Finding a Way to Improve Scientific Communication to Help Solve Climate Change
The problems with scientific communication and how it can limit our ability to find solutions to essential problems.
By Ryan M. Connor
Studying at Colorado State University
We have all had experiences with the media’s typical under or over-exaggeration of news-worthy or not-so newsworthy stories all in an attempt to get a rise out of us. This is especially true in stories focussing on climate change, where some problems are either completely dismissed as being caused by climate change or being made out to sound like they are when they’re not. This has caused back and forth between what science says and what the media relays.
Although scientific communication has been effective and beneficial to society for many years, our increased awareness of climate change and its effects means we need to rethink how we address scientific communication. This will improve our ability, as a society to address issues that weren’t a problem when the scientific method was first established. This could mean that we need to rethink how we communicate science, such as to the people with the greatest influence.
The ordinary person doesn’t read scientific journals to get news on climate change, but rather look on news sites. The news has a heavy reliance on readership and so they often distort facts from journals to garner an outcome such as emotion from the reader. Distorting facts leads the ordinary person to be inept in the understanding of the issues with climate change, how best to solve them, and ultimately, where best to find the right information. In this opinion piece, I aim to address the issues at hand and offer a rudimentary, but tangible way forward towards better scientific understanding.
It would seem that the best place to find the right information would be from scientific writing, but there are risks to doing this…
Some scientific research articles inform on the issues at hand through conducting research, taking on a purely informative approach. Other scientific research articles take on a mixture of informing and suggesting solutions to help manage or solve the issues found, an inform and suggest approach. In an inform and suggest approach, the writing is being aimed at an audience of whom the researchers are suggesting to.
By analyzing research articles that used different approaches to write about the same subject within climate change, risks associated with these approaches became evident. The subject of these science articles were bird migrations and how climate change is predicted to affect their routes and timing.
The Research Articles and what they showed:
The research article that took a purely informative approach, done by Horton et. al., in their study published in the journal Nature, showed that differences in environmental cues (caused by climate change) trigger the timing and success of migration impact short and long-distance migratory species differently.
They also say,
“Species that do not shift their phonologies may exhibit population declines…, whereas those that adjust their migration timing may maintain or increase the population size.”
- Benefit of approach: All of the information known on the issue is provided.
- Cost of approach: Trades off offering solutions for only informing of problems.
In comparison, the research article that took the inform and suggest approach, done by Wu et. al. in their study done for United States Park Management, showed that not all of the information on the issue is provided. Unintended biases take place resulting in the omission of information. Omitting information makes finding a good solution difficult. For instance, one of their statements was, “Shorter migration distances for some species”. A very broad statement that fails to go into as much depth as the quote from the informative approach above.
- Benefits of approach: A solution is given by the people who know the issue best, and information on the issue is given. An easy-to-manage solution is provided.
- Cost of approach: Unintended biases can affect the ability of individuals to effectively address the issue.
Both have positive aspects; both have negative aspects. Science cannot advance effectively and quickly enough in a fast-changing world when whichever approach is used means the reader’s not getting enough information on the topic, or not being given the best solution.
Why must scientific communication be improved?
Birds interact with the environment they are migrating through. Changes in these interactions will result in knock-on effects. Wu et. al. identified the primary effects of climate change on birds to include: improving population, worsening population, stable populations, colonization of new areas, and extinctions from local areas. Looking at the effects climate change can have on bird migrations; here are some of the impacts:
- A changing biodiversity caused by any of the effects can lead reserves to become less enjoyable to visit by tourists.
- The local economy is impacted as local restaurants, hotels, and shops see less tourism.
- Lower earnings become more common with decreased tourist spending leading to decreased emotional stability.
A small change such as this can prove to have immense problems in other aspects of life, it shows the need to find a solution that takes into account the primary problems caused by climate change, so knock-on effects are reduced.
The media is very successful in getting people to read their stories. A solution to the problems with scientific communication must be found that allows for the ordinary person (at high school education level) to read and comprehend the problem at hand, so that solutions are easier to find. We can look at how the media achieves this goal.
How can we learn from the media to improve communication?
A paper from National Geographic, a typically trustworthy source of scientific information was used to analyze and answer this question.
