Who needs to know what from whom about climate science

I was asked by some science journalists what I thought of the new social media app produced by Skeptical Science. The app purports to quantify the impact of climate change in “Hiroshima bomb” units. Keith Kloor posted a blog about it and some of the reactions to it yesterday. 

I haven’t had a chance to examine the new Skeptical Science “widget.”

But I would say that in general, the climate communicators focusing on “messaging” strategies are acting on the basis of a defective theory of “who needs to know what from whom” — one formed on the basis of an excessive focus on climate & other “pathological” risk-perception cases and neglect of the much larger and much less interesting class of “normal” ones.
The number of risk issues on which we observe deep, persistent cultural conflict in the face of compelling & widely accessible science is minuscule in relation to the number of ones on which we could but don’t.There’s no conflict in the U.S. about the dangers of consuming raw milk, about the safety of medical x-rays, about the toxicity of fluoridated water, about the cancer-causing effects of high-voltage power lines, or even (the empirically uninformed and self-propagating pronouncements of feral risk communicators notwithstanding) about GM foods or childhood vaccinations.But there could be; indeed, there has been conflict on some of these issues in the past and is continuing conflict on some of them (including vaccines and GM foods) in Europe.

The reason that members of the public aren’t divided on these issues isn’t that they “understand the science” on these issues or that biologists, toxicologists et al. are “better communicators” than climate scientists.  If you tested the knowledge of ordinary members of the public here, they’d predictably do poorly.

But that just shows that you’d be asking them the wrong question.  Ordinary people (scientists too!) need to accept as known by science much more than they could possibly form a meaningful understanding of.  The expertise they need to orient themselves appropriately with regard to decision-relevant science — and the expertise they indeed have — consists in being able to recognize what’s actually known to science & the significance of what’s known to their lives.

The information they use to perform this valid-science recognition function consists in myriad cues and processes in their everyday lives. They see all around them people whom they trust and whom they perceive have interests aligned with theirs making use of scientific insights in decisions of consequence — whether it’s about protecting the health of their children, assuring the continued operation of their businesses, exploiting new technologies that make their personal lives better, or whathaveyou.

That’s the information that is missing, typically, when we see persistent states of public conflict over decision-relevant science.  On climate change certainly, but on issues like the HPV vaccine, too, individuals encounter conflicting signals — indeed, a signal that the issue in question is a focus of conflict between their cultural groups and rival ones — when they avail themselves of the everyday cues and processes that they use to distinguish credible claims of what’s known and what matters from the myriad specious ones that they also regularly encounter and dismiss.

The information that is of most relevance to them and that is in shortest supply on climate change, then, concerns the sheer normality of relying on climate science.  There are in fact plenty of people of the sort whom ordinary citizens recognize as “knowing what’s known” making use of climate science in consequential decisions — in charting the course of their businesses, in making investments, in implementing measures to update infrastructure that local communities have always used to protect themselves from the elements, etc.  In those settings, no one is debating anything; they are acting.

So don’t bombard ordinary citizens with graphs and charts (they can’t understand them).

Don’t inundate them with pictures of underwater cars and houses (they already have seen that– indeed, in many places, have lived with that for decades).

By all means don’t assault them with vituperative, recriminatory rhetoric castigating those whom they in fact look up to as “stupid” or “venal.” That style of “science communication” (as good as it might make those who produce & consume it feel, and as useful as it likely is for fund-raising) only amplifies the signal of non-normality and conflict that underwrites the persistent state of public confusion.

Show them that people like them and people whose conduct they (quite sensibly!) use to gauge the reliability of claims about what’s known acting in ways that reflect their recogniton of the validity and practical importance of the best available evidence on climate change.

In a word, show them the normality, or the utter banality of climate science.

To be sure, doing that is unlikely to inspire them to join a movement to “remake our society.”

But one doesn’t have to be part of such a movement to recognize that climate science is valid and that it has important consequences for collective decisionmaking.

Indeed, for many, the message that climate science is about “remaking our society”– a society they are in fact perfectly content with! —  is one of the cues that makes them believe that those who are advocating the need to act on the basis of climate science don’t know what they are talking about.

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