Former NASA meteorologist on climate change: Too many ‘social-media-rologists,’ ‘zombie theories’

Addressing climate change has become increasingly challenging, mostly because everyone has opinions about it and thinks they are a scientist, J. Marshall Shepherd said. Plus, distinguishing facts from rumors is growing more difficult because of how fast information spreads on social media, and because climate change is still politicized.

Shepherd, a professor at the University of Georgia and former research meteorologist at NASA, delivered that message during Confronting Climate Change, a University of Missouri symposium in March.

So, what can science do about those challenges? Be as explicit as possible, Shepherd said.

According to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, there is a significant gap between how scientists view humans impacting climate change and how people estimate their influence on Earth’s warming. Eighty-seven percent of scientists believe human activity affects climate change, while only 50 percent of U.S. adults believe they are responsible for it.

Shepherd identified six main challenges to conveying a scientific message, whether it’s related to the impact humans have on climate change or to other topics:

1. “Everyone has a bully pulpit now”

It has become increasingly difficult to identify credible sources on weather and climate, Shepherd said. “Who is the expert on weather and climate?” he said. “There are a lot of people there who have access to social media, blogs, that are perceived as experts.” Shepherd pointed to the rise of the “social media-rologist,” whose posts are shared and made popular online.

2. “Too many graphs, too much jargon, not enough common ground”

“As scientists and scholars, we have to be very aware of our message,” Shepherd said. “Know your audience.” He encouraged his audience to state facts clearly and to carefully explain any specific language.

Shepherd also noted that the public differs from scientists in its approach to receiving a message. While scientists might be more interested in the process that led to the results, the public wants to see and hear those results first. “We’re taught when we do our theses and dissertations to give a lot of background material, supporting materials,” Shepherd said. “But when we’re talking to the public, stakeholders, Congress, the public wants the bottom line first.”

According to Shepherd, scientific presentations to non-scientific audiences should include analogies and explanations of how things affect people, no matter where they are. “Why should Georgia care about the drought in California?” he asked. “Did you get a sandwich today? Because if you did, probably something from that sandwich was grown in California. Ninety-nine percent of almonds, 99 percent of walnuts, 95 percent of broccoli, 90 percent of tomatoes. You have to make those links.”

Marshall Sheperd speaks to an audience Saturday, March 19, 2016 at the 12th Annual LSSP, Confronting Climate Change, in the Monsanto Auditorium at the Bond Life Sciences Center. | Justin L. Stewart/Bond LSC
J. Marshall Shepberd addressed common challenges to communicating about climate change during a symposium at the University of Missouri. | Justin L. Stewart/Bond LSC

3. “I have 20 inches of global warming in my yard…”

People think weather and climate are the same thing, and they tend to disregard climate change because of some cold weather phenomena, Shepherd said. “This shows the lack of understanding between weather and climate,” he said. “Weather is your mood, climate is your personality. A bad mood today doesn’t necessarily say anything about your personality.”

4. Overcoming perception and psychology

When it comes to climate change, Shepherd said, “there’s a perception that it’s a left or right issue — ‘I’m a conservative, so I cannot believe in climate change.’ It’s not a left or right issue. It’s a human issue.” Additionally, from a behavioral perspective, people have trouble picturing a future drastically different from the present, Shepherd said, quoting psychologist Robert Gifford.

5. The causation problem

Many phenomena today are said to be caused by climate change. “Every time we have a big weather event,” he said, “people ask me: ‘Dr. Shepherd, was that caused by climate change?'” Yet everything needs to be backed up by science, and scientists need to explain how they attribute and connect each event to the overall topic of climate change, Shepherd said.

6. Zombie theories

“Zombies never go away,” Shepherd said. “They are these theories that are out there on social media and blogs, op-eds that just live on like zombies. There’s essentially nothing that can be said now that I haven’t heard.” In order to overcome these myths and theories related to climate change, scientists need to not only explain how phenomena occur but also to focus on their frequency and their global impact.

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