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Science communication isn't soulcraft (or shouldn't be)

President Obama has recently been taking heat from environmentalists, most conspicuously Al Gore in a recent Rolling Stone essay, for not using his “bully pulpit” to force the public to attend to the threat posed by climate change. “By excising ‘climate change’ from his vocabulary,” said one critic, “the president has surrendered the power that only he has to explain challenging issues and advance complex solutions for our country.

I definitely agree that President Obama should be taking the lead to improve public comprehension of climate change science. But I suspect I have a very different opinion on what the President should be trying to communicatealso how and when. What the public needs, in my view, is not more information about climate change, but a new, more inclusive set of cultural idioms for discussing this issue.

My argument will be easier to understand if I start by describing a national public opinion study conducted by the Cultural Cognition Project, a research consortium of which I am a member. There were two principal findings.
  • First, public controversy is strongly associated with differences in cultural or group values. People who subscribe to an individualistic, pro-market worldview tend to see climate change risks as small, while people who subscribe to an egalitarian, wealth-redistributive worldview tend to see them as large.
  • Second, differences in science literacy (how knowledgeable people are about basic science) and numeracy (a measure of their facility with quantitative, technical reasoning) magnify cultural polarization. As egalitarians become more scientifically literate and numerate, their concerns grow even larger; as individualists become more scientifically literate and numerate, their concerns diminish all the more. (For this reason, levels of science literacy and numeracy have essentially no meaningful impact overall).

These data suggest that conflict over climate change, far from reflecting a deficit in public comprehension of scientific information, demonstrates how adept people are in forming beliefs that express their group commitments. Should that surprise anyone? Right or wrong, the risk perceptions of an ordinary individual won’t actually affect the climate: the contribution an individual makes to carbon emission levels by her personal behavior as a consumer, or to climate change policymaking by her personal behavior as a voter, is just too small to matter. If, however, an individual (whether a university professor in Massachusetts or an oil-rig worker in Oklahoma) forms a belief about climate change that is heretical within her community, she might well forfeit the friendship and respect of people she depends on most for support in her everyday life.

Because it’s in the rational interests of ordinary people to conform their beliefs to those that predominate in their cultural groups, it’s also not surprising that science literacy and numeracy magnify cultural polarization. People who know more about science and have a greater facility with technical reasoning can use those skills to find even more evidence that supports their culturally congenial beliefs.

Of course, if we all follow this strategy of belief formation simultaneously, the collective outcome could be a disaster. I’m not hurt when I adopt a belief that “fits” my values but that is wrong, as a matter of scientific fact; but I and many others might well suffer harm if society adopts policies that don’t reflect the best available science about consequential societal risks. Because we live in a democracy, moreover, the risk that society will fail to adopt scientifically enlightened policies goes up as individuals of diverse cultural affiliations form the impression that it is in their expressive interest to adopt beliefs that affirm their groups’ values over their rivals’.

So back to President Obama and his role in the climate change debate. I think it is one of his
Administration’s responsibilities to foster a science communication environment that spares us from these sorts of tragic conflicts between individual expressive interests and collective welfare ones.

When our leaders talk about risk, they convey information not only about what the scientific facts are but also what it means, culturally, to take stances on those facts. They must therefore take the utmost care to avoid framing issues in a manner that creates the sort of toxic deliberative environment in which citizens perceive that the positions they adopt are tests of loyalty to one or another side in a contest for cultural dominance.

Where, as is true in the global warming debate, citizens find themselves choking in a climate already polluted with such resonances, then leaders and public spirited citizens must strive to clean things up—by creating an alternative set of cultural meanings that don’t variously affirm and threaten different groups’ identities.

 In that sort of environment, we can rely on the trust in science and scientists common to the overwhelming majority of cultural communities in our society to guide citizens toward acceptance of the best available science—much as it has on myriad other issues so numerous, so mundane (“take penicillin for strep throat”; “use a GPS system to keep from getting lost”) that they are essentially taken for granted.

 In his Rolling Stone essay, Al Gore calls the debate over climate change a “a struggle for the soul of America.” He’s right; but that’s exactly the problem. In “battles” over “souls,” citizens of a diverse, pluralistic society will naturally disagree—intensely. We’d all be better off if the issue had never come to bear connotations so fraught. Obama’s primary science communication task now is to lower the stakes.

 It won’t be easy. But any progress will depend indispensably on respecting the separation of science communication from soulcraft.

 President Obama, at least, seems to actually get that.

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