Against “consensus messaging” . . .

This is more or less what I remember saying in my “opening statement” in the University of Bristol “debate” with Steve Lewandowsky over the utility of “consensus messaging.” Obviously, I don’t remember exactly what I said b/c Steve knocked me unconscious with a lightening-quick 1-6-3-2 (i.e., Jab-Right uppercut-Left hook-rt-hand) combination. But the exchange was fruitful, especially after we abandoned the pretense of being “opposed” to one another and entered into conversation about what we know, what we don’t, and what sorts of empirical observations might help us all to learn more. 

 Slides here.

I want to start with what I am not against.

I’m not against the proposition that there is a scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change. That to me is the plain inference to be drawn from the concurrence of expert sources such as U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, and the IPCC.

I am also by no means against communicating scientific consensus on climate change. Indeed, both Steve and I have done studies that find that when there is cultural polarization over a societal risk, both sides always agree that scientific consensus should inform public policy.

What I am against is the proposition that the way to dispel polarization over global warming in the U.S. is to continue a decade’s long “social marketing campaign”—one on which literally hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent—that features the claim that “97% [or 98% or 100% etc] of scientists accept human caused climate change.”

I am against this “communication strategy”–

  • first, because it misunderstands the nature of the problem;
  • second, because it diverts resources from alternative approaches that have a much better prospect for success; and
  • third, because it predictably reinforces the toxicity of the climate chagne debate for our science communication environment.

1. Misunderstands the problem. The most logical place to start is with what members of the public actually think climate scientists believe about the causes and consequences of climate change.

About 75% of the individuals whose political outlooks are “liberal” (meaning to the “left” of the mean on a political outlook scale that aggregates their responses to items on partisan identification and liberal-conservative ideology) are able to correctly identify “carbon dioxide” as the “gas . . . most scientists believe causes temperatures in the atmosphere to rise.

That’s very close to the same percentage of “liberals” who agree that human activity is causing climate change.

But if you think that that’s a causal relationship, think again: about 75% of “conservatives” (individuals with political outlooks to the “right” of the mean on the same scale) know that scientists believe CO2 emissions increase atmospheric temperatures, too.  Yet only 25% of them say they “believe in” human-caused climate change.

The vast majority of liberals and conservatives, despite being polarized on whether global warming is occurring, also have largely the same impression of what climate scientists’ view of the risks that global warming poses.

Indeed, by a substantial majorities, members of the public on both the left and right agree that climate scientists attribute all manner of risk to global warming that in fact no climate scientists attribute to it.

Contrary to what the vast majority of “liberal” and “conservative” members of the public think, climate scientists do not believe that climate change will increase the incidence of skin cancer.

Contrary to what the vast majority of “liberal” and “conservative” members of the public think, climate scientists do not believe sea levels will rise if the north pole ice cap melts (unlike the south pole ice cap, which sits atop a land mass, the north pole “ice cap” is already floating in the sea, a point that various “climate science literacy” guides issued by scientific bodies like NASA and NOAA emphasize).

And contrary to what the vast majority of “liberal” and “conservative” members of the public think, climate scientists do not believe that “the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide associated with the burning of fossil fuels will reduce photosynthesis by plants.”

They haven’t quite gotten the details straight, it’s true.

But both “liberals” and “conservatives” have “gotten the memo” that scientists think human activity is causing climate change and that we are in deep shit as a result.

So why should we expect that telling them what they already know will dispel the controversy reflected in persisting poll results showing that they are polarized on global warming?

I know what you are thinking: maybe climate-consensus messaging would work better if the “message” actually helped educate people on climate change science.

Well, I can give you some relevant data on that, too.

The individuals who scored the highest on this climate-literacy assessment aren’t any less divided when asked if they “believe in” climate change.  On the contrary, the “liberals” and “conservatives” who score highest—the ones who consistently distinguish the positons that climate scienitists actually hold from the ones they do not—are the most polarized of all.

