The Power of Positive: Science Communication Lessons from Katharine Hayhoe

April 24, 2014 | 11:48 am
Aaron Huertas
Former contributor

Our friend and long-time collaborator Katharine Hayhoe has been named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people. Obviously, it’s quite an honor and it’s one she richly deserves. To mark the occasion, I wanted to share some lessons about science communication I’ve learned from her that go beyond the basics.

Listen Before You Talk

Often, scientists mistakenly treat communication as a one-way street. As social scientist Dietram Scheufle puts it, there’s no such thing as an “unframed message.” Audiences receive scientific information differently based on their attitudes, beliefs, and values. The best science communicators meet their audiences where they’re at.

For Dr. Hayhoe that means listening to people who are using climate research, whether they’re ranchers, property lawyers, or elected officials. She tailors information for them that helps them do their jobs.

It can also mean finding common ground, even when people have very different beliefs about the world. One of the things that makes Dr. Hayhoe’s communication work unique is that she’s an evangelical Christian and she’s very open about her faith. There are a lot of religious scientists out there, despite the stereotype, but few of them publicly work to bridge the perceived divide between science and religion. (Dr. Hayhoe’s work in this field was recently highlighted in Years of Living Dangerously.)

I’ll never forget Dr. Hayhoe explaining to a group of Earth scientists how she talks about climate change to people who are skeptical about the geologic age of the Earth. A lot of scientists might be dismissive of such an audience or think that they were simply unreachable on this topic. That would be a mistake.

Instead, Dr. Hayhoe meets people where they’re at. It turns out you can paint a perfectly accurate and vivid picture of human-induced climate change by looking back at just the past few thousand years – or just the past few hundred. As she went through her slides – which featured some recent solar cycles and the very recent spike in carbon dioxide and global temperatures – the room full of Earth scientists sat silently for a few seconds as she highlighted the science without delving into the deep geologic past. They cocked their heads sideways and studied the graph. Then they started to get it. Then they applauded. Loudly.

It was an incredible insight for them and one that, hopefully, allowed a few of those scientists to bridge other divides with their audiences.

Stay Positive

Science is built on negatives. Peer-review is often an exercise in shooting things down. At scientific meetings, researchers exchange startlingly blunt, pointed critiques of one another’s work. To be clear, this is a good thing. Science is the ultimate exercise in critical thinking, with an emphasis on the critical.

But as scientist-turned filmmaker Randy Olson has pointed out, the tendency to think negatively can hold scientists back when it comes to communicating their research to the public. For instance, it’s typical for scientists to worry about being misquoted or misunderstood by journalists in ways that would cause their scientific colleagues to criticize them. As a result, many scientists simply don’t engage, especially those who have been burned once.

Dr. Hayhoe remains remarkably positive about her communication work. That’s held true, even as she’s faced down some of the most mean-spirited public scrutiny I’ve ever seen. In 2011, groups opposed to climate policy discovered that Newt Gingrich had commissioned Dr. Hayhoe to write about climate change in a forthcoming book. This was in the middle of a presidential primary, and the outside groups, as well as Rush Limbaugh, quickly bombarded Dr. Hayhoe with public attacks — many of them vitriolic and sexist — to push Gingrich away from climate issues. Gingrich quickly caved and dropped the book project.

Dr. Hayhoe was caught in the middle of a very public political maelstrom. It was an incredible challenge. Instead of retreating into silence or simply admonishing her critics, she used the attacks as an opportunity to explain her work and tell her story. She took an overwhelmingly negative event and turned it into something positive. That should be an inspiration to other scientists who face smaller, but still significant risks when they do publicly facing work.

Build Each Other Up

Months after the Gingrich flap, my colleague Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel and I met with Dr. Hayhoe as she was passing through DC. She showed me a letter thousands of evangelicals had written to her in the midst of the attacks. They simultaneously praised her for her scientific work and celebrated their mutual religious faith. It was incredibly moving to know that so many people reached out to her in a time of crisis.

Dr. Hayhoe said something that day that hit me like a thunderbolt: “Scientists are trained to tear each other down. Evangelicals are trained to build each other up.”

Indeed, scientists spend a lot of time — maybe too much time — shooting things down, whether it’s in the scientific literature or in the public sphere. They often ask themselves what’s wrong with something before they begin to think of what could be right with it. When their colleagues are attacked, they often think, “They had it coming,” before they think, “How can I help?”

Dr. Hayhoe has faced incredible communications challenges in her career and, through hard work and a positive attitude, has succeeded, often wildly, in educating and engaging people around her research.

If she can do it, other scientists can, too. And when it comes to science communication, we can all do more to build each other up.