not to either side of this polarised debate but to science itself. He used the climate change debate to examine a challenge to science.

As one of Britain's finest scientists Sir Paul was recognising a problem and offering a path to a solution. He identified how, with the growth of blogs, opinion led journalism and 24 hour breaking news the science world needs to change the way it communicates.

He recognised how the media can misinterpret evidence and words by taking them out of context, or that science is often unprepared to deal with the level of transparency expected in the internet age. This even though scientific advances have always come through being open and allowing others to disprove your findings.

It was a brilliantly refreshing piece of television; his analysis just as applicable to business or politics or any individual who finds themselves in the glare of the media spotlight. 

The bottom line is that, unless you are willing to communicate and engage your critics, then an alternative truth develops not based on fact but here say. In the internet age there is a lot of that around.


  1. This is a satirical piece, right? What exactly are 'deniers' denying? Climate change? You do not communicate that clearly.

    Sir Paul Nurse is President of the Royal Society, an organisation whose leadership was forced by a number of its own members to admit there are question marks over climate science. On the Climategate scandal, Nurse said: 'This seems to be the greatest scientific scandal that just didn't take place.' And The Independent reported yesterday that Nurse has: 'urged scientists to take on those critics who have cast doubt on the veracity of scientific discoveries ranging from the link between climate change and man-made carbon dioxide to the benefits of GM crops.'

    The Royal Society is not impartial, it has a position on climate change as a cursory look at their website shows. And of course, as an informed observer of these things you will recall it was forced to abandon its 'debate is over' position and admit that there are uncertainties about the science behind climate change.

  2. Autonomousmind, you sort of help underline my point with your comment. I am neither a 'denier' as termed by the climate change zealots, or indeed one of those zealots. It is a polarised debate where it would be helpful if both sides used evidence to back up their arguments.

    What I particularly liked about the programme last night was the way Sir Paul was urging science to communicate better. If scientists do this then, on issues as emotive as climate change, perhaps we can get some clarity rather than two polarised camps sometimes distorting each others point of view.

  3. Ed, evidence is being and has been provided. Evidence has debunked the 'hockey stick', the flaws in the global temperature record have been revealed, the failure of predictions from 10-15 years ago have been underlined - yet the reaction of Gordon Brown was to call those who retailed this evidence 'flat earthers'.

    What Paul Nurse did last night was take up residence in the last refuge of the scoundrel. As politicans now commonly say 'we must improve our communication' so Nurse has adopted this canard. This is the line taken by those whose arguments are given consideration then rejected. It's never the message, it's always the 'communication'. As a communications professional I know this methodology all too well and why it is employed.

    As a scientist what Nurse should have done was ask his colleagues to stop acting in an unscientific manner.


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