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« Yet another installment of: "I only *study* science communication ..." | Main | Cultural cognition & cat-risk perceptions: Who sees what & why? »

Another installment of: "I only study science communication -- I didn't say I could do it!" 

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).

Bob Inglis (click to learn more!)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.

To be honest, I’m unsure that I played a constructive role at all on the panel, & I’ve been pondering this.

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.

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Reader Comments (22)

Because we don't have a department in it, I am making my own interdisciplinary graduate program in Science Communication. While I have had classes in comm, psych, etc... I have ended up in a few "communicating science" classes aimed at helping early career [physical, biological, climate, etc.] scientists better communicators. They are frequently taught by very talented natural scientists, who also just happened to become science communication practitioners. While these classes dig into some practical methods for communication, they often miss or barely brush the surface of the science of science communication.

Within these classes, I am often the one speaking up against those same sweeping statements about "the public" as you encountered. Forgetting where I am, I start pulling out the data about the percent of people who actually trust scientists or who believe that climate change is happening. And then what happens... disbelieving stares, skepticism, or arguments about the weakness of social science methods. Enough of these situations have popped up, that I have to remind myself to practice good communication to introduce the social science behind the science of science communication to my colleagues in a way that doesn't threaten their somewhat different definition of science. With undergrads and grads, sometimes the problem is pure naivety, how many high school counselors tells you that you can be a communication scientist when you grow up?

I agree that scientists putting themselves out there are trying is good, and it is great that these kinds of courses and discussions are becoming more common. I am optimistic that eventually the theory and practice will come together in the discussion, but there will be some clunkiness until then resulting in panels as you described and classes like I have encountered.

Thanks for sharing this story - it's good to see I'm not the only one in this position.

February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKristin Timm

I found your story intriguing too, mainly because of the honesty of your reflactions. Your experience seemed again to provide a kind of anecdotal test of competing hypotheses concerning the relationship between science and society. On the one hand, there's the model of science in all areas as the body of empirical facts, truths, theories, methods, and models uncontaminated by political values and controversies, with the source of any problems in the relationship lying entirely in the way in which these scientific truths are communicated. But if this hypothesis regarding the science-society relationship were correct, wouldn't you expect that the scientists themselves would want to hear the things you say they don't? E.g., that the primary responsibility for the relationship, and particularly for its failings, lies not with them but with the mediators or communicators? Or that scientists themselves would be unlikely to exhibit uniform "premises" that so closely parallel the values and simplistic hostilities of known political/cultural groups? Or that the audience -- the scientists themselves -- would want to hear that their skeptics are commonly pro-science and the technology it enables, including technological approaches to climate change itself? Yet your experience seemed not to confirm those kinds of expectations.

On the other hand, if the hypothesis is that the "science" itself, in areas affected by cultural and political values and issues, is contaminated by those very issues -- i.e., is biased or distorted by them -- then your sense that you were telling your audience things they didn't want to hear would be entirely consistent with that view, wouldn't it?

February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Hi Dan. I was at your talk (and your earlier talk at LANL). I have to say that these are some of the best talks I've been to, and at NACP the three panelists' talks really complemented each other. I think you're right that your message isn't one that some scientists want to hear. But I think it's one we need to hear, and many of us do appreciate hearing it.

A lot of scientists feel that if they could just explain the science better, they'd change a lot of minds. I don't think it really works that way, just from my own personal experience (which seems to agree with your studies on polarization and science literacy). People seek out their own trusted communication channels, which generally don't come directly from climate scientists. As you note, this doesn't mean that scientists should stop explaining science. Perhaps it means they shouldn't beat themselves up because they're not changing public opinion. And your kind of work might ultimately help them to not waste time on strategies for doing so that are known not to work effectively.

Also, I think it's helpful to encourage scientists to think more scientifically about social problems. There are a lot of opinions out there that I see my colleagues commonly subscribe to (like the deficit model), that may not actually be borne out by observations of human behavior.

By the way, I'd be interested to see if the data on public views of scientists extend to climate scientists in particular, or whether polarization colors' peoples views of these scientists as it does the science itself.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathan Urban

I'm sitting at NACP now - and enjoyed your presentation and those of the other speakers you mention above. I found this quote at the end of your piece:

The scientist’s job is to do science, not communicate it.

While I perhaps get your sentiment - I would say that we are actually paid to communicate - definitely by writing articles, and also by giving public presentations and to students.

