To make real progress, the science of science communication must leave the lab (at least now and again)
Tuesday, February 14, 2017 at 7:20AM
Dan Kahan

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.

Article originally appeared on cultural cognition project (
See website for complete article licensing information.