An article by Craig Welch called ‘Half of All Species Are on the Move — And We’re Feeling It’, took on a new inform and encourage approach in the hopes of provoking an emotional response. The approach shown through the article was found to be very informative, using accurate information from his sources that display the problem at hand. It shows the effectiveness that factual-based writing can have on putting forth information on topics of importance. This shows the necessity for the scientific method to remain factual.
Craig Welch does, however, resort to the use of exaggeration to induce emotions in the audience. The article title says, “Half of all species are on the move…”. He has restated in his own words a study by Pecl et al. of only 4000 species. He made a hasty generalization in the title to encompasses all animals on the planet. A study of 4000 species hardly represents all species on the planet. A generalization like this would make it difficult for someone to act on a problem and find a solution.
To improve scientific communication; inaccuracy, and logical fallacies such as the above should not be present. This means that the best adaptation of the scientific method should inform in a way similar to the media, by only reviewing the more important points of the scientific article, and not be influenced by a need to tell a story to maintain readership (i.e. the encourage part of the approach).
So, what must the solution include?
The solution must incorporate all of the aforementioned ideas. It must not omit information, it must advance scientific knowledge and understanding, it must be informative, it must not write for an audience or to maintain readership, and it must suggest solutions to the primary issues.
Has anyone tried to solve this issue before? Yes; numerous times.
Big picture goals such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were developed to solve climate change problems through defining the problems at hand and telling us what must be done to solve them.
The problem though is that the goals are very broad and poorly defined. Individuals, and sometimes governments, don’t know how to solve them. For example, the Climate action goal is to “Strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries”. But a goal is not enough if one does not know how to attain that goal. A clearly defined path to accomplish this goal is needed.
Similar to the United Nations SDGs are other agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Climate Agreement, and others; all of which have had some impact but not enough. The problem with them is that they are tailored towards major organizations and governments, not individuals. These goals are aimed towards solving large problems. However, if we can accurately pave paths to solutions using science-based evidence for numerous smaller issues (such as in bird migration), then we can solve the bigger picture problems one step at a time. And to solve the many smaller issues, the solution needs to be tailored towards smaller groups, i.e. individuals, who have the numbers and the ability to act on smaller problems.
To make a good solution we must therefore encompass all of the beneficial aspects outlined in previous paragraphs. This means that it must:
- Be informative
- Be factual
- Be tailored toward the individual
- Solve the primary issues
- Solve smaller issues before trying to fix the big issues as a whole
- Involve the scientists that did the study (they know the topic best)
Keeping a writing structure with a purely informative approach to investigating a hypothesis is ideal. An informative approach gives all information known on the issue, and no biases are introduced that would omit information. This is clearly beneficial when writing about science; as we want to know the full extent of the issue, so that the most accurate solution can be found. This means that a solution should only be determined after the informative research article has been written, and its data has been analyzed. This way, the solution does not create bias during the analysis of the research. This solution should be written in a new paragraph after the conclusion of the research. It would be dedicated to suggesting the best practices to attend to the issue researched.
Why should the researchers only address the solution to the problem? Because, the average citizen is not going to want to read all the research; most will only be interested in knowing what the problem at hand is, and what needs to be done about it. This is exactly the way a news article about climate change science is done, the methods are not discussed in detail or at all, just like in the National Geographic article discussed.
Benefits of this structure:
- Researchers’ suggestions do not influence research analysis
- Individual solutions for each small problem in climate change are identified by the people who know the topic best (scientists)
Costs of this structure:
- Complexity: It would be impossible to keep track of and use every proposed solution identified in every research article published. Trying to simplify each solution would not rectify this, because a simple solution wouldn't go into enough depth to address the problem effectively.
The adapted scientific method would have to allow people to have complex solutions to issues, yet still, make these complex issues easy to follow and act on. This seemingly counterintuitive way of finding a solution is not all too difficult as it may turn out…
Finding an Alternative Solution
Brian Armstrong identified a key issue: “It would be nice if research … was more in line with market incentives”, this is complementary to the idea that appropriate solutions to climate change (an area the market wants answers to) should be addressed in research.
