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Five theses on climate science communication (lecture summary & slides)

The following is the outline of a lecture that I gave at the super awesome Royal Canadian Institute for the Advancement of Science on June 25, 2014 (slides here). The audience comprised a large group of people united by their curiosity and love of science but otherwise as diverse as the pluralistic democracy in which they live; it was an honor to be able to engage them in conversation. My paper Climate science communication and the measurement problem elaborates on the themes and presents additional data. 


What ordinary members of the public “believe” about climate change doesn’t reflect what they know; it expresses who they are.  

Responses to survey questions on “belief in” evolution have no correlation with understanding of evolution or with comprehension of science generally.  Instead, they indicate a cultural identity that features religiosity.

The same goes for survey questions on “belief in” human-caused climate change. Responses to them are interchangeable with responses to survey items used to measure political and cultural outlooks and they have no correlation either to understanding of climate science or science comprehension generally.


Public confusion over climate is not a consequence of defects in rationality; it is a consequence of the rational effect people give to information when they live in a world in which competing positions on disputed risks express membership in opposing cultural groups.

“Bounded rationality”—or limitations in the capacity of most people to give appropriate effect to scientific information on risk—is the most popular popular explanation for persistent public confusion over climate change.  But the durability of this claim itself reflects a form of persistent inattention to empirical evidence, which shows that political polarization over global warming is most intense among those segments of the population whose critical reasoning proficiencies make them the least prone to cognitive bias.

The BR hypothesis misunderstands what ordinary people are doing when they engage information on climate change and other culturally disputed risk issues.  They can’t plausibly be understood to be trying to minimize their exposure to the danger those risk sources pose, since their personal beliefs and actions are too inconsequential to have any impact. 

The positions they take will be understood, however, to signify their membership in and loyalty to one or another competing cultural group. To protect their standing in such a group—membership in which is vital to their emotional & material well-being—individuals can be expected to give to information the effect that aligns them most reliably with their group.  The more acute their powers of reasoning, moreover, the better a job they will do in this regard.

The problem is not too little rationality but too much in a world in which positions on risks and other policy-relevant facts have become entangled in cultural status competition.


Communicating valid science about climate change (or about the expert consensus of climate scientists) won’t dispel public conflict; only dissolving the connection between positions on the issue and membership in competing cultural groups will.


If individuals are using their reason to fit information to the positions that reinforce their connection to identity-defining groups, then bombarding them with more and more information won’t diminish polarization. Indeed, studies show that individuals selectively credit and discredit all manner of evidence—including scientific-consensus “messaging” campaigns—in patterns that enable them to persist in identity-defining belies.

Because that form of reasoning is rational—because it promotes individuals’ well-being at a personal level—the only way to prevent it is to change the relationship that holding positions on global warming has with the identities of culturally diverse citizens.


Ordinary members of the public already know everything they need to about climate science; the only thing that don’t  know (yet) is that the people they recognize as competent and informed use climate science in making important decisions.

Survey items that assess “belief in” human-caused global warming doesn’t measure what people know about climate change, but that doesn’t mean nothing can. 

As is the case for assessing knowledge relating to evolution, it is possible to design a “climate science literacy” instrument that disentangles expressions knowledge from group identity.

The administration of such a test to a nationally representative sample shows that in fact there is little meaningful difference among culturally diverse citizens, who uniformly understand climate change to be a serious risk.

That shared understanding does not lead to popular political support for policies to mitigate climate change, however, because the question “climate change” poses as a political issue is the same one posed by the survey measures of what people “believe” about it: not what do you know but who are you, whose side are you on?

People recognize and make use of all manner of decision-relevant science not by “understanding” it but by aligning their own behavior consistently with that of people they trust and recognize as socially competent.

The actors that members of diverse groups look to in fact are already making extensive use of climate science in their individual and collective decisionmaking.

Climate science communicators ought to be making it easier for members of all groups to see that.  Instead, they are trapped in forms of advocacy—including perpetual, carnival-like “debates”—that fill the science communication environment with toxic forms of cultural animosity.


What needs to be communicated to ordinary decisionmakers is normal climate science; what needs to be communicated to ordinary people is that using climate science is as normal for people like them as using the myriad other kinds of science they rely on to make their lives go well.

Practical decisionmakers of all sorts are eagerly seek and use information about climate science.  The scientists who furnish that information to them  (e.g., those at NCAR and the ones in the Department of Agriculture) do an outstanding job.

But what ordinary people, in their capacity as citizens, need to know is not “normal climate science” ; it is the normality of climate science.  They need to be shown that those whom they trust and recognize as competent already are using climate science in their practical decisionmaking.

That is the form of information that ordinary members of the public ordinarily rely on to align themselves with the best available scientific evidence.

It is also the only signal that can be expected to break through and dispel the noise of cultural antagonism that is now preventing constructive public engagement with climate science.

There are small enclaves in which enlightened democratic leaders are enabling ordinary people to communicate the normality of climate science to one another

The rest of us should follow their example.

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Reader Comments (1)

Nice. Thanks.

July 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

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