I am looking for the tools to do my communication job as effectively as possible to as many different types of people as possible. It would be a waste if I am only limited to communicating to other scientists because I've gotten so good at writing technical articles.

I agree that teaming up with others who are experts at exposing the curiosity beyond science enquiry is a great step toward this end of communicating more widely. But, I also want to learn what they know -- it'll help me -- and I think that is why the session you were a part of was so useful.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTed Schuur

Dan, I thought your talk and panel Monday were phenomenal, the highlight (with Bob & Jeff) of the entire week for me. I have personally started doing a lot of climate science communication so I'm definitely interested in the topic. It's great that you're self-reflective, and your self-criticism may be right, but for me personally those criticisms don't resonate.

The main message I got from you is that anything we propose is or is not effective in communication really needs to be backed with (social) science, e.g., representative sampled, focus grouped testing. You are absolutely right, and this is exactly what I wanted to hear because all too often we hear the anecdotes that you can't really take home without a raised eyebrow. I took enough sociology and psychology classes in my liberal arts education path to climate science to understand and appreciate the approach you were presenting. Still, I didn't get much out from you on how I could improve my own communication, but maybe that wasn't the forum for it, though Bob's words were very insightful in how to communicate to his type of audience.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJosh Fisher

I attended the session you discuss in this post and disagree with your self assessment that you may not have played a constructive role. Quite the contrary, your presentation and those from the other panelists, is the main buzz at this conference for its relevance and the thought-provoking issues that were raised. Your empirical evidence and Bob Inglis' candid discussion of the kind of communication that resonates with Conservative publics helps us to understand why existing approaches to the communication of science miss the mark. If anything, I believe that most of us will leave this meeting believing that a session on communicating science - that presents the science of communicating science - should be required material at most scientific conferences.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKo

oh hell-- just go here & skip the scratching below:

@Ko, @Ted & @ Nathan:

Thanks for feedback, and particularly for the assurance that my talk was appreciated & that I indeed played a constructive role.

I should have been super clear, too, that no one said, either during the presentation or the discussion after, anything except "interesting!" "thanks" & "[some really interesting observation/question relating to the data & issues]. I certainly felt I was a welcome part of an exchange of ideas -- the sort of thing that all of us see ourselves as doing as scholars.

The disappointment was, I guess I'd say, vicarious.

I was in a room filled with people themselves filled w/ civic spirit who were asking "what can we do to try to help steer people out of the confusion and conflict here," and I felt I like kept saying, "nothing, sorry ... nope ... nope ..."

The people who came to that presentation were there b/c they are committed to what I in fact regard as one of the (really, the, but I will temper my expression) most important collective missions confronting we face: the development of a form of societal intelligence that assures the tremendous knowledge science confers upon us is made recogniable, comprehensible and usable by those whose welfare that knowledge can enhance.

The prospect that I might demoralize anyone about that mission would make me heartsick.
Indeed, I myself am filled with optimism -- likely more than can be rationally justified, but I'll capitalize on the sense of determination it supplies -- that lots can be done to advance this cause. Using science, we can learn to be as smart about how to transmit what we know about the world works as we are about how the world works.

I believe what I said in my talk & during the Q&A about what the deficits in our society’s science-communication intelligence consist in.

But I by no means believe that the mission to improve that intelligence doesn’t involve scientists. Indeed, I don’t even believe that it doesn’t involve scientists qua scientsts.

It’s not the only thing but the most important thing scientists can do—because only they can do it—is organize their professional community to join in and support the coordination that it will take inside universities to integrate the science of science communication with the practice of science and science-informed policymaking. This is exactly the sort of process within the scientific community that I think the National Academy of Science’s “Science of Science Communication” Sackler Colloquium was intended to initiate. It is one I'm trying to promote at Yale, which I want to model it for other universities.

But again, the dissapointment was in myself.

The occasion for it was not in the audience members’ reaction to things I felt it was important to say to help steer them (us) away from false starts. It was my failure to come fully prepared and ready to identify all the profitable paths open to to citizen scientists intent on helping our society reach what we all know is the critical destination!

I will start to make amends w/ another blog post!

February 6, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Kristin -

Forgetting where I am, I start pulling out the data about the percent of people who actually trust scientists or who believe that climate change is happening. And then what happens... disbelieving stares, skepticism, or arguments about the weakness of social science methods.

I am curious what you mean by this - and wonder if you might elaborate.

