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Wednesday
Aug222012

Go local, and bring empirical toolkit: Presentation to US Global Change Research Program

Gave a talk last Friday in Washington DC for members of the US Global Change Research Program.  The statutory mandate of USGCRP, an inter-agency office within the Executive Branch, is to supervise "a comprehensive and integrated United States research program which will assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change."

I was one of a series of researchers who have been invited to make presentations on the science of science communication (SSC) to USGCRP. It's heartening to see policymakers taking steps to integrate SSC into science-informed decisionmaking. This is exactly the sort of development that the National Academy of Sciences has been trying to promote with the efforts that culminated in its Science of Science Communication colloquium last spring.  Of course, it was also a personal honor to me to be one of the researchers consulted by USGCRP, as it was to be one of those invited to participate in the NAS symposium.

In my talk to USGCRP, I stressed three points:

1. What the problem isn't, and what it really is. The first was the need to conceive of the controversy that surrounds climate change (and a number of other risk issues) as rooted not in generic constraints on human rationality but rather in the species of motivated reasoning associated with cultural cognition. Ordinary members of the public react to issues of disputed fact in the national climate debate in much the say that sports fans do to disputed officiating calls, and people who are high in cognitive reasoning ability do it all the more aggressively. 

This was the theme of my recent "World View" commentary in NatureIt is also the upshot of the empirical study we presented in our Nature Climate Change paper

2. Go local. The second point concerned the value in exploiting local decisionmaking settings as venues for promoting open-minded engagement with scientific evidence relating to climate change. When members of a community address issues of climate-change adaptation -- ones relating to rising sea levels, increased incidence of hurricanes, and depletion of water and other natural resources -- their decisionmaking is much more consequential for their individual lives. They also talk with others (neighbors, local businesses, regional utilities and like providers) who are comparably situated, whom they know and are comfortable with, and with whom they share a common idiom.

For these reasons, the group rivalries that fuel culturally motivated reasoning when "climate change" is framed as a national issue tend to dissipate. At the local level, people are more likely to see themselves as members of the same team.

Evidence for this phenomenon consists in the rich array of state-sponsored local adaption initiatives going on in places like Florida, Arizona, and California. The need for informed science communication strategies to guide such initiatives to constructive outcomes and steer them away from nonconstructive, conflictual ones is reflected in the contrasting experiences of Virginia (good) and North Carolina (bad) in addressing how to assess the potential impact of rising sea levels on their states.

3. Use genuinely evidence-based communication strategies.  The aim of SSC, of course, is to harness empirical observation and measurement to promote our collective interest in policies informed by the best available scientific evidence. But it's a mistake to think empirical observation and measurement end in social scientists' labs.

Surveys and stylized lab experiments are distinctively suited for identifying the general mechanisms that shape cognitive engagement with policy-relevant science. But they rarely generate meaningful, determinate instructions on what to say, to whom, and how. (Social scientists who don't acknowledge this risk lapsing into story-telling.)

Translating SSC insights of that type into useable guides for action is something that will happen in the field--at the site of actual communication. But there too the process must be evidence based. As field communicators use their judgment to adapt their efforts to the insights generated in surveys and lab experiments, they must employ the same forms of disciplined observation and measurement, both so they can calibrate their efforts to achieve maximum effect and so that the evidence their efforts generate isn't wasted but instead preserved and added to the growing stock of information available on what works, what doesn't, and why.

So go local. And bring your empirical-study toolkit with you!

 ****

I know my USGCRP talk, which was "open" to the public by telephone link and by internet simulcast of my slides, was also recorded. Maybe it will be put on-line at some point.

But for now, here are slides.

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