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Don Shelby: Climate Experts to Ratchet Up Language

by June 2, 2011

In his most recent article for MinnPost, Don Shelby describes a meeting he had with three climate science thought leaders about communicating their scientific findings to the public more effectively.  He describes a current message shift that many of them will undertake when fielding questions from reporters about global warming.

The example Shelby gives is when a reporter asks a climate scientist if current weather phenomena are due to global warming.  Rather than the typical, “no single event can be contributed to global warming,” the response will shift to, “no single event can be attributed to global warming, but we told you this was going to happen.”  The former statement has the potential to reinforce complacency by those who are skeptical of global warming or its predicted impacts.  Those supporting this new strategy, as Shelby explains, are hoping that adding a twist will reduce or eliminate some of this fodder for complacency.

Anecdotes aside, it’s important to point out here that Shelby really keys into the information gap between scientists and the public, especially concerning contentious topics such as global warming.

It is my personal thought that scientists don’t necessarily have to be great public communicators as much as they need to be great discoverers of truth and that it is up to other groups to act as liaisons, conveying the message to the public.  I am unsure about the strategy of just increasing the rhetorical firepower in an already heated battle of information.  It is my contention that this will only lead to a further divide and an increase in us-vs-them notions surrounding these debates.

At Dialogue Earth, rather than deepening the divide, we seek to pave a middle ground to foster communication based on common values between the many varying viewpoints.

One of the ways to do this effectively is to try to grasp a better understanding of public sentiment around current hot button issues. Programmers and researchers at Dialogue Earth have been working to craft our tool, Pulse, which will leverage crowdsourcing and, one day, machine learning to tease out sentiment that the public offers up readily through debates and statements in social media.

Through our method, and using our tool, we will be in position to build a trustworthy source of broadly agreed upon information to the public so they will have a better understanding of the issues.  Rather than just throwing information at the public, we will be able to craft a message based on the popularity of an issue and on the nuanced ways in which people view it.

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