Twitter: the new ‘global cooling’ frontline for climate scientists

Don’t lecture, be funny and beware the Daily Mail…three climate scientists advise on how to cope with Twitter

Source: Flickr/Duncan Hull

Source: Flickr/Duncan Hull

By Sophie Yeo

Climate scientists are increasingly taking to Twitter to explain their often complex findings to the general public – and the hot topic is the #globalwarmingpause.

Writing in an article published today in Nature, British climate scientists Tamsin Edwards, Ed Hawkins and Doug McNeall say that social media is a vital tool  for engaging with a sceptical audience and discussing why land temperature rises appear to have stalled in the past 16 years.

“If climate scientists are to communicate more effectively, then increasing their online and interactive presence offers a real opportunity to reach a broader range of interested parties directly,” they write.

With many scientists still investigating why this has happened, sceptics have seized upon the pause as evidence that man-made climate change is made up, with Twitter an increasingly popular venue for debate.

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The so-called pause is also a key part of the discussion for those who use it as a reason to discourage urgent action to tackle climate change.

Commentators are encouraged in part by media coverage of this “grand whodunit” of climate science, say the authors.

But while engagement on social media can be “personally and professionally” rewarding, the scientists add that this needs to be weighed up against the “real risks of feeling under attacks”.

So how can scientists plunge into the hostile waters of Twitter and emerge unscathed? Here are their tips:

1. Be funny and don’t pretend you know everything.
“We find that being defensive, over-confident or dogmatic are not successful strategies. Humour and humility are useful in keeping people on board and one’s sanity intact,” they write.

2. Conversations work better than lectures. “From our experience, the online ‘audience’ is often technically proficient, but neither captive nor necessarily interested or patient, so conversations are more successful than lessons. We always expect, and try, to learn something from those we seek to ‘teach’.”

3. Approach scepticism as an opportunity for scientific discussion. “We should see the pause as an opportunity, offering a clear hook to explore exciting aspects of climate science; to draw back the curtain on active scientific discussions that are often invisible to the public…The challenge is to embrace the complexity of the situation, to acknowledge the uncertainty and the nuance, to welcome questions and investigation and show the process of climate science in good health.”

4. Watch out for the Daily Mail

“Trends in online searches suggest that media articles, even if published in a single country, can drive interest and discussion among the global public,” they write. The authors have traced peaks in interest in the global warming “pause” to high profile media coverage of the topic, including peaks in October 2012 and March 2013, which potentially point to articles by David Rose in the Daily Mail. Coverage in the New Statesman which suggested that global warming has stopped led to a peak in interest in early 2008.

5. Make sure your boss appreciates you

“There is a small but dedicated community of climate scientists engaging on blogs and social media10,11, with diverse approaches to online engagement: more would be welcomed…Additional recognition of the value and importance of such activities among academic employers would also help.”


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