Weekend update: Science of Science Communication 2.0: on CRED "how to" manual & more on 97% messaging
Here are some contributions to class discussion. The first is from Tamar Wilner, who offers reactions to session 7 readings. I've posted just the beginning of her essay and the linked to her page for continuation. The second is from Kevin Tobia (by the way, I also recommend his great study on the quality of "lay" and "expert" moral intuitions), who addresses "97% messaging," a topic initially addressed in Session 6 but now brought into sharper focus with a recently published study that I myself commented on in my last post.
Health, ingenuity and ‘the American way of life': how should we talk about climate?
Here was our assignment for week 7:
Imagine you were
- President Obama about to make a speech to the Nation in support of your proposal for a carbon tax;
- a zoning board member in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, preparing to give a presentation at an open meeting (at which members of the public would be briefed and then allowed to give comments) defending a proposed set of guidelines on climate-impact “vulnerability reduction measures for all new construction, redevelopment and infrastructure such as additional hardening, higher floor elevations or incorporation of natural infrastructure for increased resilience”;
- a climate scientist invited to give a lecture on climate change to the local chapter of the Kiwanis in Springfield, Tennessee; or
- a “communications consultant” hired by a billionaire, to create a television advertisement, to be run during the Superbowl, that will promote constructive public engagement with the science on and issues posed by climate change.
Would the CRED manual be useful to you? Would the studies conducted by Feygina, et al., Meyers et al., or Kahan et al. be? How would you advise any one of these actors to proceed?
First, some thoughts on these four readings.The CRED Manual: well-intentioned, but flawed
Source material: Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, Columbia University. “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication: A guide for scientists, journalists, educators, political aides, and the interested public.”
When I first read the CRED manual, it chimed well with my sensibilities. My initial reaction was that this was a valuable, well-prepared document. But on closer inspection, I have misgivings. I think a lot of that “chiming” comes from the manual’s references to well-known psychological phenomena that science communicators and the media have tossed around as potential culprits for climate change denialism. But for a lot of these psychological processes, there isn’t much empirical basis showing their relevance to climate change communication.
Of course, the CRED staff undoubtedly know the literature better than I do, so they could well know empirical support that I’m not aware of. But the manual authors often don’t support their contentions with research citations. That’s a shame because much of the advice given is too surface-level for communications practitioners to directly apply to their work, and the missing citations would have helped practitioners to look more deeply into and understand particular tactics.
“Gateway beliefs” and what effect 97% consensus messaging should have
A new paper reports the effect of “consensus messaging” on beliefs about climate change. The media have begun covering both this new study and some recent criticism. While I agree with much of the critique, I want to focus on a different aspect of the paper, the idea of a “gateway belief.” Thinking closely about this suggests an interpretation of the paper that raises important questions for future research – and may offer a small vindication of the value of 97% scientific consensus reporting. You be the judge.
First, what is a “gateway” belief? In this context, what is it for dis/belief in scientific consensus on climate change to be a “gateway” belief? You might think this means that some perceived level of scientific consensus is necessary to have certain beliefs in climate change, worry in climate change, belief in human causation, and support for public action. You can’t have these beliefs unless you go – or have gone – “through the gate” of perceived scientific consensus.
But here’s what the researchers actually have to say about the “gateway” model prediction:
We posit that belief or disbelief in the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change plays an important role in the formation of public opinion on the issue. This is consistent with prior research, which has found that highlighting scientific consensus increases belief in human-caused climate change. More specifically, we posit perceived scientific agreement as a “gateway belief” that either supports or undermines other key beliefs about climate change, which in turn, influence support for public action. ... Specifically, we hypothesize that an experimentally induced change in the level of perceived consensus is causally associated with a subsequent change in the belief that climate change is (a) happening, (b) human-caused, and (c) how much people worry about the issue (H1). In turn, a change in these key beliefs is subsequently expected to lead to a change in respondents’ support for societal action on climate change (H2). Thus, while the model predicts that the perceived level of scientific agreement acts as a key psychological motivator, its effect on support for action is assumed to be fully mediated by key beliefs about climate change (H3).
