How should science museums communicate climate science? (lecture summary & slides)

I had the great privilege of participating in a conference, held at the amazing Museum of Science in Boston, on how museums can engage the public in climate science.  Below are my remarks–as best as I can remember them a week later.  Slides here.

You are experts on the design of science-museum exhibits.

I am not. Like Dietram, I study the science of science communication with empirical methods.

I share his view that there are things he and I and others have learned that are of great importance for the design of science museum exhibits on climate change.

If you ask me, though, I won’t be able to tell you what to do based on our work—because I am not an expert at designing museum exhibits.

But you are.

So if in fact I am right to surmise that insights gleaned from the scientific study of science communication are relevant to design of climate science exhibits, you should be able to tell me what the implications of this work are for your craft.

I will thus share with you everything I know about climate science communication.

I’ve reduced it all to one sentence (albeit one with a semi-colon):

What ordinary members of the public “believe” about climate change doesn’t reflect what they know; it expresses who they are.

The research on which this conclusion rests actually originates in the study of public opinion on evolution.

One thing such research shows is that there is in fact no correlation whatsoever between what people say they believe about evolution and what they know about it.  Those who say they “believe” in evolution are no more or less likely to understand the elements of the modern synthesis—random mutation, genetic variance, and natural selection—than those who say they “don’t.”

Indeed, neither is likely to be able to give a sufficiently cogent account of these concepts to pass a high school biology test.

Another thing scholars have learned from studying public opinion on evolution is that what one “believes” about it has no relationship to how much one knows about science generally.

I’ll show you some evidence on that.  It consists in the results of a science literacy test that I administered to a large nationally representative sample.

Like a good knowledge assessment should, this science comprehension instrument consisted of a set of questions that varied in difficulty.

Some, like “Electrons are smaller than atoms—true or false” were relatively easy: even an individual whose score placed him or her at the mean comprehension level, would have had about a 70% chance of getting that one right.

Other questions were harder: “Which gas makes up most of the Earth’s atmosphere? Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Carbon Dioxide, Oxygen?”  Someone of mean science comprehension would have only about a 25% chance of getting that one.

If one looks at the item-response profile for “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals—true or false?,” an item from the NSF’s Science Indicators battery, we see that it’s difficult to characterize it as either hard or difficult.  At the mean level of science comprehension, there is about a 55% chance that someone with an average level of science comprehension will get this one correct. But the probability of getting it right isn’t much different from that for respondents whose science comprehension levels are significantly lower or significantly higher than average.

The reason is that the NSF Indicator Evolution item isn’t a valid measure of science comprehension for a general-population sample of test takers.

Its item-response profile looks sort of like what one might expect of a valid measure when we examine the answers of those members of the population who are below average in religiosity (as measured by frequency of prayer, frequency of church attendance, and self-reported importance of religion): that is, the likelihood of getting it right slopes upward as science comprehension goes up.

But for respondents who are above average in religiosity, there is no relationship whatsoever between their response to the Evolution item and their science comprehension level.

In them, it simply isn’t measuring the same sort of capacity that the other items on the assessment are measuring. What it’s measuring, instead, is their religious self-identity, which would be denigrated by expressing a “belief in” evolution.

Among the ways one can figure this out, researchers have learned, is to change the wording of the Evolution item: if one adds to it the simple introductory clause, “According to the theory of evolution,” then the probability of a correct response turns out to be roughly the same in relation to varying levels of science comprehension among both religious and nonreligious respondents.

The addition of those words frees a religious respondent from having to choose between expressing who she is and revealing what she knows. It turns out she knows just as much—or just as little, really, since, as I said, responses to this item, no matter how they are worded, give us zero information on what the respondent understands about the theory of evolution.

But good high school teachers, empirical research show, can impart such an understanding just as readily in a student who says she “doesn’t believe in” evolution as those teachers can in a student who says he “does.” But the student who said she didn’t “believe in” evolution at the outset will not say she does when the course is over.

Her skillful teacher taught her what science knows; the teacher didn’t make her into someone else.

Indeed, insisting that students profess their “belief in” evolution, researchers warn, is the one thing guaranteed to prevent the religiously inclined student from forming a genuine comprehension of how evolution actually works.  If one forces a reasoning individual to elect between knowing what is known by science and being who she is, she will choose the latter.

The teacher who genuinely wants to impart understanding, then, creates a learning environment that disentangles information from identity, so that no one is put in that position.

What researchers have learned from empirical study of the teaching of evolution can be extended to the communication of climate science.

To start, just as it would be a mistake (is a mistake made over and over by people who ought to know better) to treat the fraction of the population who says they “disbelieve in” evolution as a measure of science comprehension in our society, so it is a mistake to treat the fraction who say they “disbelieve” in human-caused climate change as such a measure.

My collaborators and I have examined how people’s beliefs about climate change relate to their science comprehension, too.  Actually, there is a connection: as culturally diverse individuals’ scientific knowledge and reasoning proficiency improve, they don’t converge in their views about the impact of human activity on global temperatures.  Instead they become even more culturally polarized.

