As the world faces more and more critical environmental issues and turns to science for possible answers, the need for the scientific community to re-evaluate its ability to develop meaningful communication with the general public becomes imperative. Now, along with such disciplines as hypothetical testing, methodology, and results analysis, must be added media communications and public relations. No greater example of this need could be better demonstrated than by what has come to be called "Climategate."
Just before the recent March Copenhagen Climate Conference, a series of emails from the highly respected Climate Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia were somehow hacked and posted online. While all basically taken out of context, the emails seemed to imply that the researchers were denying access to or hiding data that did not support their research conclusions. Having hit the online community - a community made up of legitimate news outlets, bloviating blogs, and a soapbox for any person with an opinion no matter how extreme - it exploded into a public relations disaster for climate change advocacy. Charges of worldwide scientific conspiracies, corrupt scientists, and bogus global warming theories flooded cyberspace and, according to some, impacted the effectiveness of the Copenhagen conference. And collectively, it all came to be known as Climategate.
Now, an independent review of CRU's work, published last week, has officially cleared the research group and the participating scientists of any wrongdoing. In the end, there were no nefarious schemes, no attempts to corrupt or circumvent the peer review process, and no forcing of the data to meet preconceived notions regarding global warming.
But, in general, the media reacted to this new development with a big yawn.
If you are someone familiar with public relations and crisis communications, you know that this does not come as a big surprise. It doesn't make for a splashy headline; it's not sexy; and it means that all prior media exposure was potentially inaccurate - and that's a confession that's not going to necessarily make the 6 o'clock news.
The lessons to be learned from Climategate are the need for science to have complete transparency and, by doing so, to better understand how the language can be understood or misunderstood by the media and the general public. These are lessons that we are demanding our politicians and corporate leaders get attuned to, and so the scientific community will need to do the same.
When the research emails first exploded on the news, I recalled reading about one item of terminology that caused quite a stir. In preparing a graph presentation, a CRU researcher referred to using a "trick" in representing the data. It was not meant to be a deception but a reference to a valid technique for preparing data in a graph, one of many "tricks" that can be used to effectively illustrate information. The connotation of it being something devious was ascribed by the media and, in particular, the critics of climate change - and so a full-fledged PR boondoggle was born.
That particular use of terminology struck me because of my background in the film business. In describing stunts or clever events taking place in a film or television program or commercial, the term "gag" is often used by industry people - "We're going to shoot the car explosion gag next." "The commercial ends with the gag of the dog talking." The gag may not necessarily be funny - it could be sad, poignant, or even dangerous - but it's still referred to as the "gag." But it's that kind of insider lingo that can also be misconstrued or distorted, as was the case in Climategate.
The reviewers of the CRU research, while exonerating the participants of any wrongdoing, did level some general criticisms about the level of secrecy that exists with regards to the safeguarding of data. The comment was less directed to the CRU as it was to the scientific community as a whole.
As reported by Damian Carrington in the Guardian Observer, "'Like it or not, this [demand for openness] indicates a transformation in the way science has to be conducted in this century.' That, say many, will be the lasting legacy of the independent review published last week into the controversial emails between climate scientists that were stolen from the University of East Anglia and posted online."
Scientists will need to look inward into their own culture, rethinking the processes that researchers use to collect and sometimes shield data from the prying eyes of other researchers - a protective attitude that can backfire and become suspect by the media. And with such globally important environmental challenges as climate change, ocean acidification, and chemical pollution gaining more attention and momentum with each passing day, scientists must be more cognizant than ever that what they say and how they say it - basic media communications 101 - must be skills they need to master, rather than leaving it to others to misinterpret.
Unlike the detail and precision of scientific instruments, the microscope of the media and public perception can be wildly inaccurate.
Read the independent review of the climate change email controversy.
Read the Guardian Observer article.
More reaction to Climategate distortions from change.org