September 20, 2018
Public Communication of Climate Science: How data visualization matters
Embedding science in decision support tools and representing it in public communications has long been a challenge. This is partly because most scientific information is infused with multiple trends or patterns and often contains significant scientific uncertainty. For public communication, this problem is compounded by a lack of understanding of which trend or pattern should be predominantly displayed. As a result, multiple trends are often shown, leading to complicated scientific graphics being reproduced for public use. The existence of uncertainty further complicates use of scientific information because it adds at least one extra variable to be considered and displayed, and decision-makers or the public are less accustomed to reasoning with scientific uncertainty.
Over the past few years, the Environmental Decision Support Science Group at the University of Maryland has been investigating these problems for climate and global change information. Specifically, we have used the (1) US Global Research Change Program (USGCRP) indicator suite and 3rd National Climate Assessment graphics and (2) temperature and precipitation outlooks produced by the NOAA Climate Prediction Center (CPC) to test the extent to which visualization design affects how well users and the general public understand scientific information. Tackling this problem requires integration of visualization science, decision science, and design theory. Using control/treatment testing, we can test whether understanding is improved by applying general design principles to modify existing visualizations and testing those modified graphics through focus groups and online surveys.