Most of the data I've seen about "trust" in scientists shows that it is pretty stable, and not unreasonably low (a subjective evaluation, for sure, but then again so is yours). Scientific institutions are trusted sources for information on climate change. Much of the "skeptical" public, in fact, is not aware of the predominating opinions among climate scientists - and belief in whether or not climate change is happening is likely very much influenced by factors beyond the sphere of influence of "science communication." Finally, from the data I've seen, drops in trust in scientists is concentrated in a distinct political sector of the public - and is something that could likely be predicted by prevailing political trends.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I want to reinforce the comments above that your talk very nicely complemented the other speakers, and was spot-on the concept we as organizers planned for the session. I found it very helpful for you to demonstrate that the social science of communicating science ideas itself uses the tools and paradigms we, as physical scientists, know, use, and respect. I think many physical scientist do not understand that social science research and inquiry IS science, and uses these common principles. Thanks for making that known and a great set of ideas to contemplate.

February 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNancy French

@ Nancy: thanks!

Your reaction and that of the other scientists who attended the session illustrates something very very important.

Scientific habits of mind include being excited and grateful to be shown evidence that things are different from what one believed. This is proof (or part of the proof; we need a larger sample) that learning to think in the way that science prescribes (or as Dewey would say, just learning *to think*) contributes to one's becoming a virtuous person.

As I explain in my next insanely long post (it is about as long as the answers I gave to questions), at no point, including the ones in which i said "I disagree with that, actually," did anyone in the audience make me feel as if they were anything but interested in and intrigued by what I had to say.

But you -- all those were in attendance -- deserved to be given an answer to the question: what can we do *as* scientists to help resolve the science communication problem. Because there are what I regard as (likely) good answers & not just ones that are less good. I have tried in the next post.

Live & learn -- or learn & update.


February 7, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

@Kristin: Great to hear that you are teaching a course like that. I'd love to see your materials. Perhaps you've seen the posts on the course I'm doing this semester. Send me an email if you want to "compare notes"

February 8, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Josh Fischer: Yes, exactly. I didn't have anything to say about how scientists can communicate science to public. I do think that's an important issue. It's another one, too, that admits of empirical study (there's great stuff, e.g., on
"graphic presentation of data
to promote comprehension in nonexperts). But I do think, as I stressed in followup post, that it is super important to be clear about what better communication by scientists can be expected to accomplish on issues like climate change, and why it is a huge mistake to rely on science self-communication rather than endow our instutitons with a genuine, automonous, professional "scientific intelligence."

Take a look at that post-- becuase I figured out what really was bothering me: not that I didn't do what Jeff Kiehl did (I couldn't have; he knows a lot more than I ever will about how to present science in comprehensible, engaging terms) but that I failed to point out that what scientists can and must do as scientists is organize universities and other institutions of science to contribute to the integration of the science of science communication and the practice of science.


February 8, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Ted: Thanks!
say a bit more in followup post about the sentence you object to. I am certainly not saying (or trying to say) that scientists shouldn't communicate with the public. Also not saying, as mentioned in comment to Josh Fischer, that there is nothing that can be said to help them to communicate btter; lots can, as Jeff Kiehl demonstrated. But I am saying that a science communication model that *relies* on scientists to communicate science to the general public is a really really really really bad model. It doesn't get how scientific knowledge is transmitted, or how communication is mangaged. It is this bad bad *model* that gives us thigns like climate change conflict, HPV disaster, nuclear power confusion, etc. We need to invest our institutions -- in govt, in education, and in civil society -- w/ "science communication intelligence."

But if you disagree w/ my restatement (and reiteration) of "scientist's job is not to communicate," great! I'd love to have the argument unfold here in my blog! I'm even offering any scientist who submits "Doing science iand communicating science [to nonscientists] are too the same thing!" gues blog posts cool "I ♥ Popper/Liberal Republic of Science" t-shirt!

February 8, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Larry: As I note in the followup post-- and as the outpouring of comments seem to suggest (could be motivated, I agree, by concern that I was about to jump form 50th floor apt) -- the scientists didn't give me any reason to think my points were unwelcome or unappreciated or unworthy of being given serious consideration etc. I just felt awful that I wasn't giving them an affirmative focus for their civic spirit -- indeed for the citizen scientist public spirit. I hope the 2d post helped (I didn't back off the central claim!).

On scientists & biases & worldviews ... This is only a partial answer.

