Royal Meteorological Society

A language problem?

Bob Ward, Obama quote, climate change

The last generation: our urgent need to communicate effectively.

The beverage was prepared by pushing water (at 94ºC and 1.0 MPa) through a pellet of coffee beans ground to an average of 10 – 100 μm diameter. The pellet had been compacted (“tamped”) using a variable pressure as described in ref [1]. Following a manual transfer of the cup to the table, the drink was consumed at a temperature of 55ºC. Fruity overtones were noted.

Would you rush to try this coffee?

Last week I wrote about the effects of climate change on coffee and how climate scientists are trying to reach out and communicate more about the science behind global warming. But there was a crucial question left un-answered, just how do we communicate? Do we all speak the same language or is the dry impersonal prose of science a hindrance to discussion?

To start with the encouraging news. It turns out that scientists are a pretty trusted bunch. In a recent survey 79% of the British public trusted scientists to tell the truth (compared with 21% for politicians). Part of the problem for politicians may be the language that they tend to use, “if I am honest…”, “to be fair…” etc, are apparently statements that haemorrhage trust. These are not statements that you will hear made by scientists. The language of science is cold and dry, utterly devoid of the personal. So, coupled with the results of the survey, it is tempting to think that we should continue to use our cold and impersonal language when communicating things like climate change. It seems that this works.

Steam, scattering, colour

How would you describe your coffee? Do those who read your description read it in the sense that you wrote it?

Only we would be wrong, the language that we use is (apparently) not helping us to communicate and we need to change it (as the meeting was told in an impassioned talk by Bob Ward). An average scientific paper for example is designed to convey exactly what we did, how we did it and to eliminate any possible element of confusion. Ideally, we would write a scientific paper so that someone else could read it, understand precisely what we have done and repeat the experiment under very similar conditions. In this context, our dry language can work very well but does it work generally when communicating results more widely?

To see the problem, compare the (scientifically written) coffee review that started this article with an extract from a recent review of Silhouette Cheapside by Brian’s coffee spot:

The coffee offering’s simple: there’s a single-origin espresso from Notes, a Brazilian Cachoeirinha during my visit. As an espresso this was gorgeous: fruity and complex, it rewarded me with every sip, holding its own right to the end. I also tried it as a flat white, which was very smooth and surprisingly different, the coffee and milk perfectly complimenting each other.

A visit to Cheapside may be imminent.

So this is the problem, while the scientific language may convey accurately what was consumed, it can’t convey it fully. Language that communicates more generally includes details about how we feel: “gorgeous”, “rewarded me with every sip”, “surprisingly different”. The language used in Brian’s coffee spot in no way detracts from an accurate description of the espresso or the flat white. Arguably your idea of the drinks that Brian sampled at Silhouette is far better formed in your mind than the idea of the espresso described by the scientific-language description at the start of this post. Can we extend this reasoning to scientific descriptions of the science of climate change and its likely effects?

Earth from space, South America, coffee

Our common home.
The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

Perhaps you could imagine yourself in the position of a climate scientist: your research is showing you that the planet that you live on is likely to suffer significant change as a result of something that we humans are doing but can also do something about. I would guess that you are likely to get quite worked up about it. Wouldn’t it come across better if scientists were to use some of that emotion in how they communicate? Wouldn’t it convey our meaning more effectively?

Immediately though we come up against this issue of trust. Does the cold and dry scientific language somehow better communicate that the argument is evidence based? In this line of reasoning, subjective descriptions would be ok for things like describing a good coffee but not ok for describing climate change. And yet I can’t help feel that even here there is a problem. The philosopher of science Michael Polanyi argued that “Fairness in discussion has been defined as an attempt at objectivity, i.e. preference for truth even at the expense in losing force of argument”. Our “preference for truth” must include the fact that we have an emotional investment in the argument. It is our planet that we are destroying. Indeed, attempts to hide this emotional investment may even lead others to suspect climate scientists of other, more nefarious, secondary motives (financial gain, global conspiracy). However there is an important caveat on Polanyi’s argument, he writes: “[f]airness and tolerance can hardly be maintained in a public contest unless its audience appreciates candour and moderation and can resist false oratory…”.

screenshot of tweet from Digitalnun

A thought provoking tweet from @Digitalnun – science communication goes both ways.

Which brings me to a last point. A recent tweet by Digitalnun posed a question on related lines: does careless reading or careless writing lead to more problems? What we write is not necessarily what people read and if we allow emotion to enter into the cold language of science then we may increase the likelihood of misinterpretation (whether deliberate or not). Will those who read our attempts to communicate science with full honesty be able to resist false oratory, twisting our words to imply a ‘war’ or financial interest? Which is more appropriate, to remain dispassionate and potentially unconvincing or to be more honest in our discussion at the possible expense of losing trust? It’s not a question which seems to have an easy answer. What do you think? Do scientists have a language problem? Would you trust a discussion on climate change more or less if you thought that the scientist actually cared about the planet too? Let me know, either in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter.

