What would I advise climate science communicators?

This is what I was asked by a thoughtful person who is assisting climate-science communicators to develop strategies for helping the public to recognize the best available evidence–so that those citizens can themselves make meaningful decisions about what policy responses best fit their values.  I thought others might benefit from seeing my responses, and from seeing alternative or supplementary ones that the billions of thoughtful people who read this blog religiously (most, I’m told, before they even get out of bed everyday) might contribute.

So below are the person’s questions (more or less) and my responses, and I welcome others to offer their own reactions.

1. What is the most important influence or condition affecting the efficacy of science communication relating to climate change?

In my view, “the quality of the science communication environment” is the single most important factor determining how readily ordinary people will recognize the best available evidence on climate change and what its implications are for policy. That’s the most important factor determining how readily they will recognize the best available scientific evidence relevant to all manner of decisions they make in their capacity as consumers, parents, citizens—you name it.

People are remarkably good at figuring out who knows what about what. That is the special rational capacity that makes it possible for them to make reliable use of so much more scientific knowledge than they could realistically be expected to understand in a technical sense.

The “science communication environment” consists of all the normal, and normally reliable, signs and processes that people use to figure out what is known to science. Most of these signs and processes are bound up with normal interactions inside communities whose members share basic outlooks on life. There are lots of different communities of that sort in our society, but usually they all steer their respective members toward what science knows.

But when positions on a fact that admits of scientific investigation  (“is the earth heating up?”; “does the HPV vaccine promote unsafe sex among teenage girls?”) becomes entangled with the values and outlooks of diverse communities—and becomes, in effect, a symbol of one’s membership and loyalty in one or another group—then people in those groups will end up in states of persistent disagreement and confusion. These sorts of entanglements (and the influences that cause them) are in effect a form of pollution in the science communication environment, one that disables people from reliably discerning what is known to science.

The science communication environment is filled with these sorts of toxins on climate change. We need to use our intelligence to figure out how to clean our science communication environment up.

For more on these themes:

Kahan, D. Why we are poles apart on climate change. Nature 488, 255 (2012).

Kahan, D. Fixing the Communications Failure. Nature 463, 296-297 (2010).

2. If you had three pieces of advice for those who are interested in promoting more constructive engagement with climate change science, what would they be?

A. Information about climate change should be communicated to people in the setting that is
most conducive to their open-minded and engaged assessment of it.

 How readily and open-mindedly people will engage scientific information depends very decisively on context. A person who hears about the HPV vaccine when she sees Michelle Bachman or Ellen Goodman screaming about it on Fox or MSNBC will engage it as someone who has a political identity and is trying to figure out which position “matches” it; that same person, when she gets the information from her daughter’s pediatrician, will engage it as a parent, whose child’s welfare is the most important thing in the world to her, and who will earnestly try to figure out what those who are experts on health have to say. Most of the contexts in which people are thinking about climate change today are like the first of these two. Find ones that are more like the second. They exist!

B. Science communication should be evidence-based “all the way down.”

The number of communication strategies that plausibly might work far exceeds the number that actually will.  So don’t just guess or introspect, & don’t listen to story-tellers who weave social science mechanisms into ad hoc (and usually uselessly general) “how to” instructions!

Start with existing evidence (including empirical studies) to identify the mechanisms of communication that there is reason to believe are of consequence in the setting in which you are communicating.

But don’t guess on the basis of those, either, about what to do; treat insights about how to harness those mechanisms in concrete contexts as hypotheses that themselves admit of, and demand, testing designed to help corroborate their likely effectiveness and to calibrate them.

Finally, observe, measure, and report the actual effect of strategies you use. Think how much benefit you would have gotten, in trying to decide what to do now, if you had had access to meaningful data relating to the impact (effective or not) of all things people have already tried in the area of climate science communication. Think what a shame it would be if you fail to collect and make available to others who will be in your situation usuable information about the effects of your efforts.

Aiding and abetting entropy is a crime in the Liberal Republic of Science!

C. Don’t either ignore or take as a given the current political economy surrounding climate
change; instead, engage people in ways that will improve it.

Public opinion does not by itself determine what policies are adopted in a democratic system. If “public approval” were all that mattered, we’d have adopted gun control laws in the 1970s stricter than the ones President Obama is now proposing; we’d have a muscular regime of campaign finance regulation; and we wouldn’t have subsidies for agriculture and oil producers, or tax loopholes that enable Fortune 500 companies to pay (literally) zero income tax.

The “political economy climate” is as complex as the natural climate, and public opinion is only one (small) factor. So if you make “increasing public support” your sole goal, you are making a big mistake.

You also are likely making a mistake if you take as a given the existing political economy dynamics that constrain governmental responsiveness to evidence and simply try to amass some huge counterforce (grounded in public opinion or otherwise) to overcome them. That’s a mistake, in my view, because there are things that can be done to engage people in a way that will make the political economy forces climate-change science communicators have to negotiate more favorable to considered forms of policymaking (whatever they might be).

Where to engage the public, how, and about what in order to improve the political economy surrounding climate change are all matters of debate, of course. So you should consult all the evidence, and all the people who have evidence-informed views, and make the best judgment possible. And anyone who doesn’t tell you that this is the thing to do is someone whose understanding of what needs to be done should be seriously questioned.

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