Why Scientists Are Awful Media Spokespersons

If you believe in global climate change, these numbers should scare you. According to a New York Times article from last week:

“In 2008, 50 percent of conservatives said the effects of global warming were already occurring. That number dropped to 30 percent this year, according to a Gallup poll conducted in March. A survey by Yale and George Mason universities in July found that 38 percent of Republicans don’t believe global warming is happening.”

 
With Republicans reclaiming the House and gaining ground in the Senate, climate change advocates will have a tougher fight than ever before. And scientists won’t make it any easier for those advocates to succeed.
Why? Because scientists regularly undermine their own work when appearing as media spokespersons. Here are three reasons they fail – and what they can do to improve.

1. They Hedge
Scientists don’t speak the language of absolutes, but rather the language of theories, studies, and hypotheses. They load their interviews with phrases such as: 

  • “the emerging conclusion seems to be”
  • “there is increasing evidence that”
  • “a recent study suggests”

But media interviews plagued with hedge phrases are squandered opportunities. The average television news sound bite is just seven seconds long, and hedge phrases cost too much of their limited airtime. Worse, climate change skeptics share no such concerns about hedging their language – they just communicate with broadly understandable, everyday language.

2. They Focus on Facts
Facts are beautiful things, but they don’t necessarily move people. Good communicators align their facts to an audience’s needs, so scientists need to create a larger context for their facts. Instead of simply stating evidence, they need to tell the audience what it means for them.
3. They Speak to Their Peers
I often ask scientists how they can express a complicated point more understandably. They regularly respond with something along the lines of, “Well, I need to leave that small detail in there, or else my colleagues will give me grief.” They’re forgetting a critical point: the primary audience isn’t their peers – it’s the general public. That means they need to lose some important but unnecessary detail in the pursuit of a larger goal – being understood. That’s not “dumbing it down,” but rather the very essence of effective communication. And they better believe that climate change skeptics fully understand that.
CONCLUSION
I’ve worked with hundreds of scientists through the years, and have great affection for their work. But the era in which scientists are “right” just because they say so is over. In order to be effective, scientists now have to carry the burden of not only being technically accurate, but also communications savvy. Only when they learn to leave their inner policy wonk behind during media interviews will their work be viewed with the credibility it deserves.