So how can appropriate solutions be found? His solution was a prioritization tool, similar to that seen on Reddit. His solution allows for both scientists and the average person to prioritize research articles according to their relevance/interest/accuracy. Researchhub.com is a website that does this. It was developed in response to Brian Armstrong’s proposed idea.
A way to add to this solution to improve scientific communication could include a concept of ‘groupings’. This can be done by using computer coding to group solutions according to their similarities. It would allow for the organization of similar solutions to an array of climate change issues. An “averaged” out solution to climate change topics could then be created in response.
To elucidate what this means, researchers could create an algorithm that separates individual research papers and their ideas by topic; then within those topics, a separate algorithm will tag and compile similar key ideas to create an averaged out solution that can be read in one place.
Merging Brian Armstrong’s idea and this concept could prove useful. There are, however, downfalls to the proposed solution strategy. Brian Armstrong’s solution involves using the public’s ability to contribute to the website. This means less founded scientists and non-scientists may have their proposed solutions coupled with well-founded scientists. Non-scientists are unlikely to propose scientifically accurate solutions, thus reducing the groupings’ reliability. But, if a non-scientist did have a good idea, it must be considered. This is where a prioritization tool, akin to ResearchHub’s could be applied. Well-founded scientists could use their knowledge to weed out unreliable solutions. Solutions with a strong standing after prioritization could get higher weighting in the groupings, in turn, creating a reliable averaged solution. This helps significantly in reducing the complexity.
Benefits of the Proposed Solution
A combination of prioritization and grouping
- Informative — It is informative to anyone with a high-school diploma.
- Factual — It uses evidence from research on the topic to determine the best solution.
- Addresses primary problems — It focuses on small climate issues that have knock-on effects rather than on larger issues.
- Trustworthy — Scientists who know the issues at hand can provide informed solutions that are not colored by biases.
- Credibility— Opinions, and suggestions from non-scientists don’t interfere with reliability; bad ideas are filtered out by real scientists through prioritization.
- Inclusivity — A multi-cultural userbase (scientists, ordinary citizens from all backgrounds) with many ideas are utilized to find and solve problems.
Potential Problems with the Proposed Solution
- Some omitting of good solution ideas may take place. An algorithm searching for similarities will not actively look for exceptions. An exception disregarded by the algorithm may unknowingly be the best solution to climate change. Prioritization however may, to an extent, allow the exception to be caught.
- This specific idea has neither been proposed nor implemented before. Due to the ResearchHub’s recent launch, its breadth of use has been limited.
- While it has been discussed how posting can take place for non-scientists, prioritization cannot be allowed for people without a strong scientific background. Otherwise, the groupings' reliability will be weakened.
- This solution is a new concept and an incentive is needed to bring noteworthy scientists to publish on the site. A researcher must also be open to doing extra steps to find solutions to problems they identify.
Finalizing the Solution and initiating its employment:
To encourage people to switch to this new solution, it could be effective to use an inform and encourage approach (like the news media). This could hopefully result in activism to encourage organizations such as WWF or the Council of Science Editors to rally for the implementation of the system into big publishers such as Nature. This activism could also encourage big climate change panels and agreements to rally for the use of this new scientific method.
One might rightfully question the likelihood that this merged concept would work and see real-world impacts. But with an increasing focus on climate change and sustainability, we have seen more and more people coming together to change and improve areas that need it. By merging the two concepts, and using the proposed solution, we would be creating opportunities for anybody to find a solution to a topic in climate change and act on it.
The new method is inclusive because anybody from any background looking for a solution can find one. With this new method of scientific communication in mind, the proposed solution would, for instance, take into account all bird migration types, and other topically similar key terms, and compare their similarities to provide an averaged solution that anybody, from any background, can act on. They may act on any number of climate problems in that topic of climate change, including bird migration changes if they so wish.
(This idea is aimed to provide potential solutions to scientific communication problems that have only recently begun to take effect because of a higher prevalence of climate change awareness. The current scientific method layout was a great method and still is, however, an improvement in light of climate change could be beneficial not only to society, but to the environment.)
Please, comment and offer any of your ideas or solutions that you think could challenge or improve the proposed solution so that we, as a society, can further develop our world for the better.
By Ryan M. Connor
11 February 2021