Tuesday, August 4, 2009 - 9:05 AM

SYMP 5-4: Communicating with the media about uncertainty: Tell 'em what you know

Mari N. Jensen, The University of Arizona


One of the hallmarks of science is questions. Even the abstract instructions for this ESA meeting indicate that the talk "should address some question." Not necessarily answer it -- just address it.

Conversations between scientists and reporters about environmental sciences often involve the reporter asking the expert questions such as: How fast will it get warmer? Is the drought over? What effect will losing Species A have on the ecosystem? Members of the media look for certainty from scientific experts, but instead are often given answers like, "More research is needed." "We don't know, because this species is understudied." Or "Our best guess is ... ."

It appears that the so-called experts don't know anything -- so then what's the point of asking them? In fact, in the political arena, the other side offers certainty: The amount of CO2 humans have added to the atmosphere is minuscule, the Earth has had warmer climates in the past, and we're still here. Besides, it will be good for agriculture because plants need carbon dioxide to grow; Rainfall has been normal for the past four months; Extinction is a natural process.

The problem for the reporter on deadline is -- who you gonna call? And who will sound more credible to your editor and your readers?


This talk will discuss how experts who are all-too-aware of the amount they don't know can better communicate what they do indeed know, error bars and all, to the media, and thereby the public.