[1] is hyperlinked above but if you are in the habit of scrolling down to look at the references, you can find the article about tamping in “coffee research” published here.

The Polanyi quotes are from “Science, Faith and Society” by Michael Polanyi, University of Chicago Press, 1964 (2nd edition)

 

Talking about coffee and climate change

coffee cake Muni

Coffee and chocolate, both of which may be badly affected by climate change.

Last week the Royal Meteorological Society hosted an afternoon of talks and discussion titled “Avoiding Myth, Mayhem and Myopia: the challenge of climate science communication”. The meeting coincided with a social media campaign “#showthelove” which aimed to highlight something that you fear is at risk because of climate change. As coffee is definitely one of those things that is at risk (and indeed is already being affected by climate change), I went along to the discussion to see what is already being done to communicate climate science and also, what we can do as science communicators.

Although I do not research climate science (my research involves superconductors), there are many links between coffee and the climate: clouds of steam, turbulent movement, periodic waves in the cup and of course the greenhouse effect. Additionally, the risks that coffee faces from the effects of climate change are dire. Summarised in the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (AR5), the risks to coffee are threefold, 1) from a warming climate 2) from more extreme weather events, 3) from pests that have increased due to (1) and (2).

Currently about 27million acres of the Earth’s land is used to cultivate coffee, most of which is grown by small scale farmers. The effects of warming mean that this area is going to decrease substantially. For us consumers this is going to mean a dent in our pockets but for the estimated 120 million people worldwide who depend on coffee growing for their livelihood, it is likely to be catastrophic.

room full of scientists and others, RMetS meeting, discussion time

A good crowd meant a lively discussion at “Avoiding Myth, Mayhem and Myopia”. What should we communicate about climate science and how?

The odd weather patterns that are going to be more common are also going to affect the coffee yield. Severe droughts are likely to happen more frequently (this year’s drought in Brazil has actually prompted the government there to consider importing (robusta) coffee beans). Moreover the combination of higher temperatures and greater rainfall that has been seen recently in Central America has ‘helped’ outbreaks of coffee rust while the berry borer beetle is also benefitting from the warmer climate worldwide (at the expense of the coffee crop).

Among climate scientists, the issues are clear (for the world rather than just for coffee). Climate change is already happening and it is caused by human activity in the form of greenhouse gas emissions. The problems are how to communicate this knowledge both to policy makers and industry and to the public so that we, as a society, can do something about it. What do each of these groups want to know and how best to reach them? There were discussions at the meeting about how to engage with politicians and to ensure that the message is properly transmitted so as to translate into action but for me (as a non-climate-scientist who drinks a lot of coffee), the interesting bit was about communicating with the public. In this sense it was great to see that the meeting had attracted a diverse audience with both Oxfam and the Green Party represented. Two questions dominated here: How is climate change affecting us now (/will affect us in the future)? And, what can we each do about it?

Bob Ward, Obama quote, climate change

The last generation: Bob Ward emphasising the urgent need for scientists to communicate effectively.

In terms of the second question, it seemed agreed that the best thing that we each can do is to reduce our carbon footprint. A concern echoed by the Society’s recent communiqué written with other professional bodies (that you can read here). Simple things like driving less or buying more efficient washing machines (or other household appliances when they need to be replaced) can make a difference. Of course, if you wanted to, you can have a go at calculating your carbon footprint using tools such as this guide by David MacKay (it is a lot easier than it may seem at first glance). It was this aspect of what ‘we’ can do that some audience members (including a Green Party representative) thought was a key thing that scientists working with the Royal Meteorological Society needed to communicate. Expect to hear far more about how you can make a difference.

In general, it seemed that there was a clear feeling that the scientists there wanted to communicate climate science and the science of climate change more insistently and more clearly. Indeed there was a rallying call for us all to increase our science communication by Bob Ward (the Policy and Communications Director at the Grantham Research Institute of the London School of Economics). But how should scientists communicate? Is there an intrinsic conflict between the language typically used by scientists and the urgency of the message? Should climate scientists use emotion in their discussions about climate change and what about issues of trust? All these are too much for this piece and so I shall leave those questions until next week, for now perhaps, it would be worth asking people who read this to suggest something that they are doing to reduce their carbon footprint, it doesn’t have to be much and it doesn’t need to be about coffee (though it would be nice if there were some coffee ideas) but please do share your ideas for reducing your carbon footprint, it is likely that they will be useful for others too.

Next week: Do we speak the same language? Is scientific language a help or a hindrance when it comes to communicating climate change?