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Weather and Society Watch
Guest Editorial

Good Will in Communicating
by Margaret "Peggy" LeMone*

When I selected “Communicating Weather and Climate” as the theme for the 2011 American Meteorological Society (AMS) annual meeting, I was compelled by a combination of life experiences and an awareness of the significance of communication not only in working with other scientists, but also the challenges that AMS members face with customers or the general public on a frequent, if not day-to-day basis. What is good communication? How can we do better?

It is obvious that clear communication is important. Writing or speaking in clear, simple English increases the chance for the message to be received. But clarity is not enough.   For the reader or listener to absorb and accept a message, additional barriers must be crossed. Some are gender-based. Some are cultural. Some relate to our life experiences.  Some relate to the influence of unprecedented choices for information sources. These are barriers we deal with as individuals, in our workplace, and in the AMS.  How do we deal with these barriers? Clearly, recognizing that there are barriers is the first step, and the next steps involve listening, sharing experiences, and developing trust. While I don’t think it solves all our problems, we can go a long way by trying to create and maintain feelings of good will.

How do we create good will? Working with one another and the public on weather issues over time provides an opportunity to develop trust: there’s nothing quite like being “through the wars” together. It is not hard to find examples. Local National Weather Service (NWS) Weather Forecast Offices (WFOs) work with community groups, schools, emergency managers, weather broadcasters, and other groups to improve response to severe weather events, an effort that not only involves education but considerable give-and-take. Local WFO staff and weather broadcasters talk at schools and public gatherings to educate, but also to listen. Private-sector meteorologists work with customers to get forecasts tailored to their needs. The AMS, with its professional membership equally divided among the government, academic, and private sectors, has historically provided a means for the three sectors to discuss problems of mutual interest, allowing not only a template but an atmosphere of mutual respect to tackle similar problems in the future.  Operational meteorologists and broadcasters earn the respect of the public through introduction of new technology (like Doppler radar), new terms (like the Fujita Scale), and newly-elucidated phenomena, such as El Nino or the Arctic Oscillation. And today, such information is available not only in our homes, but through hand-held devices almost everywhere.

When speaking to a group or conducting a workshop for the first time, one doesn’t have the luxury of a long association to develop trust.  However, there are ways to honor everyone in the audience. When Margaret Mead spoke to a group, she would include quieter members of the audience by requiring that questions be written down on 3 x 5 cards. [1] Another speaker, Rev. Sally Bingham, [2] whose presentations about climate change were being interrupted by hecklers who were highly skeptical about her message, came upon the idea of starting out her talks with a show of hands: What did people think about climate change? When the audience realized that the skeptics were in the minority (true for most of her talks), she was able to get through her presentation. I’ve found allowing workshop participants to share stories about the weather and climate not only provides relief from more technical discussions, but provides a point of reference, and perhaps most important, allows the audience to bond.

Good will and honoring our audience also entails some sympathy with those with whom we disagree.  One needs to ask: why do they feel this way? It appears obvious from Oreskes and Conway’s book Merchants of Doubt, [3] that many actively deny anthropogenic origins of climate change because of a deeper fear about the potential responses.  Addressing people with such motivations, it’s sometimes possible to find common ground on related topics, like alternative energy; but sometimes, one has to “agree to disagree.”

Sometimes simply turning down the volume can turn up the good will. While a contentious panel discussion might provide entertainment, does it make us question our opinion, or reinforce it? One of the most satisfying experiences I had in participating in a sometimes-contentious online climate discussion group was an accidental off-line discussion (by pushing the “reply” rather than the “reply all” button) with one woman who was a climate skeptic. The resulting open-ended discussion ended with mutual respect and a discussion far less encumbered by political baggage. And sometimes doing an absolutely outstanding job can change people’s minds:  in addition to his enormous talents, the critical trait that enabled Jackie Robinson to successfully integrate major league baseball was his ability to ignore the taunts and slurs and play good baseball. All the arguing in the world couldn’t match his getting out on the field and earning the respect of his team and baseball fans everywhere. The parallel in our field is following high ethical and rigorous scientific standards, actively participating in the peer-review process, giving careful, well-documented talks at conferences, and writing excellent peer-reviewed papers, the gold standard for information on weather and climate.

Similarly, restraint, patience, and simple good manners are still important in this age of instant communication. Who hasn’t started or escalated an argument through sending a hastily-written email? Add to that the potential for misunderstanding in length-limited “tweets” and “texts,” or messages sent by a distracted sender, and the danger of misunderstanding becomes greater. And couldn’t we all do without the mean-spirited “comments” that are posted at the end of news articles?

Given the importance of developing trust, one can see the importance of including “weather” as well as “climate” in our discussions. First, while I have stressed the successes, much still needs to be done regarding communicating uncertainty communicating with diverse populations, finding methods for feedback, and so on; which largely builds on our experience with weather events. Second, so much has been said about climate already:  why not back off and think about lessoned learned from communicating about weather? And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the difficult conversations about climate might be more productive if we can build on the good will and mutual respect from our shared history

*Margaret (Peggy) LeMone is a senior scientist emerita at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. As the current president of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), she selected “Communicating Weather and Climate” as the theme for the 91st AMS Annual Meeting in Seattle. The subject will be treated from many angles, including a panel discussion on communicating about climate and weather to the public, a “teachable moment” from measuring our impact on the meeting environment, keeping discussions on the high road by maintaining scientific integrity, communicating uncertainty, and much more.


Footnotes

[1] P. 240, With a Daughter’s Eye, by Mary Catherine Bateson, HarperPerennial 1994, New York, ISBN 0-06-097573-3.  She would keep the cards afterwards, to see how the audience reacted to her ideas.

[2] Bingham, S., Climate change:  a moral issue.  Chapter 9 in Creating a Climate for Change, Susanne C. Moser and Lisa Dilling, Eds., Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-521-04992-4. 

[3] Oreskes, N., and E. Conway, 2010:  Merchants of Doubt:  Bloomsbury Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-59691-4.





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