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« Could geoengineering cool the climate change debate? | Main | Slides from Garrison Institute talk »

Report from Garrison Institute Climate Change conference: the good & not so good...

As noted previously, I attended the Garrison Institute meeting on Climate, Mind and Behavior.

On positive side, the highlight, in my view, was very interesting presentation by George Marshall.

George Marshall: He gets science communication!Marshall, a man of apparently unbounded curiosity, creativity, and public spirit, is organizing a set of related initiatives aimed at improving climate-change science communication. 

One of these is, essentially a mega-wearhousing facility for collecting, organizing, & promoting transmission of empirical studies on communication.

Another is a research project aimed at production of effective targeted messaging. Marshall outlined a research protocol that is, in my view, just what's needed because it focuses on fine grained matching of cultural meanings to the diverse information-processing dispositions that exist in the public. It uses empirical measurement at every stage -- from development of materials, to lab testing, to follow-up work in field in collaboration with professional communicators.

This is exactly the systematic approach that tends to be missing from climate change science communication, which is dominated by impressionistic throw-everything-against-the-wall-but-don't-bother-measuring-what-sticks strategy...  Marshall offered a devastating (and devastatingly funny) analysis of that. 

I look forward to the distribution of the video of his talk (the organizers were filming all the presentations).

On downside:

1.  Goldilocks was also there. Lots of just-so story telling -- "engage emotions ... but don't scare or numb" -- based on ad hoc mix and match of general psychological mechanisms w/o evidence on how they play out in this context (indeed, in disregard of the evidence that actually exists). The antithesis, really, of the careful, deliberate, fine-grained, and genuinely empirical approach that Marshall's protocol embodied. Sigh...

2. I was also genuinely shocked & saddened by what struck (assaulted) me as the anti-science ethos shared by a large number of participants.  

Multiple speakers disparaged science for being "materialistic" and for trying to "put a number on everything." One, to approving nods of audience, reported that university science instruction had lost the power to inspire "wonder" in students because it was disconnected from "spiritual" (religious, essentially) sensibilities.  

For anyone who is inclined to buy that, I strongly recommend watching The Relation of Mathematics to Physics, Lecture 2 of Richard Feynman's 1964 Messenger Lectures on the Character of Physical Law!

Actually, I think it is a huge problem in our culture that we don't make it as easy for people who have a religious outlook and love science (there are many of them!) as it is for those who have a more secular outlook & love it to participate in the thrill and wonder of knowing about what we know about nature.

But that problem is one rooted in an imperfect realization of the Liberal ideal of making all the resources of a good society (including access to its immense and inspiring knowledge of nature!) available to all citizens irrespective of their cultural worldviews or moral/political outlooks.

Those who ridicule science for being insufficiently "spiritual" or for being excessively "materialistic" etc. are engaged in a form of illiberal discourse.  They are entitled to pursue their own vision of the best way to live but should show respect -- when engaged in civic deliberations -- for those who see virtue and excellence in other aspects of the human experience.

That these anti-liberals happen to be concerned about climate change does not excuse their cultural intolerance.

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Reader Comments (4)

The anti-science movement is beyond a simplistic difference in cultural views of the World. It is morphing into a viscous witch-hunt ,last seen in the days of McCarthyism and the rise of the Third Reich. Big business in oil and cal appears behind it. it is not a cultural issue really - just what USA worships above all else - money. Those behind and duped by it are not interested in the facts however nicely they are put.

The Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has issued a must-read statement on “Personal Attacks on Climate Scientists.” It begins:

We are deeply concerned by the extent and nature of personal attacks on climate scientists. Reports of harassment, death threats, and legal challenges have created a hostile environment that inhibits the free exchange of scientific findings and ideas and makes it difficult for factual information and scientific analyses to reach policymakers and the public.

Attacks paid for by big business are 'driving science into a dark era'

Researchers attending one of the world's major academic conferences 'are scared to death of the anti-science lobby'

Robin McKie, science editor

The Observer, Sunday 19 February 2012
Article history

The vast majority of scientists on both sides of the Atlantic say rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere threaten to increase temperatures to dangerous levels.
Most scientists, on achieving high office, keep their public remarks to the bland and reassuring. Last week Nina Fedoroff, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), broke ranks in a spectacular manner.

