What is to be done?

A thoughtful commentator sent me this email:

I was reading through the sublinks [in Andy Revkin’s “The Other Science Gap” column] with interest tonight, but also growing frustration– as in I can understand and agree with you and others focusing on the role partisanship and social cognitive barriers play, but I am a guy who lives in the trenches and wants to know–are there any solutions? I urged my climate law students this month to be advocates and not give up despite all the pessimistic news, and I keep speaking out at conferences and in articles on steps to get more clean energy more quickly–but it often seems like way too little and increasingly too late. What do you say to students and other young people about how to work to change climate change’s momentum and trends?

By way of background (just a tiny bit) , the occasion for the query is the “here we go again” exasperated response to the new study that corroborates years and years of previous studies finding that there is a scientific consensus — consistently calculated by a variety of methods as 97% of scientists, peer-reviewed articles, etc.–that human activity is the cause of climate change.

The exasperation, of course,  is not over the content of the study; it is over the fallacious inference that communicating the “97% of scientists believe …” message is an effective way to dispel public controversy over climate change.

If it were, then the controversy would have been solved by now.  “Scientific consensus” has been the dominant theme of climate communication for the better part of a decade.  And cultural polarization over that time has not abated–it has only intensified.

Empirical studies aimed at trying to make sense of this phenomenon have concluded that the reason the public remains divided on “scientific consensus” isn’t that they haven’t been exposed to evidence on the matter but rather that when they are exposed to evidence of what experts believe they selectively credit or discredit it in patterns that reflect and reinforce their perception that scientific consensus is consistent with the position that predominates in their cultural or ideological group.

The exuberance with which the latest “97%” study has been greeted by many of those who want to promote constructive engagement with climate science reflects a distressing resistance to take in the more general “scientific consensus” that exists among science of science communication researchers that neither a deficit in knowledge of facts — ones relating to the science of climate as well as ones relating to the extent of scientific consensus — nor a deficit in the ability to make sense of scientific information is the source of continuing conflict over climate change.  Indeed, members of the public who are the most science literate and numerate are the most polarized.

But for those who are willing to open their eyes and unblock their ears to the real-world and social-scientific evidence that a public knowledge/rationality deficit is not the problem, the question is then put, as it is by the commentator: so what is to be done?

The answer is all kinds of things. Or in any case, the same research that supports the conclusion that “fact bombardment” doesn’t work is filled with findings of alternatives that work better in promoting constructive open-minded engagement with scientific information. By adroitly combining valid information with culturally affirming meanings, these communications succeed in getting people to reflectively assess evidence that they might otherwise dismiss out of hand (btw, if your goal is not simply to get people to open-mindedly consider evidence using their own powers of reason — if you just want to make them believe something, who cares how– you are not a science communicator; you are a propagandist).

That some think that continuing to hammer skeptics over the head with “scientific consensus” — a style of advocacy that is more likely to intensify opposition, research shows, then ameliorate it — because there is no alternative is part and parcel of the same puzzling evidence-resistance that explains the continuing allure of the “knowledge/rationality deficit” theory of science communication.

Actually, there are plenty of science communicators who are aware of this research and who make skillful use of it.  Katharine Hayhoe and Geoffrey Haines-Stiles, and George Marshall are among them. So one piece of advice: check out what they are doing and  try to figure out how to adapt and extend it.

But here’s another piece of advice: use scientific methods to test and refine communication strategies.

It’s ironic that it’s necessary to say this.  But it is.  It really really really is.

Not only do too many science communicators ignore evidence about what does and doesn’t work.  Way way too many also shoot from the hip in a completely fact-free, imagination-run-wild way in formulating communication strategies.

If they don’t rely entirely on their own personal experience mixed with introspection, they simply reach into the grab bag of decision science mechanisms (it’s vast), picking and choosing, mixing and matching, and in the end presenting what is really just an elaborate just-so story on what the “problem” is and how to “solve” it.

That’s not science. It’s pseudo-science.

As with most complicated matters in human affairs, there are more plausible conjectures about what the problem is then can possibly be true.  Use of disciplined methods of observation and inference to test rival hypotheses (such as the “knowledge deficit” theory vs. “motivated reasoning,” of which “cultural cognition”is a form).

But once one has used evidence-based methods to identify mechanisms that plausibly can be understood to be generating the problem, there will still be more plausible conjectures than can be true about what sort of communication strategies can be used to neutralize or turn those mechanisms around in a way that promotes constructive engagement.

The only way to extricate the latter from the vast sea of the former is through more evidenced-based methods, ones aimed at reproducing in the field effects observed in the lab.  Unless we use science to identify how to communicate science, we will drown in an ocean of just-so story-telling.

Those who are willing to consider real evidence on what works and what doesn’t will find many answers to the “what is to be done?” question in the science of science communication.

But it is important for them to recognize that the most important thing that that science has to tell them is not what to do (indeed, be wary of cartoonish “how to” communication “manuals”).

It’s how to do it: by the formulation, testing, analysis, and revision of evidence-informed hypotheses.

Or simply put, by being scientific about communicating science.

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