Because what one “believes” about climate change is now widely understood to signify one’s membership in and commitment to one or another cultural group, and because their standing in these groups are important to people, individuals use all manner of critical reasoning ability, experiments show, to form and persist in beliefs consistent with their allegiances.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that individuals who belong to opposing cultural groups differ in their comprehension of climate science.  This can be shown by examining how individuals of diverse outlooks do on a valid climate science comprehension assessment.

To design such an instrument, I followed the lead of the researchers who have studied the relationship between “belief in” evolution and science comprehension. They’ve established that one can measure what culturally diverse people understand about evolution with items that unconfound or disentangle identity and knowledge.  Like the evolution items that enable respondents to show what they know without making affirmations that denigrate who they are, the items in my climate literacy assessment focus on respondents’ understanding of the prevailing view among climate scientists and not on respondents’ acceptance or rejection of climate change “positions” known to be highly correlated with cultural and political outlooks.

Some of these turn out to be very easy. Encouragingly, even the test-taker of mean climate-science comprehension is highly likely (80%) to recognize that adding  CO2 to the atmosphere increases the earth’s temperature.

Others, however, turn out to be surprisingly hard: there is only a 30% chance that someone of average climate-science comprehension believes that adding CO2 emissions associated with burning fossil fuels have been shown by scientists to reduce photosynthesis in plants.

Obviously, someone who gets that  CO2 is a “greenhouse gas” but who believes that human emissions of it are toxic to the things that grow in greenhouses can’t be said to comprehend much about the mechanisms of climate science.

Nevertheless, a decent fraction of the test takers from a general population sample turned out to have a very accurate impression of climate scientists’ current best understandings of the mechanisms and consequences of human-caused global warming.  Not so surprisingly, these were the respondents who scored the highest on a general science comprehension assessment.

Moreover, there was no meaningful correlation between these individuals’ scores and their political outlooks.  “Conservative Republicans” who displayed a high level of general science comprehension and “liberal Democrats” who did both scored highly on the climate assessment test.

Nevertheless, those who displayed the highest scores on the test were not more likely to say they “believed in” human-caused global warming those who scored the lowest. On the contrary, those displayed the greatest comprehension of science’s best prevailing understandings of climate change were the most politically polarized on whether human activity is causing global temperatures to rise.

In other words, what ordinary members of the public “believe” about climate change, like what they “believe” about evolution, doesn’t reflect what they know; it expresses who they are.

The reason our society is politically divided on climate change, then, isn’t that citizens have different understandings of what climate scientists think.  It is that our political discourse, like the typical public opinion poll survey, frames the “climate change question” in a manner that forces them to choose between expressing who they are, culturally speaking, and revealing and acting on what they know about what is known.

This is changing, at least in some parts of the country.  Despite being as polarized as the rest of the country, for example, the residents of Southeast Florida have, through a four-county compact, converged on a comprehensive “Climate Action Plan,” consisting of 100 distinct adaptation and mitigation measures.

People in Florida know a lot about climate.  They’ve had to know a lot, and for a long time, in order to thrive in their environment.

Like the good high-school teachers who have figured out how to create a classroom environment in which curious and reflective students don’t have to choose between knowing what’s known about the natural history of humans and being who they are,  the local leaders who oversee the Southeast Florida Climate Compact have figured out how to create a political environment in which free and reasoning citizens aren’t forced to choose between using what they know and being who they are as members of culturally diverse communities.

Now what about museums?  How should they communicate climate science?

Well, I’ve told you all I know about climate science communication: that what ordinary members of the public “believe” about climate change doesn’t reflect what they know; it expresses who they are.

I’ve shown you, too, some models how of science-communication professionals in education and in politics have used evidence-based practice to disentangle facts from the antagonistic cultural meanings that inhibit free and reasoning citizens from converging on what is collectively known.

I think that’s what you have to do, too.

Using your professional expertise, you have already made museums a place where curious, reflective people of diverse outlooks go to satisfy their appetite to experience the delight and awe of apprehending what we have come to know by employing science’s signature methods of discovery.

You now need to assure that the museum remains a place, despite the polluted state of our science communication environment generally, where those same people can go to satisfy their appetite to participate in what science has taught us and is continuing to teach us about the workings of our climate and the impact of human activity upon it.

You need, in short, to be sure that nothing prevents them from recognizing that the museum is a place where they don’t have to choose between enjoying that experience and being who they are.

How can you do that?

I don’t know.  Because I am not an expert in the design of science museum exhibits.

But you are—and I am confident that if you draw on your professional judgment and experience, enriched with empirical evidence aimed at testing and refining your own hypotheses, you will be able to tell me.  

 I have a strong hunch, too, that what you will have to say will be something other science-communication professionals will be able to use to promote public engagement with climate science in their domains, too.

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