She confessed that she was now "scared to death" by the anti-science movement that was spreading, uncontrolled, across the US and the rest of the western world.

"We are sliding back into a dark era," she said. "And there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms."

The remarks of Fedoroff, one of the world's most distinguished agricultural scientists, are all the more remarkable given their setting.

She made them at the AAAS annual meeting, an event at which scientists normally revel in their latest accomplishments: new insights into marine biology or first results from a recently launched satellite, for example.

But this year there has been a palpable chill to proceedings. Yes, good work was reported to the 8,000 who attended the various symposia and lectures at the meeting in Vancouver.

However, these pronouncements were set against a background of an entire intellectual discipline that realises that it, and its practitioners, are now under sustained attack.

As Fedoroff pointed out, university and government researchers are hounded for arguing that rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are changing the climate. Their emails are hacked while Facebook campaigns call for their dismissal from their posts, calls that are often backed by rightwing politicians. At the last Republican party debate in Florida, Rick Santorum insisted he should be the presidential nominee simply because he had cottoned on earlier than his rivals Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney to the "hoax" of global warming.

"Those of us who grew up in the sixties, when we put men on the Moon, now have to watch as every Republican candidate for this year's presidential election denies the science behind climate change and evolution. That is a staggering state of affairs and it is very worrying," said Professor Naomi Oreskes, of the University of California, San Diego.

Oreskes is co-author, with Erik Conway, of Merchants of Doubt, an investigation into the links between corporate business interests and campaigns in the US aimed at blocking the introduction of environmental and medical measures such as bans on smoking and the use of DDT, laws to limit acid rain, legislation to end the depletion of ozone in the atmosphere and attempts to curb carbon dioxide emissions.

In each case, legislation was delayed by years, sometimes decades, thanks to the activities of a variety of foundations – such as the Heartland Institute – which are backed by energy companies such as Exxon and billionaires like Charles Koch.

These institutions, acting as covers for major energy corporations, are responsible for the onslaught that has deeply lowered the reputation of science in many people's minds in America. This has come in the form of personal attacks on the reputations of scientists and television adverts that undermine environment laws. The Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for blocking mining and drilling proposals that might harm threatened species or habitats, has become a favourite target.

"Our present crisis over the rise of anti-science has been coming for a long time and we should have seen it coming," adds Oreskes.

This point was backed by Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), although she added that one specific event had brought matters to a head this year: the decision by the United States supreme court to overrule the law that allowed the federal government to place limits on independent spending for political purposes by business corporations.

"That has opened the gates for corporations – often those associated with coal and oil industries – to flood the market with adverts that support rightwing politicians and which attack government bodies that impose environmental regulations that these companies don't like," she said. "The science that supports these regulations is attacked as well. That has made a terrible difference over the past year and it is now bringing matters to a head."

Her remarks are backed by a UCS report, Heads They Win, Tails We Lose: How Corporations Corrupt Science at the Public's Expense, which was published at the Vancouver meeting on Friday. It chronicles the methods used by corporate businesses to attack their targets: harassing individual scientists, ghost-writing scientific articles to raise doubts about government research, and undermining the use of science to form government policy.

"People may believe that political interference in science went extinct when George W. Bush left office, but the reality is that the pressure to politicise science is still with us," added Grifo.

Most scientists acknowledge that President Barack Obama is sympathetic to science. "The trouble is that he still hasn't been able to do anything to help. He is continually blocked by Congress, and that only adds to our worries and sense of desperation," said Fedoroff. "If the current president is for us, but still cannot do anything to help us, then what will happen if a Republican gets into the White House this year?"

In general, the worst excesses of the anti-science lobbies are confined to the US. However, there are signs that their influence is spreading, and that raises worrying issues, said Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, in London.

"In coming years, we will have to ask ourselves if public policies should be based on the advice of experts who have carried out robust and rigorous analysis of the evidence, or if they should be guided by lobbyists who appear driven by narrow ideological dogma.

"The answer may seem obvious, but we should be aware of the efforts being made in the UK to promote ideology over rational evidence-based decision-making, particularly when it comes to climate issues," said Ward.

Just how this rise of anti-science antagonism pans out in the end remains unclear.

"It has taken the scientific community a long time to realise what it is up against," says Oreskes. "In the past, it thought the problem was just a matter of education. All its practitioners had to do was make an effort to reach out and talk to teachers, the public and business leaders. Then these people would see the issues and understand the need for action.

