I’m in Norway. Just stepped off the plane in fact.
Am going to be giving an address at a conference sponsored by the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo. The conference is for professional science communicators (mainly ones associated with universities), and the topic is how to promote effective public dissemination of and engagement with the IPCC's 5th Assessment Report, which will be released officially in October.
Obviously, I will stress that it all comes down to making sure the public gets the message that the IPCC report reflects “scientific consensus.”
Actually, I will try to communicate something that is very hard to make clear.
When I have the opportunity (and privilege) to address climate scientists and professional science communicators, I often feel that I’m deflating them a bit by advising them that I don’t believe that what scientists say—independently of what they do—is of particular consequence in the formation of public opinion. The average American can’t name a Supreme Court Justice. Say “James Hansen” and he or she is more likely to select “creator of the Muppets” than “climate scientist” on a multiple choice quiz. Anyone who thinks things could or should be otherwise, moreover, doesn’t have a clue what it is like to be a normal, average, busy person.
There are some genuinely inspired citizen scientist communicators in our society. But to expect them to bear the burden of fixing the science communication problem betrays a naïve—and pernicious—model of how science is communicated.
What’s known to science becomes known to ordinary people—ones to whom what science knows can in fact be quite vital—through a dense network of cultural intermediaries. Moreover, in pluralistic liberal democracies (which are in fact the only types of society in which science can flourish), there will necessarily be a plurality of such networks operating to inform a diverse array of groups whose members share distinctive cultural commitments.
These networks by and large all do a great job. Any that didn’t—any that consistently misled its members about what’s known to science—wouldn’t last long, given the indispensable contribution scientific knowledge makes to human welfare.
The spectacle of cultural conflict over what’s known to science is a pathology—both in the sense of being inimical to human well-being and in the sense of being rare. The number of health- and policy-relevant scientific insights on which there is conflict akin to that over climate science is miniscule relative to the vast number on which there isn’t.
Something has to happen—something unusual—to invest a particular belief about some otherwise mundane issue of fact with cultural meanings that express one’s membership in and loyalty to a particular group.
But once that happens, the value that an ordinary member of the public gets from persisting in a belief that signifies his or her group commitments will likely far outweigh any personal cost from being mistaken. Clearly this is so for climate change: nothing an ordinary person believes about the science of climate change will have any impact on the climate—or any impact on policies to offset any adverse impact human activity might be having on it—because he or she just doesn’t matter enough (as consumer, as voter, as “public deliberator”) to have any impact; if he or she takes the “wrong” position relative to the one that signifies loyalty to his or her cultural group, and the amount of suffering that person has to endure can be immense.
The pathology of cultural conflict over a societal risk like climate change can’t be effectively treated, then, by radiating the patient with a bombardment of “facts.”
It can be treated only with the creation of pluralistic meanings. What needs to be communicated is that the facts on climate change, whatever they might be, are perfectly consistent with the cultural commitments of all the diverse groups that inhabit a pluralistic liberal democracy. No one has to choose between believing them (or believing anything whatsoever about them) and being who one is as a person with a particular cultural identity.
As I said, communicating this point about science communication is difficult. Not so much because the ideas or the concepts—or the evidence that shows they are more than a just-so story—are all that hard to explain.
The problem has to do with a kind of cultural resistance to the message that communicating science is about protecting the conditions in which the natural, spontaneous social certification of truth can be expected to happen.
The culture that resists this message, moreover, is not that of “hierarchical individualists” or “egalitarian communitarians.”
It’s the culture of the Liberal Republic of Science, of which we are all citizens.
Nullius in verba. It’s so absurd! Yet so compelling. So much who we are.