The impact of “science consensus” surveys — a graphic presentation

I am really really tired of this topic & am guessing everyone else is too. And for reasons stated in last couple of posts, I think a “market consensus” measure of belief in global warming would be a much more helpful way to measure and communicate the weight & practical importance of scientific evidence on climate change than any number of social science surveys of scientists or of scientific papers (I think we are up to 7 now).

But since I had occasion to construct this graphic to help a group of professional science communicators assess whether the failure to communicate scientific consensus can plausibly be viewed as the source of persistent cultural polarization over climate change in the US, I thought I’d post it.  I’ve included some “stills,” but watch it in slide show mode if you want to get the nature of the empirical proof it embodies.

1. Does that mean “scientific consensus” is irrelevant?


People of all cultural outlooks support policies they believe are consistent with scientific consensus.

But they have to figure out what scientific consensus is, which means they have to assess any evidence that is presented to them on that.

In the current climate of polarization, members of opposing cultural groups predictably credit and discredit such evidence in patterns that reinforce their belief that the scientific consensus is in fact consistent with the position that predominates in their cultural group.

Until the atagonisitic cultural meanings that motivate this selective crediting and discrediting of evidence are dispelled, just flooding the information market with more and more studies of “scientific consensus” won’t do any good.

Indeed, it will only amplify the signal of cultural contestation that sustains polarization.

Meanings first, then facts.

2. Does this mean we should ignore people who are misinforming the public?


But it means that just “correcting” misinformation won’t work unless you convey affirming meanings.

Indeed, in a state of polarized meanings, rapid-response “truth squads” also amplify polarization because they reliably convey the meaning “this is what your side believes — and we think you are stupid!”

Meanings first, then facts!

3. Does this mean we should just give up?


The only thing anyone should give up is a style of communicating “facts” or anything else that amplifies the message that positions on climate are part of an “us-them” cultural struggle.

The reason the US and many other liberal democracies are polarized on climate change is not that people are science illiterate or over-rely on heuristic-driven reasoning processes. It isn’t that they haven’t been told that human CO2 emissions increase global temperatures.  It isn’t that they are being exposed to biased news reports or misled by misinformation campaigns. And it certainly isn’t that no one has advised them yet about the numerous studies finding “97% of scientists …” agree that that human activity is causing climate change.

The reason is that we inhabit a science communication environment polluted with toxic partisan meanings on climate change.

Conveying to people — a large segment of the population in the US & in other countries too– that accepting evidence on climate change means accepting that members of their cultural community are stupid or corrupt is itself a form of science-communication pollution.

If you don’t think that many ways of communicating “facts” (including the extent of scientific consensus on climate change) convey that meaning, then you just aren’t paying attention.

If you think there’s no way to communicate facts that avoids conveying this meaning, and in fact affirms the identity of culturally diverse people, you aren’t thinking hard enough.

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