1. I think scientists are as likely to be subject to dynamics like cultural cognition every bit as much as laypeople outside their own professional domain, within which I'd expect professional habits of mind (which of course are responsive to professional cultural meanings) to be more consequential. Consider that scientsts are pretty pro-nuclear power, even thought they are extremely liberal.

2. I think liberals or egalitarians are likely, b/c of motivated reasoning, to infer that climate skeptics are anti-science or aren't listening to evidence or don't know it well enough etc. So in this respect, I anticipate scientists, who tend to be politicall liberal or culturally egalitarian communitarian, to be surprised as hell when I tell them this isn't so. But I actually anticipate that they'll more readily accept my contrary evidence -- after satisfying themselves, as they should, that it rests on valid observation, measurements, and infernces -- than a partisan nonscientist. Scientists aren't necessarily more open minded than others (they might be, I have no idea) but their professional habits of mind are proximate enough to my methods, my language, that I expect them to change their minds-- to update their priors! Going "holy shit--look at that experimetn! I was sooooo wrong!" is also kind of a scientific habit of mind.

This is generally what happens, in fact. Not always. And if I encounter a scientist, or social scientist, who displays what seems like a strong emotional resistance to considering evidence that climate change skepticvism is not a consequence of an anti-science attitude or disposition, I do in fact start to wonder if that person could be a good scientist or social scientist; I draw an inference about their professional habits of mind. I don't by any means do this whenever someone persists in their view despite the evidence I present to the contrary; that is consistent with the person knowing something I don't, so I am likely to find such a person very compelling and want to spend time figuring out what he or she knows. But I do draw the inferences about bad scientific character, as it were, when the scientist or social scientist doesn't display the sort of engagement one can tacitly detect in someone who is engaging honestly and open-mindedly with unexpected evidence and is instead violently lashing out against it in a lawyerly/partsian way...

3. But there is one strong professional cultural meaning that I suspect does make scientists chafe a bit at the science of science communication: nullius in verba. Scientists have a self-consception that makes it dissonant to think about how authority is essential to transmissionof knowledge. They know that science's way of knowing is anti-authoritiarian; it truly is, in the sense that it treats as entiteld to the status of "knowledge" observations that are validated by a method, not certified or decreed by a person or institution or deity or whathaveyou. But it isn't the case that what's known in that way can be made known to people, including scientists, without a system of authority that certifies who knows what about what. That system of authority is compatible w/ science so long as the "who knows whats" that it is certifying are identified as such because what they know has been determined consistently with science's way of knowing. The science of science communication is all about maintaining the calibration of that authoritative certification mechanism, and ridding the science communication environment of the static that impedes the signal of science's authoritative certification. There! -- see? That's all there is to it -- no big deal.

But b/c that account makes peace with the necessary role that authority plays in enabling collective knowledge, it is emotionally dissonant for the scientific mind. ... Maybe herein lies the difficulty in integrating the science of science communication w/ the practice of science? that is a thought that fills me with fear for the future of the Liberal Republic of Science....

February 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

2. I think liberals or egalitarians are likely, b/c of motivated reasoning, to infer that climate skeptics are anti-science or aren't listening to evidence or don't know it well enough etc.

Yes, that is likely, but leaving behind the "anti-science" assumption, I'm not sure they'd be wrong about the other two assumptions. You have found that having more information does not soften "skepticism" about climate change among those with a particular ideological orientation. However, that is not necessarily to say that climate "skeptics" are listening to evidence or that they do know it well-enough (I will leave behind the "anti-science" assumption).

Poll data

indicate that a significant chunk of those who identify as Republicans and Tea Partiers (as compared to Independents and Democrats) don't actually know what most climate scientists have to say about climate change (although the ignorance is not limited to those two groups).

Further, poll data indicate that a significant chunk of self-identified Republicans and Tea Partiers (as compared to Independents and Democrats) feel that they don't need any more information to assess the science (although the seeming over-confidence is not limited to those two groups).

