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As Climate Change debate wages on, scientists turn to Hollywood for help

Politicians and the public question global climate change evidence, so scientists look to Hollywood and websites for a new voice. Lights, camera, science!

By Staff writer / March 15, 2010

The importance of getting the word out on global climate change and other important findings has science organizations scrambling to explore new channels, such as Hollywood.

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Keeping the public looped in on what scientists are discovering has never been easy. For one thing, the traditional explainers – journalists – can distort, hype, or oversimplify the latest breakthroughs. But the need to communicate science broadly and clearly has never been more urgent.

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Understanding science helps people know “where the truth speakers are on an issue” such as climate change, says Robert Semper, the executive associate director of the Exploratorium, a hands-on science center in San Francisco.

“The more educated and knowledgeable the public is about science ... the more responsible they can be when it comes time for voting or expressing opinions about public policy,” adds Leslie Fink, a public affairs specialist at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Washington.

The importance of getting the word out has science organizations scrambling to explore new channels, from souped up websites to asking Hollywood for help.

The current climate-change furor has become the poster child for what happens when there’s a communications gap between scientists and the public. The vast majority of scientists see compelling evidence that the world’s climate is about to change significantly, and that the change is largely driven by human activity. Yet polls show public opinion becoming more skeptical about climate change.

Contributing to that swing have been efforts by skeptics to point out flaws in specific portions of the landmark 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and question whether other findings might have been manipulated. An usually snowy winter in parts of the United States has also brought scorn from critics, who ask, “Where is the global warming?” (Data tell another story: Worldwide, last January was one of the warmest on record, and the decade 2000-2009 was the hottest on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization.)

The result has been a “corrosion” of public confidence in climate science, says Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences. That “damage,” he says, “has spilled over into other fields of science.”

At the same time, traditional news media outlets have been cutting back on science writers. In 2008, CNN dismantled its entire science reporting staff. While few newsroom cuts have targeted science coverage so directly, countless examples of thinning ranks – including ABC News announcing in February that it will shed about 25 percent of its news division – have displaced many specialist reporters.

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