April 20, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich
Chanting to the choir: The dialogical failure of antithetical climate change blogs
This is a guest post by Jennifer Metcalfe on a paper she just published. The article explored the potential for people commenting underneath two very different, even antithetical, blogs dealing with climate science, to chat about and engage with climate science.
My paper, Chanting to the choir: the dialogical failure of antithetical climate change blogs, was recently published in the Journal of Science Communication. This paper emerged from one of the chapters in my PhD thesis, Rethinking science communication models in practice, which was accepted at the Australian National University last year.
My motivation for studying two antithetical blogs on climate change science was to look at whether laypeople—those without a scientific background—were engaging in deliberative discussions about the science on blogs. I chose antithetical blogs because I was interested to see if the quality of dialogue was different between those who engaged with the consensus science of climate change (https://www.skepticalscience.com/) versus those who engaged with a blog that denied such science (http://joannenova.com.au/).
I was particularly interested in the dialogue between commenters on such blogsites as this had rarely been studied compared to science blog posts or bloggers. I was interested in dialogue on a publicly controversial issue like climate change because deliberative dialogue is thought to have the potential to bring about democratic change and action, compared to the mere dissemination of information.
Since the publication of my article on 14 April, there’s been some interesting twitter discussions about it. Concern has been expressed in several tweets that I did not comment on the scientific credibility of each of the sites. Related to this, other tweets were concerned that by looking at antithetical climate change blogs, I have been giving false balance or equivalence to the issue in a similar way to how some journalists will give climate scientists and deniers equal space. Other tweets are concerned that I call both John Cook (Skeptical Science blogger) and Joanna Nova ‘science communicators’.
To be frank, I did not expect such reactions to this paper but it’s great that it’s stimulated such discussions and I want to explore each of these concerns.
Firstly, I did not assess the scientific credibility of each of the blog posts nor of the comments made on each post because this was not the purpose of my research. I am not a climate scientist, which means I could not rigorously assess the scientific credibility of the blogposts or comments, even if I wanted to.
However, commenting as a science communication practitioner of more than 30 years, I am very aware that Skeptical Science goes to great lengths to ensure the peer-review credibility of their posts. The site won a prestigious Eureka prize for its excellence in science communication in 2011. The opposite is true for Joanna Nova’s blog site.
I deliberately focussed on the comments rather than the posts. I looked at the comments as contained on each blog site and was not specifically looking to see if Skeptical Science engaged with deniers or if Jo Nova’s site was engaging with those supporting scientific consensus.
And what I found interesting when exploring the dialogue between commenters on both sites, regardless of their scientific credibility, is that they consolidated “their own polarised publics rather than deliberately engaging them in climate change science”. The problem with this, even for a highly credible blog like Skeptical Science, is that the blogsites are not engaging laypeople deliberately in their science. Instead, I found that the dialogue for both sites were dominated by a few vocal commenters, and for Skeptical Science most of these commenters made very technical comments that an average layperson would not understand. I was actually surprised that only rarely did commenters on each site try to influence other commenters to their point of view. I concluded that this was largely because they were already talking with like-minded people.
With regard to the false balance argument: this is a research paper written for a scholarly audience, not a journalistic piece. As a science communicator who also writes popular science articles, I would never give credence or equal weight to anti-science commentary regardless of the topic.
This brings me to the last point about calling someone who denies consensus climate science a ‘science communicator’. Jo Nova is a pseudonym for Joanne Codling who is a graduate from and was a lecturer in the Australian National University’s (ANU) science communication program. Her blog’s About page says: “Before blogging she hosted a children’s TV series on Channel Nine, was a regular keynote speaker, and managed the Shell Questacon Science Circus. She was an associate lecturer in Science Communication at ANU. At one time she helped fundraise for The Australian Greens. Then she grew up.” I certainly don’t regard Jo Nova as a ‘science communicator’, and perhaps I should have made it clearer in my paper that this was her claim rather than mine. However, it’s an interesting point to consider: what do we call lawyers, teachers or doctors who’ve gone bad?
My research for this paper does not claim to speak for all climate science blogs, credible or not. It provides an in-depth exploration of the comments and dialogue on two among many. My research did not aim to promote either of the blogsites examined. But I hope my research adds to our understanding about online dialogue about climate science. From my perspective, we clearly need to find ways other than blogs to engage laypeople in credible climate science which leads to political and individual action.
Image: Thomas Webster: The village choir, Wikimedia Commons