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To make real progress, the science of science communication must leave the lab (at least now and again)

Gave a talk last week at Pew Charitiable Trusts, which is keenly interested in how their various projects can benefit from evidence-based science communication.   Slides here.

Main points:

1. Group conflict over policy-relevant science is not due to limitations on individual rationality. Rather they reflect the consequence of a polluted science-communication environment, in which the entanglement of group identity in contested factual positions forces people to choose between being who they are and knowing what’s known by science.  In such an environment it is perfectly rational for an ordinary member of the public to choose the former: his or her personal actions cannot meaningfully contribute to mitigating (or aggravating) societal risks (e.g., climate change); yet because of what positions on such issues have come to signify about who one is and whose side one is on in acrimonious cultural status conflict,  he or she can pay a steep reputational cost for forming beliefs contrary to the ones that prevail in that person’s cultural group. 

Fixing the science communication environment requires communication strategies that dissolve the conflict between the two things people do with their reason -- be who they are culturally speaking, and know what is known by science.

2. The two-channel model of science communication is one strategy for disentangling identity and positions on societal risks.  According to the model, individuals process scientific information along both a content channel, where the issue is the apparent validity of the information, and a social-meaning channel, which address whether accepting such information is consistent with one’s identity. The CCP study reported in Kahan, D.M., Hank, J.-S., Tarantola, T., Silva, C. & Braman, D. Geoengineering and Climate Change Polarization, Testing a Two-Channel Model of Science Communication. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 658, 192-222 (2015), illustrates this point: after reading a news story that stressed the need for greater carbon emission limits, individuals culturally disposed to climate skepticism reacted closed-mindedly to evidence of climate change; those who first read a story on the call for greater research on geo-entering, in contrast, responded more open-mindedly to the same climate-change research. The difference can plausibly be linked to the stories’ impact in threatening and affirming the group identity, respectively, of those who are culturally disposed to climate skepticism. 

3. It’s time to get out of the lab and get into the field. The two-channel model of science communication is just that—a model of how science communication dynamics work.  It doesn’t by itself tell anyone exactly what he or she should do to promote better public engagement with controversial forms of decision-relevant science in particular circumstances.  To figure that out, social scientists, working with field communicators, must collaborate to determine through additional empirical study how positive results in the lab can be reproduced in the field.  

There are more plausible accounts of how to apply such study in real-world circumstances than can plausibly true—just as there was (and still are) more accounts of why public conflict over science exists in the first place.  Just as valid empirical testing was needed to extract the true mechanisms from the sea of merely plausible in the lab, so valid empirical testing is needed to extract the true accounts of how to make science communication work in the real world.

CCP’s local-government and science filmmaking initiatives are guided by that philosophy. The great work that is being done by Pew-supported scientists and science advocates deserves the same sort of evidence-based science communication support.

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Reader Comments (1)

Dan -

=={ Gave a talk last week at Pew Charitiable Trusts, which is keenly interested in how their various projects can benefit from evidence-based science communication. }==

Observing the news the past couple of days has provided me with yet another favorite example (the list is getting really long ) for why I fail to understand why you focus so much on "science communication" as a distinct form of communication. IMO, this is about communication in a polarized context as the most salient consideration, and the exchange of information pertaining to science is (mostly) a secondary issue.

Just look at how easily large %'s of the public seamless do a 180 on their views on the "morality" or "security" or implications of leaks and the role of the press in relation to leaks. The country is highly polarized and across those different "sides" there has been a near uniform reversal one one side from leaks being immoral and threatening to being a moral imperative that helps us to feel more secure, even as there has been a mirror image on the other side.

How long ago did Trump use "I love wikileaks" as a rallying cry?

This kind of reversal puts into play the whole notion that "world view" or "values" or "morals" are particularly meaningful determinants of identity orientation. IMO, identity orientation is a determinant in and of itself, a determinant that eats up and swallows practically any particular (putative) manifestation of those concepts. The "value" of a leakproof intelligence community does a 180. So does the "morality" of leaks. Even the security threats represented by leaks appears and disappears at the behest of identity orientation.

I don't see where you create any distinguishing characteristics that demarcate "science" communication within polarized contexts from any other type of communication in similarly polarized contexts. The characteristic motivated reasoning, cultural cognition, and identity-aggressive and identity-defensive behaviors prevail across the communicative framework whether the proximal topic is scientific, political, medical, moral, religious, or any other category.

I guess it's possible that despite the overriding congruence across different contexts, the corrective strategy might differ by proximal context, but I doubt it. My sense is that the "causal" aspects can only be addressed through a more direct focus on the underlying cognitive and psychological elements of the mechanism in play, that combines with a context specific application. The parallel would be to working with students on problem solving. A decontextualized approach to problem solving doesn't likely (IMO) generalize to specific contexts, but neither can you improve problem solving in a particular context if you don't work on developing more general skills.

There will always remain a problematic "science communication" when the participants are not really focused on a communicative act, but instead are engaging in speech acts as subset of acts in service of an overriding identity-strengthening act. If people aren't focused on communicating, so much as confirming, then you can't improve communication.

=={ yet because of what positions on such issues have come to signify about who one is and whose side one is on in acrimonious cultural status conflict, he or she can pay a steep reputational cost for forming beliefs contrary to the ones that prevail in that person’s cultural group. {==

I also, continue. to think that this reflects an overly simplistic view of the underlying mechanism of motivated reasoning in polarized contexts. No doubt, considering "reputational cost" is one factor in play, but I think that other factors, ones that I think are more explanatory in fact, are being largely neglected in your portrayal.

People who engage in motivated reasoning do so for a variety of reasons, and I think that there are a verity of self-protection/preseveration mechanisms that lie alongside reputational concerns. People want to think of themselves as smart for choosing the correct side on an issue. They want to think of themselves as being more moral that the "others" who align on other sides of issues. They want to be proud of their family and cultural heritage which are largely aligned with particular sides of issues. These "motivations" are certainly not in any way mutually exclusive with reputational concerns, but IMO, are inextricably linked to the reputational motivation of which you speak.

February 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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