2011-05-26 12:07:35General advice on media interviews
John Cook


Some good general advice from Don Shelby:

The first step before accepting an interview invite is to thoroughly scope the program host.  Is this news-talk in the conventional sense?  I mean, by that, interviewers who are seeking your particular information.  Or is it a personality driven show in which the host takes a scientific or political position and is out to gun you down.  The best you can hope for in the latter case is getting out of their with your skin on.  The audience is rooting for the host. 

As the studies at Maryland and Michigan show, the facts won't change set minds.  Twain said that it isn't wise to get into an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel.  A talk show host with an agenda and a personality to support will always get in the last word.  As there is consensus on the need to avoid engaging in debates with scientists from the other side, I suspect the same can be said for radio, television and newspaper personalities who have enough Marshall and Heartland info with which to confuse and obfuscate. Maybe I'll work on a list of working radio hosts who must come out the winner in every interview. 

John's interview was with people who call themselves journalists, and John was given a chance to speak and he did well calling out the bad information supplied by one of the hosts. 

David was in the arena being fed to the lions and the bloodthirsty were in the stands.  He fought valiantly, though, I'm afraid, vainly.  Jones is a talented bully and uses repetition of scientifically meaningless "maths" effectively. David could have made some dent in the "insignificant" contribution of Australians of CO2 by using John and Scott's lovely comeback that fractional amounts of arsenic, daily added to a persons diet, will eventually kill him.  The bathtub analogue doesn't hold up as well.   Maybe Susan, Arron and Paul have some ideas on good analogues, metaphors and even parables that  resonate.
2011-05-27 13:32:45Nice advice from Susan Hassol
John Cook


I thought this was great advice plus a nice seesaw metaphor:

Since you specifically asked me to weigh in on the question of dealing with hostile questioning: My general advice is to maintain your credibility while being as forceful as appropriate under the circumstances. I agree about not being deferential to the usual nonsense. However, I'm not sure trying to "shame" the interviewer is a good tactic. No matter how many times you have heard the same debunked denier talking points, to some/most of the audience, these are new, and often sound intuitively true if you don't know anything about this. You are best off answering the questions simply and clearly, using good metaphors.

Taking control of the interview is always a good strategy: guiding the questioning, re-posing poorly posed questions, and making sure you get your main points made repeatedly. Also address the audience directly; remember that the interviewer is only a conduit, not the ultimate audience. It's also important to make sure you are really hearing the question being asked. In a couple of interviews sent to this group recently I have heard you and others not really hearing and responding to the question asked.

For example, the interviewer asked you, John, what percentage of total CO2 emitted is from human activities. You answered a different question when you said 40%. You answered how much the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has gone up due to human activity (Susan Solomon did this same thing in front of Congress when IPCC 2007 was released). The interviewer was actually correct that the vast majority of CO2 emissions are natural. What people need to understand is that the natural carbon cycle was in balance before we started burning coal and oil and clearing forests. Huge amounts of CO2 were produced by nature and roughly the same amounts were taken up by nature. We upset that balance. Someone asked for analogies for this; here are a few:

It's as though the carbon cycle was a see-saw and it was in balance, with natural emissions on one side and natural uptake on the other - so it was level. Human activity has tipped that see-saw to one side. It doesn't matter that the amount of human emissions is comparatively small relative to natural ones, the issue is that those human emissions have tipped the balance, tipped the scale into imbalance. Nature has helped us out by absorbing some of our emissions, but it cannot keep up. Another analogy: a piece of cake has a relatively small number of calories compared to everything you eat in a day. But if you eat a piece of cake every day, you'll gain weight. And as Mike just mentioned, the bathtub analogy works too.

2011-05-27 13:34:01Elaboration from Lou Grinzo
John Cook


Lou follows up on Susan's seesaw with some nice visual imagery:

One thing I've found works well is to add a LITTLE humor to the imagery.  The seesaw example is really good -- intuitive, common experience, etc., but in using it, I would say something like, "You have a seesaw that's level because the sumo wrestlers sitting on each end weigh the same.  Then a chihuahua hops up on the one wrestler's lap, and the whole thing slowly tips, leaving one wrestler on the ground and the other stranded 5 feet in the air.  The chihuahua is man's CO2 emissions
-- just enough have built up since the Industrial Revolution to tip our global seesaw out of balance."

The bath tub/kitchen sink one is certainly good, but there's a chance listeners have heard it before.  Plus, it's tougher to turn into a good visual.

My favorite example of ad hoc imagery was Richard Alley at a Congressional hearing using his own head as a model for Earth and talking about how as his head tips he runs a greater or lesser chance of getting sunburn on his bald spot.

2011-05-27 16:00:49
Rob Painting

All good stuff. Hope you're soaking it up like a sponge JC!

Speaking of metaphors, I was thinking about that "CO2 is a tiny percentage" nonsense. Non-GHG gases are basically spectators right?, they don't absorb heat radiation. So maybe the greenhouse gases are like the players on the field during an AFL match (Australia), or NFL match (US), football match (Europe/UK) and the non-ghg gases are the crowd watching the game. Doesn't matter how many people are in the crowd, they can't score field goals/touchdowns, however if we were to add or remove players from the field, the course of the game can change dramatically.

Embellish with humour as deemed appropriate. Just brainfarting here........  

2011-05-28 01:07:39
Paul D


Non-GHG gases are basically spectators right?, they don't absorb heat radiation.

You'll start Riccardo off!
As I learnt, it's a bit more complicated, but I think from the POV of getting a message over it sort of works.
Trouble is, as soon as you over simplify, the skeptics et al make a big thing about it.
I just get the impression that any simplifucation has to be qualified by a covering statement??

2011-05-28 10:36:14
Rob Painting

Actually Paul, it's good to thrash out these simplifications, because like you point out they can be used as distractions. Simple and accurate is always better. I know exactly what you mean about that statement though.

2011-05-28 11:31:11The danger of simplifying
John Cook

I did a talk last night at my old physics department last night and I used the "97% of climate experts agree.." infographic. In the audience was my old dean of physics (now retired). During question time, he gave a bit of speech about what constitutes a climate scientist, talking about how he created the climate science degree on campus. Then he asked what I meant by the rather rubbery term "climate expert". So I explained that it meant "climate scientists who were actively publishing peer reviewed climate papers".

So I could've used a more technically precise in my presentation or in the infographic, but subscribing to Randy Olsen's "don't be such a scientist" principle, I intentionally went with the shorter term. It's more succinct, it communicates the same concept to a general audience. It opens you up to getting chewed out by your old dean of physics but I think that's a risk that's worth taking in the effort of communicating clear, simple messages to the general public.