Dr. Nielsen-Gammon’s presentation on CCNF well received at AGU Fall Meeting

January 8, 2015 8:14 pm0 comments
Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon at UH

Earlier photo of Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon presenting at UH. Credit: University of Houston

It was a great honor for Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon to present on CCNF in the oral session on ‘Climate Literacy: Culture of Science and Broader Impacts Done Well I‘ at the recent American Geophysical Union’s annual Fall Meeting. The session was chaired by scientist-educators from the NASA Langley Research Center, Paleontological Research Institution, and a collection of universities and his fellow co-presenters at the session came from the National Science Foundation, The National Centers for Ocean Science Excellence Network, CIRES/CU Boulder, George Mason University, the blog Skeptical Science, and the University of Queensland, so needless to say we were sharing a platform with some heavyweights.

In his presentation “Advancing Climate Literacy Through the Climate Change National Forum‘, Dr. Nielsen-Gammon began by noting that the many sources that people rely on for their scientific information on climate change: General interest media, specialized media (if they are particularly interested in the subject), the internet, and friends and family. He then added, “But it’s really doubtful they get their information from where scientists get their scientific information, which is from journals and colleagues.”

The traps and pitfalls of many of the public’s sources of information on climate change  

Dr. Nielsen-Gammon then walked the audience through the common “general interest media science news cycle”: A journalist becomes aware of a new study; the journalist chooses to write about the study because it would be interesting to readers on account it has some surprising results and can be explained in a single paragraph; the journalist then gathers some quotes from the author and one or two other scientists — “the opinions may or may not disagree, but it’s never a give and take”; and then the journalist writes and publishes the story. “But there’s generally never a follow up whatsoever, because the journalist has moved on to the next interesting thing, so the public never finds out what scientists learn in two or three years, which is whether the results actually stand up to scrutiny and what that scrutiny entails.”

Dr. Nielsen-Gammon then noted that “people realize that the root source of scientific information is the scientists themselves” and most understand the scientific method as it’s normally characterized, but what’s missing in that normal characterization is the fact that “all science is contextual.” You don’t just start with a hypothesis and go straight into experimentation, he noted, but rather first find out what people already know. “People are also generally aware that there must be good and bad scientific papers, but they generally also don’t have a sense of who decides that? Is it up to them? Is it up to some arbiter? If so, who? How does this work?”, he said.

What CCNF offers as a unique source for readers

“So we created CCNF to provide a source of information that doesn’t have many of the traps and pitfalls that other sources have.” He noted the following examples (which are in quotes and paraphrases below):

  • The posting on CCNF is driven by “what is interesting to scientists that participate” and “the scientists explain why it is interesting and why it is relevant… It is not necessarily going to be the latest paper or driven by what somebody else said that is wrong.”
  • “[CCNF] has a large number of contributing scientists, rather than the few you hear about in typical stories… so people can become aware of what the spectrum of scientists is like.” Readers can see “how much [CCNF’s community of climate and physical scientists] tend to agree [or] disagree and how disagreements are resolved.”
  • This is enabled by the Scientists’ Comment Thread (SCT), which is reserved for the people who contribute to the blog. This unique feature serves as a space where scientists can raise questions and discuss things among themselves, as well as respond to comments from the public appearing in the Public Comment Thread below the SCT.
  • The website also includes a fact checker, so that “the public can get a sense of the credibility of different sources” and can read scientists’ responses to common claims heard in the media.

After showing the audience the website, Dr. Nielsen-Gammon mentioned that this was created just one year ago and that CCNF is still in an intermediate stage, because “it is designed to start off with scientists blogging on the science and then move on to policy discussion about climate change.” “This first year is focused on scientific issues, but there are number of policy columnists waiting in the wings to discuss the different options for dealing with climate change based on the science, so we are going to feature a discussion among policymakers and between policymakers and scientists moving forward,” he said.

Areas to improve

Dr. Nielsen-Gammon then listed off some areas that the site and project need to improve on:

  • Extended dialogues and discussions. “Conversations that might take 15 minutes in the hallways at AGU take a longer time over the web.”
  • More participants and more posts to retain reader interest. [Note: This is what I call a “critical mass” in my other posts.]
  • Gaining funding.

Conclusion

Towards the end, Dr. Nielsen-Gammon mentioned how, incredibly, setting this up and administering the project has been a one-man operation for the most part.

“The amazing part of all this is that it was created by a single law student and former solider, Michael Quirke, who recognized that we really don’t have a source of scientific information like this that is not extremely filtered one way or another, so in the period after his military service and before law school he developed a prototype website, made contacts at his school, the University of Houston, and other places and got scientists involved.

It has been an interesting and beneficial experience for him–as a science and journalism experiment essentially, because he has been able to interact with scientists and learn why scientists have these points of view that are not necessarily what you hear about typically in the news media, and how the areas where scientists agree or disagree are different than the disagreement portrayed by the various special interests.

So the one question remaining is… will Michael pass the bar exam this spring?”

[Note: I appreciated the shout-out at the end. It got a chuckle from the audience. But the fact that this has been managed and administered with just one very overworked person shows the immense potential of this lean model, which can do more with less — far more than other conventional online publications. But this also underscores the need to get funding, because this has grown way beyond what a part-time law student can effectively manage and continue to capitalize on. Plus, I have to go prepare for the bar exam and then get a “real job” after that.]

Dr. Nielsen-Gammon ended with an advertisement that we are looking for participants that are:

  • articulate and can explain the science to a layperson audience;
  • willing to participate with an open mind and question others;
  • have some expertise in the area of climate change science or ocean acidification (this can include impacts far removed from atmospheric science); and
  • want to do blogging-type outreach, but do not have the time for a blog of their own.

Q & A

During the Q&A period, an audience member asked the question, “What is your target audience?” It was a good question. I would explain our audience as “climate wonks”, which is pretty much what Dr. Nielsen-Gammon said but in different language. This includes scientists, science journalists, science communicators, and folks that are really curious to hear what a good cross-section of climate and physical scientists have to say about climate change. Almost all are at least somewhat familiar with the issue of climate change.

But, as discussed in the annual Members’ Meeting later that day, we want to broaden this audience moving forward and enhance the platform so that different sections have different target audiences. For instance, we are planning on establishing a new section where science educators and communicators can contribute content geared for kids and regular folks that are true newcomers to this issue. This section could also serve as a space for educators and communicators to share resources and communicate with their peers. It could even be used as a quasi-fact checker or space for feedback (e.g., a teacher posting his or her lesson plan for feedback or posting the section on climate change from the school’s textbook for fact checking and commentary, respectively). CCNF’s science columnists (the actual credentialed scientists) would also be able to post in this section, and everyone will be able to communicate with one another in the Scientists’ Comment Thread. If CCNF were to get funded and this section becomes active, we would set up a totally separate website or social media platform for young students, which will feature content coming out of this section (so long as it passes muster among the scientists).

Afterward

Immediately following the oral session, the board and I went over to our booth to show some of the folks in the audience the website over some coffee. It was a fantastic event and garnered a lot of interest.

 

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