The global warming debate stirs up passions from both supporters and deniers.

One thing that is clearly lost in most of the “popular” debate is the underlying science.

There was an article that studied this: “Balance as bias: global warming and the US Presige Press“.

They make an interesting case about why the popular press coverage of the issue, under the guise of “balanced reporting,” actually skews away from the science.

Here’s a simple thought experiment to illustrate how “balanced” reporting is biased

Say we have the “Purples” and the “Yellows” – two groups of people who have a strongly held belief in their favorite color.

There are 95 Purples and 5 Yellows.

We also have two other groups:  “Reporters” and “Undecideds”.

Undecideds listen to Reporters.  Reporters have the job of “balanced” reporting of the Purple vs Yellow debate.

So, every time the debate crops up, they report “Purple said XXX” and then balance it with “Yellow responds YYYY.”

Let’s do the math, and compare that to what “Undecideds” will end up reading.

They will read 50% of the reporting on Purple’s side, and 50% on Yellow’s side (if it is truly “balanced”).

So, if there are 100 news reports, there will be a total of 200 statements.

100 for Purple, and 100 for Yellow.

Already it sounds to Neutrals like Yellow is “just as valid” as purple, because we’ve got “fair and balanced” reporting (despite that Purples are actually in the vast majority).

But it gets worse. Because the Yellow population is so small, the press ends up asking the same people over and over again (resampling from a limited pool).  Those five Yellow folks get a lot of practice, and refine their message over time.  Plus, they have extra incentive to promote Yellow, because they get $$$ from donors for it.  So they get really, really good at promoting Yellowness.

However, the Purple folks only get asked once in a while for quotes.  They don’t get much practice. And they don’t get any $$$ for being purple, so they have no real need to refine their message.  Plus they’re the kind of folk who don’t really like “marketing” themselves anyway.  They think “marketing” is a strategy only for, well, marketers.

So, then, you have the “balanced” reporting that gives the undecideds the impression of a 50/50 split, on top of a more refined message from the yellows.

Who’s going to win that debate?

I don’t care what topic you pick (global warming or colors of the rainbow), the minority group with the refined message wins the round.

That’s why Science Marketing is so absolutely vital!

A while ago I wrote about one of my own major “science marketing blunders” (and I have more stories to come).

But this global warming thing is a similar blunder writ large.

On that point, I just saw a tweet from Michael O’Loughlin that is relevant: “So tired of science not being vetted through academia, rather it is being spun by media all the time.”

There are two fallacies in this thinking:

1. That academia is particularly good at “vetting” (I say this having just received yet another crackpot paper review last night from a reviewer who must have been asleep – they missed the point by a mile – while the other reviewer clearly “got it”)

2. That this is the fault of “the media”.


It is our own fault as scientists, because we, collectively, are horrible at marketing our work to the general public.

I’m not trying to start a war here about whether global warming is real or not – or whether we should do something about it or not.

I’m simply saying that, if the majority of the scientific evidence on the topic says one thing, yet the majority of the populace believes the opposite thing, then we, as scientists, have done a horrible job of getting our message out.  We have failed at marketing.

Why do we do such a horrible job at getting the message out?

There are multiple reasons:

  • Because we’re boring. Seriously boring.  I see talk and paper titles all the time that are fluffed up with haughty buzzwords.  It may make the speaker/author look smart, but what it doesn’t do is get a broad audience interested.
  • And since we’re boring, our message gets drowned out by the sea of noise out there in the world – Pop stars, Olympics, Car Ads, Beer Ads, Internet Marketers, iPods, iPads, American Idol, Lost… you name it.  It all competes for attention, every day and all the time.  Boring is going to loose that competition, every time.
  • Worse still, scientists haven’t caught up with modern internet communications.  Visit a typical scientist’s lab website. It is full of tedious facts going on and on about how great we are.  It doesn’t get updated often.  It is not particularly interactive.  We don’t promote ourselves on Twitter or Facebook.  The list goes on. I might want to change it, excepting the following point:
  • There is no direct “reward” for marketing or promoting our science to the outside world. This is a humdinger. As a practicing scientist, the best way I can be rewarded (if I care about that kind of thing) is to keep my head down, work hard, publish papers, and apply for grants (then apply for more grants).  Maybe I should mentor a few students and teach a few classes here and there.  That’s it.  If I decide to take it upon myself to do something outside of that – this blog for instance – there is no reward, and quite often, a negative reward.  It takes time away from the grant writing I should be doing.
  • We don’t understand that different media require different messages.  Scientific papers may require more rigorous terminology – but communication with the general public requires inspiring, interesting, and exciting words.  They are two different beasts, and almost no scientists I know are trained in the art of communicating with the public (though some figure it out).
  • How many times have I heard some scientist on NPR saying “the evidence is inconclusive” or somesuch.  Well, I’ve got news: the evidence for everything, always, is inconclusive! But ordinary people who aren’t scientists don’t understand that kind of waffling.  They get up, go to work, and get a paycheck.  If they don’t go to work, they get fired, and there’s no paycheck.  None of that stuff is “waffling” – it is reality.  There’s no “63.2%” probability there.  So it is hard for someone living in that kind of reality to understand people who sit there and waffle about “we don’t really know how much the temperature will rise”.  Come on, folks!  Some of you are pretending as if human belief has nothing to do with it, and that science is all just about “facts.”  By pretending this, you damage your scientific cause – whatever that may be.

Science is not just about “facts”.  If it were, then explain this phenomenon to me: science goes in fads and fashions.  Once it was a “fact” that stomach acid caused ulcers – until a new “fact” came along that H. pylori causes ulcers.  Those two “facts” contradict one another.

That’s because they are not facts, they are beliefs, supported by some body of evidence.  And those beliefs often change as scientific fads come and go, and as new evidence accumulates.

I’m not saying that global warming is a fad.

What I am saying is that I know many people on the “yes global warming is happening” side of the debate, who act as if the debate is about “facts”.  When you get into a debate and pretend it is about facts when it is actually about belief, you’re going to lose, every time.

That’s because you’re debating from a weak platform.  You’re not admitting to yourself that you actually believe something, and so you’re not allowing yourself to argue the point effectively.

Hence, you go up against someone who does unabashedly believe in their side of the argument, and they’re going to quite frequently come out on top – regardless of “facts”.

If scientists would learn “marketing” this wouldn’t be such a ridiculous debate

Here’s an interesting tidbit: good marketers are just as scientific as any scientist, perhaps more.

They test everything.  Every headline, every word, every ad gets tested – because it is the difference between money and no money in the pocket.

Hence, I find it rather ironic that no scientist I know of is out there testing the efficacy of their own scientific communications.  There is no “split testing” for the efficacy journal article headlines or lab websites.  Hence, most of them are not effective.

Simply put, marketing is a science: the science of swaying belief.

Hence, it is a second irony that the marketers of the anti-global-warming debate are using the science of belief so much more effectively than the scientists with the pro-global-warming point of view.

And that, dear reader, is why I need to get back to writing my book about “Marketing Your Science”. (3 chapters done, a few more partly done – it won’t be that long, if I can just find the time to work on it).

    2 replies to "Global warming as a science marketing blunder"

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