Getting a PhD: 'Chasing Ice' movie & other public engagement tools


In an earlier post, I briefly mentioned how the arts might be used to engage the public in discussions on research findings, especially if used thoughtfully. That is to say, don't present your findings in ways that discourage/disempower your listeners (saying "we are all doomed" does not inspire). It has even been suggested that people are more likely to make positive changes when information is presented less threateningly - read a very interesting article that studies the way some people tend to respond to direly stated news on climate change, based on how it affects their Just-World beliefs.

So the film Chasing Ice, released in the UK in December 2012 engages the general public in conversation about the validity of global warming, presenting time-lapse camera photos of melting glaciers over four years by National Geographic photographer James Balog and his dedicated team. They brave the harsh conditions of Iceland, Greenland and other icy regions because they believe that capturing images of rapidly melting ice provides tangible evidence of global warming. Their approach is not so much doomsday warning as it is 'the pictures will speak for themselves (with a little dialogue to make it fun of course)'.
Some climate change skeptics argue that even if the images in Chasing Ice are to be believed (think moon landing conspiracy theory), one would have to be naive to believe that a mere four years' worth of images showing melting ice is enough to provide conclusive proof of climate change. Climate change proponents on the other hand say that one would have to be really ill-informed not to believe in global warming; that while glaciers have been melting for the past several years, the rate at which this is happening is highlighted in the four years that Balog and his team have been able to capture. The in-betweeners (as I like to categorize them) say something along the lines of 'Balog presents such breathtaking images of melting glaciers... scary stuff, but such stunning imagery! Could the glacial melt be as a result of man's activities, or is it a natural thing? Who knows...' More puzzling is the fact that new findings  show that the climate isn't really warming at the rate that would be expected, given the amount of carbon dioxide being emitted. See interesting Economist article which talks about it here. At any rate, the talk continues, which will (hopefully) encourage people to make more environmentally friendly lifestyle changes.

The ability to engage non-specialist audiences effectively is a valuable skill that a researcher should develop. A good tip on effective public engagement I was given was to always start with my audiences' interests, then work back to mine. Another useful thing to do could be role-play.
For example, imagine that you're being interviewed by a radio or televison presenter, and you need to present your research in about 5 minutes. This activity works well in a team of four, with one person acting as an interviewer, another as the researcher, and then an anchor and a producer. This is a really useful communication activity: clearly expressed findings improve your research's impact (i.e., the reach and significance of your work).

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