What Happens When Thought Leaders Speak Directly To The Public?

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, July 28, 2015

Last week, renowned climate scientist James Hansen, formerly director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, released a highly debated paper on the impact of climate change. In it, he and 16 colleagues wrote: “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2°C global warming is highly dangerous.” 

It’s caused quite a commotion in the media and on social, where countless publications have posted stories about it and begun a public dialogue around the piece. But something very peculiar is happening with this paper — and not just because of the content within it.

Normally, such papers by researchers would be sent for peer review before being released to the general public. In this case, Dr. Hansen and his colleagues released their findings and ideas before peer review, in order to both publicize their research and to spur action in the midst of stasis around the contentious issue of climate change. 

Dr. Hansen and his colleagues generated buzz around research that, if published the traditional way, would have been reserved for a smaller, more niche audience, and would have been circulated quietly for months while undergoing peer review. Publishing it through an open-access journal like Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics speeds up the timeline for taking action on its findings considerably — enough, perhaps, to influence the United Nations Conference for Climate Change in Paris.

Whether this paper makes the outsize impact Dr. Hansen and his colleagues hope it will depends on how the media receive it. Judging by the results we have tracked so far, it’s performing very well. 

This has major implications for other scientific papers whose authors could be looking to buck the traditional publishing process in search of greater impact with the public. Peer review is the gold standard in science, but the rise of social networks has empowered publishers more than ever. If Dr. Hansen’s paper has a more significant impact than similar major works published in traditional peer-reviewed journals — in particular, if it raises a groundswell of public support and manages to impact the Paris negotiations — we could see other public intellectuals looking to release important works in the same way. 

Social publishing is at a major turning point: social media users are turning to their networks for news, and publishers are experimenting with publishing to platforms like Facebook directly. The decision by Dr. Hansen and the other authors to publish this article in an open-access journal mimics the effects of social publishing, in that it bypasses a traditional hierarchical structure and spreads knowledge wider and faster than ever before. As social publishing becomes more common and successful, research and public policy arguments looking to gain support could well be published directly to social media in order to gain support and influence in the run-up to votes or elections.

Another implication of this paper’s release has been to make climate change a more well-understood, less arcane issue. The wide release of this paper — and its discussion in the media — has put information directly in the hands of the citizen, leading to better-informed debate and a more acute understanding of politicians’ positions. Instead of restricting discussion of their research to the realm of experts and politicians, Dr. Hansen and his colleagues have opened it up to those who would normally first hear of the research when perhaps just one aspect of its findings were cited by a public figure.

Critics of the authors’ publicity-seeking may claim that bypassing peer review leads to a discourse based on research that hasn’t been conducted or contextualized properly. But Dr. Hansen and his colleagues are acting against the clock — and their success or failure to achieve their goals because of social networking could influence other thought leaders who find themselves in similar races in the future.

So what happens when there’s less of a barrier between experts and everyone else? With the success of Dr. Hansen’s research, we’ll likely be finding out soon.

Next story loading loading..