Gave a talk yesterday at the North American Carbon Program’s 2013 meeting, “The Next Decade of Carbon Cycle Research: From Understanding to Application.”
Obviously, I would have been qualified to be on any number of panels (best fit would have been “Model-data Fusion: Integrated Data-Model Approaches to Carbon Cycle Research”), but opted to serve on “Communicating Our Science” one (slides here).
The highlights for me were the excellent presentations by Jeff Kiehl, an NCAR scientist who has really mastered the art of communicating complicated and controversial science to diverse audiences, and former Rep. Bob Inglis, who now heads up the Energy & Enterprise Institute, a group that advocates using market mechanisms rather than centralized regulation to manage carbon emissions. I also learned a lot from the question/answer period, where scientists related their experiences, insights, & concerns.
The theme of my talk was “the need for evidence-based science communication.” I stressed the importance of proceeding scientifically in making use of the knowledge that the science of science communicate generates. Don't use that knowledge to construct stories; use it to formulate hypotheses about what sort of communication strategy is likely to work -- and then measure the impact of that strategy, generating information that you & others can use to revise and refine our common understanding of what works and what doesn't.
I'm happy w/ what I had to say about all of this, but here's why I’m not really sure it was useful:
1. I don’t think I was telling the audience what they wanted to know. These were climate scientists, and basically they were eager to figure out how they could communicate their science more effectively.
My message was one aimed, really, at a different audience, those whom I think of as “science communication practitioners.” Like Bob Inglis, who is trying to dispel the fog of accumulated ideological resonances that he believes obscures from citizens who distrust government regulation the role that market mechanisms can play in reducing climate-change risks. Or Jeff Kiehl, who is trying to figure out how to remove from the science communication environment the toxic partisan meanings that disable the rational faculties that citizens typically use to figure out what is known to science. Or municipal officials and others who are trying to enable parties in stakeholder deliberations on adaptation in Florida and elsewhere to make collective decisions informed by the best available science.
2. Indeed, I think I told the audience a number of things its members actually didn’t want to hear. One was that it’s almost certainly a mistake to think that how scientists themselves communicate their science will have much impact on the quality of public engagement with climate science.
For the most part, ordinary members of the public don’t learn what is known to science from scientists. They learn it from interactions with lots of other nonscientists (typically, too, ones who share their values) in environments that are rich with cues that identify and certify what’s collectively known.
There’s not any meaningful cultural polarization in the U.S., for example, over pasteurization of milk. That’s not because biologists do a better job explaining their science than climate scientists have done explaining theirs. It’s because the diverse communities in which people learn who knows what about what are reliably steering their members toward the best available scientific evidence on this issue—as they are on a countless number of other ones of consequence to their lives.
Those communities aren’t doing that on climate change because opposing positions on that issue have come to be seen as badges of loyalty to opposing cultural groups. It’s possible, I think to change that. But the strategies that might accomplish that goal have nothing to do with the graphic representations (or words) scientists use for conveying the uncertainty associated with climate-model estimates.
I also felt impelled to disagree with the premises of various other genuinely thoughtful questions posed by the audience. E.g., that certain groups in the public are skeptical of climate change because it threatens their “interests” or lifestyle as affluent consumers of goods associated with a fossil-fuel driven economy. In fact (I pointed out), wealth in itself doesn’t dispose people to downplay climate change risks; it magnifies the polarization of people with different values.
Maybe I was being obnoxious to point this out. But I think scientists should want their views about public understandings of science to accord with empirical evidence.
I also think it is important to remind them that if they make a claim about how the public thinks, they are making an empirical claim. They might be right or they might be wrong. But personal observation and introspection aren’t the best ways to figure that out; the sort of disciplined observation, measurement, and inference that they themselves use in their own domain are.
Shrugging one's shoulders and letting empirically unsupported or contestable claims go by unremarked amounts to accepting that a discussion of science communication will itself proceed in an unscientific way.
Finally, I felt constrained to point that ordinary citizens who have the cultural identity most strongly associated with climate-change skepticism actually aren’t anti-science.
They love nanotechnology, e.g.
They have views about nuclear power that are more in keeping with “scientific consensus” (using the NAS reports as a benchmark) than those who have a recognizable identity or style associated with climate change concern.
If you want to break the ice, so to speak, in initiating a conversation with one of them about climate science, you might casually toss out that the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society have both called more research on geoengineering. “You don’t say,” he’s likely to respond.
Now why’d I do this? My sense is that the experience with cultural conflict over climate change has given a lot of scientists the view that people are culturally divided about them. That’s an incorrect view—a non-evidence-based one (more on that soon, when I write up my synthesis of Session 3 of the Science of Science Communication course).
It’s also a misunderstanding that I’m worried could easily breed a real division between scientists and the public if not corrected. Hostility tends to be reciprocated.
It's also sad for people who are doing such exciting and worthwhile work to labor under the false impression that they aren't appreciated (revered, in fact).
3. Finally, I think I also created the impression that what I was saying was in tension with the great advice they were getting from the one panelist most directly addressing their central interest.
I’d say Jeff Kiehl was addressing the question that members of the audience most wanted to get the answer to: how should a climate scientist communicate with the public in order to promote comprehension and open-minded engagement with climate science?
Jeff talked about the importance of affect in how people form perceptions of risk. The work of Paul Slovic, on whom Jeff was relying, 100% bears him out.
In my talk, I was critical of the claim that the affect-poor quality of climate risks relative, say, to terrorism risks, explains why the public isn’t as concerned about climate change as climate scientists think they should be.
That’s a plausible conjecture; but I think it isn’t supported by the best evidence. If it were true, then people would generally be apathetic about climate change. They aren’t; they are polarized.
It’s true that affective evaluations of risk sources mediate people’s perceptions of risk. But those affective response are the ones that their cultural worldviews attach to those risk sources. Super scientist of science communication Ellen Peters has done a kick ass study on this!
What’s more, as I pointed out in my talk, people who rely more on “System 2” reasoning (“slow, deliberate, dispassionate”) are more polarized than those who rely predominantly on affect-driven system 1.
But this is a point, again, addressed to communication professionals: the source of public controversy on climate change is the antagonistic cultural meanings that have become attached to it, not a deficit in public rationality; dispelling the conflict requires dissipating those meanings—not identifying some magic-bullet “affective image.”
What Kiehl had to say was the right point to make to a scientist who is going to talk to ordinary people. If that scientist doesn’t know (and she might well not!) that ordinary members of the public tend to engage scientific information affectively, she will likely come off as obtuse!
What’s more, nothing in what I had to say about the limited consequence of what scientists say for public controversy over climate change implies that scientists shouldn’t be explaining their science to ordinary people, and doing so in the most comprehensible, and engaging way possible.
Lots of ordinary people want to know what the scientists do. In the Liberal Republic of Science, they have a right to have that appetite—that curiosity—satisfied!
For the most part, performing this critical function falls on the science journalist, whose professional craft is to enable ordinary members of the public to participate in the thrill and wonder of knowing what is known to science.
Secondary school science teachers, too: they inculcate exactly that wonder and curiosity, and wilily slip scientific habits of mind in under the cover of enchantment!
The scientist’s job is to do science, not communicate it.
But any one of them who out of public spiritedness contributes to the good of making it possible for curious people to share in the knowledge of what she knows is a virtuous citizen.
Regardless of whether what she's doing when she communicates with the public contributes to dispelling conflict over climate change.
Hey-- it's okay! I'm not going to jump! Let me explain myself better (or just make things even worse)