Andrew Revkin directed me and a collection of others to a very well-done talk he gave on the state of social science research on climate-science communication. The subject line of the email was "the scariest climate science is the social science..." Well, that didn't match at all the message of AR's column or his talk. But it did what he likely intended, which was provoke me (likely other recipients will be provoked too) to respond the suggestion that there is something "scary" -- or maybe "hopeless" -- about the sort of research that I and others with whom I'm in scholarly conversation do. That idea is out there, not in Andy's remarks but in the attitudes of many people who are worried about the state of public engagement with climate science, & is dead wrong. Here is what I said:
I see nothing scary in the state of the research on the dynamics of public conflict on climate change.
The scary thing would be not knowing which of the various plausible dynamics that could be generating persistent public conflict over climate science really are doing so, and to what extent. There are more plausible candidates--plausible because rooted in valid insight on the mechanisms of risk perceptions-- then can be true. Only empirical investigation can help to winnow down the possibilities (steer us clear of endless story-telling) and focus attention on the most consequential, most tractable sources of the failure of reasoning people to converge on the best available evidence (as they normally do; the number of matters addressed by decision-relevant science on which see conflict of this sort relative to the number in which we don't is minuscule, albeit fraught w/ significance).
But that is the point of doing such research: to figure out what is really going on, so that genuinely responsive strategies for promoting open-minded and constructive public engagement can be fashioned. I believe that we now know a tremendous amount about the sources of persistent public conflict over decision-relevant science thanks to empirical research on risk perception and communication amassed over the course of over three decades.
It is precisely b/c of that work, and the systematic application of it to problems involving climate science communication, that we are now in a position to form sensible hypotheses about what sorts of processes might neutralize the dynamics in question. Using the same methods that have helped to generate a more focused picture of what the problem really is, we can enlarge our understanding of how to remove the conditions that are disabling ordinary people from using their ordinarily reliable faculties for recognizing what's known to science.
But we will have to use the same methods: disciplined, structured observation and inference. There are more plausible accounts of what might work to fix the problem than can be true too.
So we must do more empirical study, and do it, I think, primarily in the field. Social scientists should collaborate with experienced communicators who can identify using their situation sense what sorts of interventions in the real-world might reproduce in their real-world settings the sorts of positive results that people have observed in lab studies. The latter have more reliable, more informed insights on that than the former; but the former can help the latter, both by sharing with them what is known as a result of empirical inquiry into science communication and by enabling these real-world communicators to collect and evaluate evidence of what really works and what doesn't -- and then to tell others about it, so they can use that knowledge, too, and build on it.
I don't think we should be scared by what we have learned about the disabling effect of a polluted science communication environment on our capacity to engage in collective reason.
That some people might be afraid of this--because it shows, say, that they have made mistakes in the past, or that the world doesn't work as they might wish that it does-- is much more frightening, for they are likely to cling in a determined, fearful, ineffectual way to mistaken understandings.
So far from making us afraid, the vast amount we have learned should make us confident that we can use our collective reason, guided by disciplined methods of empirical observation and inference, to repair the deliberative environment on which enlightened self-government depends and indeed to protect it from such degradation in the future.