February 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

My take is that I think you should have some fear for the future of "the Liberal Republic of Science", as agreeable as that vision is, but not because of the anti-authority cast of either the scientific mind or the mind of the general citizenry -- rather, because I think it is utopian, or ideal in an impractical, unrealizable sense, as unfortunate as that is. But your separate comments are stimulating in themselves, and I'd like to respond to them:

1. I think this idea that scientists are like ordinary people outside their professional domain but suddenly become disinterested observers/theorists/model builders inside that domain just illustrates what I mean by a utopian, unrealistic ideal. As I've said before, of course, the further that domain is from political/cultural conflicts the closer the ideal can be approached, and that approach is also influenced by how easily or quickly the observations, theories, and models can be falsified. Otherwise, however, it seems to me quite unlikely just on the face of it that scientists, along with their professional cultural surroundings -- which, as you say, are extremely liberal -- are not going to be influenced by their values, even in their professional domain. Your example of pro-nuclear power attitudes among scientists is a point in your favor, I'll admit, but it would be far more interesting and persuasive to test this itself in a quasi-scientific manner, by, e.g., examining the ratio of papers affecting political/cultural issues published within social science generally that manage to "show" the left-liberal position is the true one.

2. I largely agree with you here. I would just want to take it a step further -- after our ideally motivated but consensus-agreeing climate scientist has been convinced that the skeptics aren't merely "anti-science", I would like to see him be asked (or ask himself/herself) what then does motivate said skeptics, and, one more step, could it be at all possible that the sort of group loyalties influencing the skeptics might also affect his/her own position. I.e., I'd like to see whether that realization would open his mind a little more toward the minority of skeptics -- and they do exist, even if they're often treated as heretics -- within his own professional domain.

3. And here I think you conflate or confuse different levels or kinds of authority and skepticism. Of course, as a simple practical matter, everyone must take the vast majority of the knowledge they routinely act upon -- not just scientific knowledge but ordinary facts about their surroundings -- on the word of others. But I really don't think that's what the Royal Society was warning against in their motto. They were referring instead to an attitude -- and this too extends beyond professional scientists -- that arises, or should arise, when there are serious questions about an issue. Even then, it's true that again as a practical matter it may be simpler to take someone's word provisionally, but it's not only possible but advisable to do so within a skeptical and critical frame of mind. In this sense, the motto promotes an anti-argument from authority, and that sort of anti-authority stance is a feature not just of credentialed scientists in their professional domains, but of a citizenry enlightened by science generally.

February 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Sorry -- after I submitted my last comment, I realized that I hadn't tied it back to the theme of "the Liberal Republic of Science" that I started with, and that was really my point. Anything that can be done to improve the "authoritative certification mechanism" for science communication is good in itself, of course, but it will not help when the skepticism goes to the possible politicization of the science itself. You believe, I realize, that the science itself is pristine (more or less), but this seems like a kind of blind spot, or unwillingness to confront an unpleasant possibility. Consider, though, how easy it is, especially for those in the left-liberal cultural grouping, to doubt the objective neutrality of scientists in the pay of oil, tobacco, or pharmaceutical corporations, and then consider how powerful are the motivations of those who think themselves politically and morally justified and righteous, as in the notorious and sad quote of Stephen Schneider: "Each of us [scientists] has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest" (I understand that he hopes "we can be both"). In other words, the emphasis you place in the Liberal Republic of Science on restoring or establishing the authority of science in politically controversial areas seems unrealistic, and in my view should replaced by an emphasis on spreading the hermeneutics of critical intelligence as widely as possible, including within science communication.

February 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry


"indicate that a significant chunk of those who identify as Republicans and Tea Partiers (as compared to Independents and Democrats) don't actually know what most climate scientists have to say about climate change (although the ignorance is not limited to those two groups)."

That's a classic example of what I was saying in my other comment on definitions. The question is: "To the best of your knowledge, what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is happening?" To which the proper answer is: What do you mean by "global warming", and what do you mean by "is" happening?

By "global warming" do you mean the entire belief system - that rising anthropogenic CO2 will cause a climate disaster via rapidly rising temperatures over the next few decades that is already in progress? Or simply that the average surface temperature of the globe has risen? By "is" happening, do you mean over the past 10 years, or the past 100 years, or the past 1000?
The person who set the question clearly has no understanding of either the science or the debate.

People know from the way the question is asked that their opinion is being sought not on a point of scientific fact, but on their position in the political debate. They know that the results of this poll will be used to drive that debate one way or the other. So they will answer with whatever response they think will drive policy the way they prefer, and they will 'interpret' the question in whatever way makes their answer true.

That's the problem when you ask people about their belief in particular scientific conclusions, but don't ask them why they believe what they do. It doesn't tell you if their reasons for belief are scientific. You'll not even realise that you're asking the wrong question.

