I’ve been MIA for a while – but with an emphasis on “IA.” Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had the chance, in a variety of public & semi-public fora, to advocate making local, adaptation-focused political decisionmaking the focus of evidence-based science communication initiatives.
That setting, I believe, offers tremendous opportunities for simultaneously using the science of science communication to promote enlightented self-government and acquiring even more scientific knowledge about how science communication works in democratic societies.
At the same time, the cost of failing to “go local, and bringing our empirical toolkit” could be substantial.
To recap, here’s the core argument: Essentially every one of the pollutants that make the science communication environment toxic for engaged public deliberations at the national level are absent or largely attenuated at the local.
At the national level, positions on climate change have become indelibly suffused with meanings distinctive of rival cultural factions.
The language in which competing positions are advanced—the pious scolding of the (unworldly, vulgar) members of the public who care more about the fate of “Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith” than about the fate of the planet; the denunciation of climate scientists as agents of “global socialism” and enemies of “global free markets”—corroborates that the climate debate is “in reality,” just as its protagonists insist, “a struggle for the soul of America.”
Because being out of step with one’s cultural group in struggles over the nation’s "soul" can carry devastating personal consequences, and because nothing a person believes or does as an individual voter or consumer can affect the risks that climate change pose for him or anyone else, it is perfectly predictable—perfectly rational even—for people to engage the issue of climate change as a purely symbolic or expressive issue.
In contrast, from Florida to Arizona, from New York to Colorado and California, ongoing political deliberations over adaptation are affecting people not as members of warring cultural factions but as property owners, resource consumers, insurance policy holders, and tax payers—identities they all share. The people who are furnishing them with pertinent scientific evidence about the risks they face and how to abate them are not the national representatives of competing political brands but rather their municipal representatives, their neighbors, and even their local utility companies.
What’s more, the sorts of issues they are addressing—damage to property and infrastructure from flooding, reduced access to scarce water supplies, diminished farming yields as a result of drought—are matters they deal with all the time. They are the issues they have always dealt with as members of the regions in which they live; they have a natural shared vocabulary for thinking and talking about these issues, the use of which reinforces their sense of linked fate and reassures them they are working with others whose interests are aligned with theirs.
In this communication environment, people of diverse values are much more likely to converge on, rather than become confused about, the scientific evidence most relevant to securing the welfare of all.
That’s exactly why in places like Arizona and Florida—where no one, Democrat or Republican, is campaigning for Congress or the Senate on a platform to “fix global climate change”—state officials have initiated networks of stakeholder and related decisionmaking processes aimed at addressing climate adaptation at a local level. In those deliberations, moreover, the same forms of scientific evidence that are disparaged as part of a “hoax” are central to planning on projects as diverse as the building of flood gates to the design of off-shore nuclear power facilities.
That’s an account of the opportunity that local, adaptation creates to restore the value of science as the currency of enlightened democratic decisionmaking. But it would be a huge mistake to assume that the opportunity will naturally or inevitably be taken advantage of.
Indeed, there is a considerable risk that the pollution that has contaminated the national science-communication environment will spill over and contaminate the local one as well.
We saw this happen in North Carolina, e.g., where the state legislature enacted a provision that bars use of anything but “historical data” on sea-levels in state planning. This happened because proponents of adaptation there failed to do what those in the neighboring state of Virginia were able to do in creating a rhetorical separation between the issue of local flood planning and “global climate change.” Polarizing forms of engagement have bogged down municipal planning in some parts of Florida—at the same time as progress is being made elsewhere.
Actors committed to the effective use of valid science—including municipal planners, farmers, utility companies, and conservation groups-- need science communication help and in fact are asking for it. If those interested in formulating and implementing effective “communication strategies” focus only on national public opinion, they will be effectively turning their back on these people.
At the same time, if we respond by sending them nothing more than “best practice” manuals filled with generalities (“know your audience!”; “gain attention with emotionally compelling images—but beware numbing people with emotionally compelling images!”), we’ll be offering them little that can actually help them.
By use of stylized lab studies, the science of science communication has generated critical insights about valid psychological mechanisms. Such work remains necessary and valuable.
But in order for the value associated with it to be realized, social scientists must become experts on how to translate these lab models into real, useable, successful communication strategies fitted to the particulars of real-world problems. To do that, they will have to set up labs in the field, where informed conjectures based on indispensable situation sense of local actors can form the basis for continued hypothesizing and testing.
Not only do those committed to enlightened policymaking need the science of science communication to succeed. The science of science communication needs to put itself at the disposal of those actors in order for it to continue to generate knowledge.