There are a couple things worth noting here. First, if the ultimate aim is increasing support for public action, you don’t have to go “through the gate” of the gateway belief model at all. That is, what is really doing the work is the set of (i) beliefs that climate change is happening, (ii) beliefs it is human-caused, and (iii) how much people worry about it. If we could find some other way to increase these, we could affect public support without needing to change the perceived level of science consensus (though, whether that change might itself affect the perceived level of scientific consensus is another interesting and open question).
Second – and more importantly – it is not the case that there is some “gateway belief” in perceived scientific agreement that is required to have certain beliefs in climate change or human causation, worry, or support for action. The model merely predicts that all of these are affected by changes to the perceived level of scientific agreement. Thus, it is incorrect to draw from this research that the “gateway belief” of perceived scientific consensus is (as analogy might suggest) some necessary or required belief that must be held in order to belief in human-caused/climate change, worry about it, or support for action. Instead, the gateway belief is something like a belief that tends to have or normally has some relation to these other climate beliefs.
When we put it this way, the “gateway belief” prediction might start to seem less interesting: there’s one belief about climate change (perceived consensus among scientists) that is a good indicator of other beliefs about climate change. But, what is more intriguing is the further claim the researchers make: this gateway belief isn’t just a good indicator of others, but increasing the gateway belief will cause greater belief in the others. Perceiving scientific non-consensus is the gateway drug to climate change denial!
This conception of the gateway belief illuminates a subtle feature of the researchers’ prediction. Recall:
we hypothesize that an experimentally induced change in the level of perceived consensus is causally associated with a subsequent change in the belief that climate change is (a) happening, (b) human-caused, and (c) how much people worry about the issue ....
The hypothesis here is that changing the level of perceived consensus causes changes in these other climate beliefs.
Some might worry about the relatively small effects found in the study. But if we recognize the full extent of the researchers’ prediction (that increased perceived consensus will raise the other beliefs AND that decreased perceived consensus will lower the other beliefs), one possibility is that some participants with very high pre-test consensus estimates (e.g. 99% or 100%) actually reduced their estimate in light of the consensus messaging – and that this affected their other beliefs. It might seem unlikely that many participants held an initial estimate of consensus upwards of 97% (even with a pre-test mean estimate of 66.98), but data on this would be useful.
There is a more plausible consideration that also weakens the worry about small effect size: would we really want participants (or people in the world) to change their beliefs about science in exact proportion to the most recent information they receive about expert consensus? To put it another way, the small effect size might not be evidence of the weakness of consensus messaging, but might rather be evidence of the measured fashion in which people weigh new evidence and update their beliefs.
What would be helpful is data on the number (or percent) of participants whose beliefs increased from pre to post test. This would help distinguish between two quite different possibilities:
- very few participants greatly increased their beliefs in climate change after reading the consensus message
- many participants moderately increased their beliefs in climate change after reading the consensus message
Of course, even if (2) is true, much more research will be required before deciding to launch an expensive messaging campaign. For instance, suppose we discover that the climate beliefs of people with very high initial beliefs in consensus (“97+% initial believers”) are actually weakened when they are exposed to 97% messaging. Even if people who are initially “sub-97% initial believers” change their beliefs in light of 97% messaging, we should ask whether this trade-off is beneficial. There are a number of relevant considerations here, but one thought is that perhaps reducing someone’s climate change belief from 100% to 99% is not worth an equivalent gain elsewhere from, say, 3% to 4%. For one, behaviors and dispositions may increase/decrease non-proportionally. 100 to 99 percent belief change might result in the loss of an ardent climate action supporter, while change from 3 to 4 percent might result in little practical consequence. These are all open questions!