February 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

NiV -

The survey data are certainly problematic, but but you are making overly-broad statements about what people do or don't "know" - most likely based on your own biases.

When asked "do you think that GW is happening, some 50% of the Tea Partiers said "no."

When asked " Assuming global warming is happening, do you think it is..." Some 20% of the Tea Partiers - when offered the chance to say it is "happening because of natural changes in the environment (some 50% of them did), said that it "isn't happening." Some 20% of the TPers attributed global warming, assuming it is happening, to anthropogenic factors and some 50% attributed it to "natural changes" - which indicates that relatively few are likely to be conflating the two causes when asked if they think that GW is happening.

A strong majority of Tea Partiers considered themselves either very well-informed or fairly well-informed - so then is the argument that in fact, they are wrong, and they aren't well-informed, and don't know enough to know the difference between GW and AGW? So then, why are they answering that they are well-informed? Perhaps because they are mistaken in that belief? Why do you think that Tea Partiers seem to be significantly more likely to consider themselves as very, or fairly well-informed? Do you think that it is because they are mistaken, or because they actually are better informed?

Either way - whether "global warming" was interpreted to mean completely naturally caused or at least partially anthropogenically caused, do you think it is only that they know that the poll will be used to drive the debate that is the reason that some 30% of Tea Partiers would answer that only 21%-40% of scientists think that global warming is happening? Your argument is that they would indicate ignorance of what scientists say about global warming for the purpose of political expediency?

Maybe the problem is that too many Tea Partiers attend public school?

February 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"but but you are making overly-broad statements about what people do or don't "know" - most likely based on your own biases."

In introducing some of the caveats and complexities, I inevitably leave out others. I do have to draw the line somewhere short of turning a comment into a thesis. But I can't really complain, since I was effectively doing the same thing to your overly-broad statement about what "a significant chunk of those who identify as Republicans and Tea Partiers" know about "what most climate scientists have to say about climate change".

Regarding the different opinions on the "Assuming global warming is happening, do you think it is..." question, again it depends what you mean. Do you mean the last 10 years? Then global warming isn't happening. Do you mean the 1970-2000 period? Then it's probably a mixture of anthropogenic and natural warming, in some unknown ratio. If you think 30% of it is anthropogenic, how do you answer the question? Yes the cause is natural? Yes, the cause is anthropogenic? Mostly natural? Significantly anthropogenic? Can I say 'both'?

Some people will answer as they do because they're genuinely in error, some because they're confused about the question, some because they've no wish to see their answer used to support headlines of "Everyone's a Believer" in the political battle. My point wasn't to identify specifically what they were doing, it was to point out that the questions are grossly ambiguous and can't distinguish the intended answer-interpretation from numerous other plausible possibilities.

The claim that "a significant chunk of those who identify as Republicans and Tea Partiers" don't know "what most climate scientists have to say about climate change" is weakly supported. No, the problem is not that too many Tea Partiers attend public school, it's that the people studying the range of public opinion do not understand it, but seem to be working with some stereotyped caricature of the opposing arguments. They need to spend a bit more time conversing with climate sceptics, rather than talking about them.

February 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

They need to spend a bit more time conversing with climate sceptics, rather than talking about them.

I'm not going to disagree that "they" should spend time "conversing with climate "skeptics" - even though I think that your definition of "them" as being people who study public opinion but don't converse with climate "skeptics" sounds a bit conspiratorial.

But once again, NiV - as I have discussed with you many times before - "skeptics" are not monolithic. You talk about "them" as if they are monolithic, and as I have seen in the past, when you do so you make your characterization very convenient. To explain further:

The claim that "a significant chunk of those who identify as Republicans and Tea Partiers" don't know "what most climate scientists have to say about climate change" is weakly supported.


I was effectively doing the same thing to your overly-broad statement about what "a significant chunk of those who identify as Republicans and Tea Partiers" know about "what most climate scientists have to say about climate change".

Most "skeptics" know very little about the science. Just because there are highly engaged "skeptics" on climate blogs, you can't generalize about the larger group based on that sample.

If someone is asked whether or not global warming is happening, the response can be inclusive of any definition. If people are asked what % of scientists think that global warming is happening, and they say that the answer is some 21% - 40% - they are just flat wrong about the facts. It matters not that they consider themselves to be either highly informed or fairly well-informed. they are wrong not matter how one defines global warming. It would be ridiculous for someone to give such a wrong answer in the name of some sort of political expediency? Would they think it politically expedient to say that the group that they belong to are ignorant of the facts?

