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« What SE Florida can teach us about the *political* science of climate change | Main | What’s that hiding behind the poll? Perceiving public perceptions of biotechnology »

New paper: "Climate Science Communication and the Measurement Problem"

As all 14 billion readers of this blog know, when I say "tomorrow" or "this week," I really mean "tomorrow" or "next week."  Nevertheless, as I said I'd do earlier this week, I really am posting this week--as in today--a new paper

It's the one from which the " 'external validity' ruminations" (parts one, two, & three) were drawn.

The coolest part about it (from my perspectiveve at least!) is the data it presents from the administration  of two "science comprehension" tests, one general and the other specifically on climate change, to a large nationally representative sample.  

The results surprised me in many important respects. I've spent a good amount of time trying to figure out how to revise my understanding of science communication & cultural conflict in light of them (and talked with a good number of people who were kind enough to listen to me explain how excited & disoriented the results made me feel). I think I get these results now. But I still have the unsettled, unsettling feeling that I might now be standing stationary in the middle of a wide, smooth sheet of ice!

I'll post more information, more reflections on the data. But to get the benefit of hearing what those with the motivation & time to read the paper think about the argument it presents, I'll just post it for now.

8. Solving the science of science communication’s measurement problem—by annihilating it

My goal in this lecture has been to identify the science of science communication’s “measurement problem.”  I’ve tried to demonstrate the value of understanding this problem by showing how it contributes to the failure of the communication of climate science in the U.S.

At the most prosaic level, the “measurement problem” in that setting is that many data collectors do not fully grasp what they are measuring when they investigate the sources of public polarization on climate change. As a result, many of their conclusions are wrong. Those who rely on those conclusions in formulating real-world communication strategies fail to make progress—and sometimes end up acting in a self-defeating manner.

But more fundamentally, the science of science communication’s measurement problem describes a set of social and psychological dynamics. Like the “measurement problem” of quantum mechanics, it describes a vexing feature of the phenomena that are being observed and not merely a limitation in the precision of the methods available for studying them.

There is, in the science of science communication, an analog to the dual “wave-like” and “particle-like” nature of light (or of elementary particles generally). It is the dual nature of human reasoners as collective-knowledge acquirers and cultural-identity protectors.  Just as individual photons in the double-slit experiment pass through “both slits at once” when unobserved, so each individual person uses her reason simultaneously to apprehend what is collectively known and to be a member of a particular cultural community defined by a set of highly distinctive set of commitments.  

Moreover, in the science of science communication as in quantum physics, assessment perturbs this dualism.  The antagonistic cultural meanings that pervade the social interactions in which we engage individuals on contested science issues forces them to be only one of their reasoning selves.  We can through these interactions measure what they know, or measure who they are, but we cannot do both at once.

This is the difficulty that has persistently defeated effective communication of climate science.  By reinforcing the association of opposing positions with membership in competing cultural groups, the antagonistic meanings relentlessly conveyed by high-profile “communicators” on both sides effectively force individuals to use their reason to selectively construe all manner of evidence—from what “most scientists believe” (Corner, Whitmarsh & Dimitrios 2012; Kahan, Jenkins-Smith & Braman 2011) to what the weather has been like in their community in recent years (Goebbert, Jenkins-Smith, Klockow, Nowlin & Silva 2012)—in patterns that reflect the positions that prevail in their communities.  We thus observe citizens only as identity-protective reasoners.  We consistently fail to engage their formidable capacity as collective-knowledge acquirers to recognize and give effect to the best available scientific evidence on climate change.

There is nothing inevitable or necessary about this outcome.  In other domains, most noticeably the teaching of evolutionary theory, the use of valid empirical methods has identified means of disentangling the question of what do you know? from the question who are you; whose side are you on?, thereby making it possible for individuals of diverse cultural identities to use their reason to participate in the insights of science.  Climate-science communicators need to learn how to do this too, not only in the classroom but in the public spaces in which we engage climate science as citizens.

Indeed, the results of the “climate science comprehension”  study I’ve described supports the conclusion that ordinary citizens of all political outlooks already know the core insights of climate science.  If they can be freed of the ugly, illiberal dynamics that force them to choose between exploiting what they know and expressing who they are, there is every reason to believe that they will demand that democratically accountable representatives use the best available evidence to promote their collective well-being.  Indeed, this is happening, although on a regrettably tiny scale, in regions like Southeast Florida.

Though I’ve used the “measurement problem” framework to extract insight from empirical evidence—of both real-world and laboratory varieties—nothing in fact depends on accepting the framework.  Like “collapsing wave functions,” “superposition,” and similar devices in one particular rendering of quantum physics, the various elements of the science of science communication measurement problem (“dualistic reasoners,” “communicative interference,” “disentanglement,” etc.) are not being held forth as “real things,” that are “happening” somewhere. 

They are a set of pictures intended to help us visualize processes that cannot be observed and likely do not even admit of being truly seen. The value of the pictures lies in whether they are useful to us, at least for a time, in forming a reliable mental apprehension of how those dynamics affect our world, in predicting what is likely to happen to us as we interact with them, and in empowering us to do things that make our world better.

I think the science of “science communication measurement problem” can serve that function, and do so much better than myriad other theories (“bounded rationality,” “terror management,” “system justification,” etc.) that also can be appraised only for their explanatory, predictive, and prescriptive utility.  But it is the imperative to make sense of —and stop ignoring—observable, consequential features of our experience.  If there are better frameworks, or simply equivalent but different ones, that help to achieve this goal, then they should be embraced.

But there is one final important element of the theoretical framework I have proposed that would need to be represented by an appropriate counterpart in any alternative.  It is a part of the framework that emphasizes not a parallel in the “measurement problems” of the science of science communication and quantum physics but a critical difference between them.

The insolubility of quantum mechanics’ “measurement problem” is fundamental to the work that this construct and all the ones related to it (“the uncertainty principle,” “quantum entanglement,” and the like) do in that theory.  To dispel quantum mechanic’s measurement problem (by, say, identifying the “hidden variables” that determine which of the two slits through which the photon must pass, whether we are watching or not) would demonstrate the inadequacy (or “incompleteness”) of quantum mechanics.

But the measurement problem that confronts the science of science communication, while connected to real-world dynamics of consequence and not merely the imperfect methods used to study them, can be overcome.  The dynamics that this measurement problem comprises are ones generated by the behavior of conscious, reasoning, acting human beings.  They can choose to act differently, if they can figure out how.

The utility of recognizing the “science of science communication measurement problem”  thus depends on the contribution that using that theory can ultimately make to its own destruction. 

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Reader Comments (2)

Haven't read the paper yet- about to do so- but I just wanted to say Huzzah to your use of quantum mechanics as a comparison... you had this ex-physics teacher turned designer at "quantum entanglement."

June 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJen


We all need to be free to go through both slits unobserved, unperturbed.

June 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

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