"But now they are beginning to realise what they are really up against: massive organised attempts to undermine scientific data by people for whom that data represents a threat to their status quo. Given the power of these people, scientists will have their work cut out dealing with them."

February 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrobert

To the earlier commenter:
Keep in mind that anyone can be illiberal; it's something to strive to overcome. (Yes, some strive more successfully.)

> Those who ridicule science for being insufficiently "spiritual" or excessively "materialistic" etc. are engaged in a form of illiberal discourse.

OK; in these speakers you have one constituency for your Liberal Republic of Science project:
How will you approach them?

Request: Where can I find the "best practices" writeup, for what to do when you're trying to reach an audience that holds diverse and mutually-inconsistent views?

Suppose a large proportion of those in your audience who are amenable to grasping the need for climate action hold fringe views in other areas. What do you do? Do you build a big tent and invite them in? Do you attempt to change their worldview first? How do you deal with the existence of a diversity of views, some of which are anti-science, among those who see the need for climate action, when harder-headed listeners might be pushed into a visceral-tribal rejection of the science by exposure to these views?

How do you tailor your message to your audience, for a diversity of audiences, without becoming two-faced? And how do you make it clear that joining the big tent need not entail buying into or otherwise furthering the cultural shifts desired by the other groups in it?

March 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnna Haynes

Returning to our big tent, if we decide to keep individuals outside the tent if they might scare the metaphorical horses, doesn't that encourage efforts by the denialiati to dig down and find (or craft) and publicize horse-scaring elements?

Their strategists think many moves ahead.

March 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnna Haynes

AH-- much to think about, thanks.

Quick responses (will supplement/correct if "system 2" suggests better answers):

1. On "Keep in mind ..." & "you have one constituency ... how to approach?" Fair point -- which I take to be that I'm adopting a not-very-pluralistic stance in my own comments. But hey-- I was *amazingly* civilized at the event itself (I think!) & this blog is (among other things) my "count to 10^80" location! But (a) I don't think it is illiberal to call someone out on being illiberal or even to be really really really angry about that & not tolerate it, etc. -- although whether that is constructive, strategically sensible, necessary, nice, etc. is different matter. Not sure eitehr that the conference speakers I had in mind are really constituents or citizens of Liberal REpublic of Science. Unlike "God's workshop is cool!" citizen , they don't really like science. And weirdly, although my cultural outlooks might in many sense be in keeping w/ the speakers, in *this* sense I actually have more in common (and think I just like more) God's-workshop-is-cool guy (who otherwise probably isn't very much like me at all!)

2. "best practice writeup..." There isn't one! Actually, there are lots of really silly "science communication guides" filled w/ banalities like "know your audience," but those are ... well, silly is a nice thing to say about them. Science of science communication types, including CCP researchers, have done studies that examine how various communication strategies can offset motivated cognition & other types of "closed mindedness" (talked about here , among other places). But getting from the lab to the field is a leap. But really not more than a leap of imagination on the part of a smart, experienced real-world communicator, who might be able to combine the sort of disciplined insight that comes out of valid empirical studies w/ his or her situation sense & actually hit on something that works really well. In the best situation, a science-of-science-communication researcher would then be on hand to observe & *test* whether the new, inspired real-world communication strategy is actually *working* as planned -- and w/ the resulting data, the communicator can re-calibrate, and the researcher can do more testing ... Then one day -- a *meaningful* & genuinely helpful guide comes out, probably not in form of simplistic list of "do's and don'ts" but rather a description of mechanisms & related case studies. I really think that is the way things have to go.

3. "Two faced ..." (A) Don't try to impersonate or manipulate (like Merck w/ Perry on HPV vaccine); be friggin' honest. (B) Better to get 2 speakers w/ genuine faces than imagine a single speaker engaged in "code switching."

4. "Keeping outside the tent ..." I don't think anyone has to be excluded. But if someone who agrees with you, shares your outlooks, etc., is being illiberal, arguing in a way that creates or hardens antagonistic meanings, etc., then standing up & telling him or her to *stop* is, in addition to likely being the right thing to do, an effective way to *communicate* to those who don't agree w/ you, whose outlooks are different, etc., that *you* aren't opportunistically using policy-related science as a device to impose a cultural orthodoxy.

March 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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