Although there are some "skeptics" who are well-informed, such as yourself, they are in a distinct and certifiable tiny minority. (Of course, the same would be true for "warmists"). You are, by definition, a tiny outlier.

My point wasn't to identify specifically what they were doing, it was to point out that the questions are grossly ambiguous and can't distinguish the intended answer-interpretation from numerous other plausible possibilities.

No matter the ambiguities, no matter your definition of global warming - it is, IMO, just flat out ignorant to respond that only 21%-40% of scientists think that global warming is happening. There is no definition of "global warming" where such an answer would be correct.

What % of scientists think that anthro only global warming is happening? Hardly any - thus the answer is wrong.

What % of scientists think that only natural global warming is happening? Relatively few, thus the answer is wrong.

What % of scientists think that some combination of global warming is happening? Way more than 40%.

And just because you want to create these sophisticated distinctions between what the respondents might have thought the working definition of global warming was, that doesn't make it so. Most people when asked whether global warming is happening will probably think that the definition referred to is the one where antho CO2 emissions are causing anomalous warming. To answer that only 21%-40% of scientists think that global warming is happening, using that definition, is just wrong.

February 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


" even though I think that your definition of "them" as being people who study public opinion but don't converse with climate "skeptics" sounds a bit conspiratorial."

In what way? What sort of conspiracy is being proposed?

"But once again, NiV - as I have discussed with you many times before - "skeptics" are not monolithic."

True. I think that's what I said. But the same issue applies to all generic labels for groups of people, and it becomes awkward after a while to insert all the appropriate qualifications every time. It's a standard English usage to use a group noun to represent subsets of the group as well as the entire group. Most people can figure out from context what is meant - I have no idea why you keep on picking it up and objecting to it.

"Most "skeptics" know very little about the science."

Most people know very little about the science - whether they're sceptical or not. But a lot of the people who believe in the consensus nevertheless think they know enough to hold an opinion, so I don't see why there should be a different standard for sceptics.

"It would be ridiculous for someone to give such a wrong answer in the name of some sort of political expediency?"

Many sceptics would regard it as a "have you stopped beating your wife?" sort of question, where they know that giving the correct answer could be used to give a highly misleading impression. Giving the wrong answer is also misleading, of course, but in a less damaging way.

I would tend to expect that only a small minority would do so - I think people who felt that way would be more likely to object to the question or say 'don't know' rather than give a contrary answer. But I've done it myself on occasion when I know that the technically correct answer isn't the one they're after. For example, whether the Earth rotates around the sun or vice versa depends on your choice of reference frame, and it's rare for me to be thinking in the International Celestial Reference System for everyday use. If I was standing in the street, I'd think of myself as stationary, not spiralling around the sun at seventy thousand miles an hour. - In my local coordinate system the sun orbits around me. - I've sometimes given that answer too. But I'd have to be in a mischievous frame of mind to say so.

"Would they think it politically expedient to say that the group that they belong to are ignorant of the facts?"

Believers are going to assume they're ignorant of the facts, anyway, so it makes no difference. Nobody comes out as a sceptic if they're all that bothered about other people thinking they're ignorant of the facts. It's like asking whether atheists think it politically expedient to say that the group they belong to are sinners and blasphemers. They'd say they don't care what you think - they don't agree with your definitions.

"No matter the ambiguities, no matter your definition of global warming - it is, IMO, just flat out ignorant to respond that only 21%-40% of scientists think that global warming is happening. There is no definition of "global warming" where such an answer would be correct."

I've already given such an example. How many scientists believe that the global average surface temperature has warmed significantly over the most recent 10 years? When people say warming has "paused", doesn't that phrase mean that now, at this instant, global warming (interpreted as a simple rise in surface temperature) is not happening?

If you look at the data, the answer is pretty unambiguous - under this definition there ought to be no climate scientists saying global warming is currently happening. (At the very least, they all ought to say "What do you mean by 'global warming'?") But if one supposes that there are a few scientist-activists with a more casual acquaintanceship with the truth, or who can be expected to change the definition to suit themselves, the expected answer is probably not zero.

There are probably people around who would similarly say the economy is not in recession, since if you take the 30-year trend, "correct" the data for background noise effects like market crashes, make many further undocumented adjustments, smooth it with a centred 5-year binomial filter, etc., the curve is still ramping upwards. Statistics is a game of definitions.

February 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

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