UGA’s Marshall Shepherd talks challenge of communicating science to public

Marshall Shepherd

One of the University of Georgia’s top scientists on Monday described the challenges of communicating science to non-scientists in the university’s annual Founder’s Day Lecture.

 

One challenge Marshall Shepherd said fellow scientists should avoid is using technical jargon when dealing with an American public that’s not scientifically literate.

One in four Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth, he said.

Half believe antibiotics will kill viruses, and significant minorities believe that the earth is flat, or that the water vapor contrails behind flying aircraft are actually chemicals, said Shepherd, an atmospheric scientist in UGA’s Geography Department and head of the department’s nationally known atmospheric sciences program.

Shepherd is a former president of the American Meteorological Society, and among other honors has also been named a Protector of the Earth by the Captain Planet Foundation.

Other popular misconceptions he noted:

  • Heat lightning is caused by the heat of the day.
  • It doesn’t get cold in the desert.
  • Weather forecasts are wrong 50 percent of the time.

But Americans also have a kind of faith in science, Shepherd told a crowd in the university’s chapel.

“Americans believe in science, just not its findings,” he said.

But scientists have a duty to communicate those findings to the public, he said. Otherwise, a flood of misinformation will rush in to fill that void.

Scientists should also avoid jargon when communicating with people outside their particular areas of knowledge, he said. For example, “manipulating” data may mean something very different to an ordinary person than a scientist. It’s better to use a phrase such as “scientific data processing,” he said.

A second challenge is knowing one’s audience and its core values.

“Craft your message in as way they can digest,” he said.

This includes different styles of communication.

A message meant for a scientific audience would typically begin with background, continue with supporting information and conclude with the results. For a more general audience, a message would begin with the bottom line, explain its implications, and then provide supporting details.

A third challenge is overcoming perceptions and psychology, he said.

Meteorologists told officials in Houston that Hurricane Harvey was going to bring huge rainfall. Shepherd wrote about it in Forbes magazine a week in advance, he said.

But afterward, politicians said that had no idea Harvey might bring more than 50 inches of rain.

Shepherd paraphrased another scientist’s observation: People have a hard time imagining what they’ve never known.

Many in Shepherd’s field of climate science often have to deal with a phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger Effect — people thinking they know more than they do and that they understand when they really don’t.

One example he noted was a public message from the CEO of United Airlines. It was an irresponsible prediction of what the upcoming winter would be like by citing the Farmer’s Almanac as his source.

A more recent challenge for scientists is social media, Shepherd said.

Most Americans now get their weather device electronically, such as a weather app installed on their smartphones.

But weather apps aren’t always right, and don’t handle rapidly changing situations very well, he said, citing the example of a baseball game at a stadium with a retractable roof. Its beginning was delayed for an hour because a facility manager relied on a weather app that wasn’t updated quickly, he said.

Shepherd gets four questions frequently, he said. What channel are you on? (He has a weekly TV show on The Weather Channel.) What’s the weather going to be tomorrow? What’s the weather going to be like next September on my daughter’s wedding day? Do you believe in climate change?

Shepherd cited Neil deGrasse Tyson on that fourth question: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

Follow Lee Shearer at www.facebook.com/LeeShearerABH or https://twitter.com/LeeShearer.

 

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