“Ah,” you are thinking.  “Then the problem must be that conservatives don’t trust climate scientists!”

I don’t think that’s right.

But if one took that position, then one would presumably think “consensus messaging” is pointless. Why should right-leaning citizens care that “97% of scientists accept climate change” if they don’t trust a word they are saying?

That’s logical.  But it’s not the view of those who support “consensus messaging.”  Indeed, the researchers who purport to “prove” that conservatives “distrust” climate scientists are the very same ones who are publishing studies (or republishing the same study over and over) that they interpret as “proving” consensus-messaging will work (despite their remarkable but unremarked failure to report any evidence that being exposed to the message affected the proportion of people who “believe in” climate change).

These meticulous researchers are hedged: no matter what happens, they will have predicted it!

Here, though, is some evidence on whether those who “don’t believe” in climate change trust climate scientists.

Leaving partisanship aside, farmers are probably the most skeptical segment of the US population. But they are also the segment that makes the greatest use of climate science in their practical decisionmaking.

The same ones who say they don’t think climate change has been “scientifically proven” are already busily adapting—self-consciously so—to climate change by adopting practices like no-till farming.

They also anticipate buying more crop-failure insurance.  Which is why Monsanto, which is pretty good at figuring out what farmers believe, recently acquired an insurance operation.

Because Monsanto knows how farmers really feel about climate scientists, it also recently acquired a firm that specializes in synthesizing government and university climate-science data for the purpose of issuing made-to-order forecasts tailored to users’ locations.  It expects the consumption of this fine-grained, local forecasting data to be a $20 billion market. Because farmers, you see, really really really want to know what climate scientists think is going to happen.

I’ll tell you someone else who you can be sure knows what farmers really think about climate scientists: their representatives in Congress.

Conisder Congressman Frank Lucas, Republican, 3d district of Oklahoma.  He has been diagnosed, in the charming idiom of the “climate change debate,” as suffering from “climate denier disorder syndrome.”  He is the “vice-chair” of the House Committee on Science (sic), Space (sic) and Technology (sic), which recently proposed slashing NASA’s budget for climate change research.

I’m sure his skeptical farmer constituents appreciate all that.

But they also are very pleased that Lucas, as the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, sponsored the 2014 Agriculture bill, which appropriated over a billion dollars for scientific research on the impact of climate change on farming.  His skeptical farmer constituents know they need science’s help to protect their cattle from climate change.  They got it to the tune of $10 million, which is what the USDA awarded Oklahoma State University as Clearwater, which is in Lucas’s district!

But he’s not selfish. His bill enabled huge appropriations for the other skeptical-farmer-filled states, too!

You see, there are really two “climate changes” in America.

There’s the one people “believe in” or “disbelieve in” solely for the purpose of expressing their allegiance in a mean, ugly, illiberal status competition between opposing cultural groups.

Then there’s the one that people “believe in” in order to do things—like being a farmer—that depend on the best available scientific evidence.

As you can imagine, it’s a challenge for a legislator to keep all this straight.

Bob Inglis, from the farming state of South Carolina, for example, announced that he “believed in” climate change and wanted Congress to address the issue.

Wrong climate change!  That’s the one his constituents don’t believe in.

Didn’t you notice, they ask, how funny it was when Senator Inhofe (of Oklahoma, who for sure didn’t oppose the appropriation of all that money in the farm bill to support scientific research to help farmers adapt to global warming) brought a snow ball onto the floor of the Senate to show Al Gore how stupid he is for thinking there is scientific evidence global warming?

“You’re out of here!,” Inglis’s constitutents said, retiring him in a primary against a climate-skeptical Republican opponent.

Some people say that Republicans members of Congress who reject climate change are stupid. But actually, it takes considerable mental dexterity not to get messed up on which “climate change” one’s farmer constituents don’t believe in and which they do.

2. Diversion of resources.  The only way to promote constructive collective decsionmaking on the climate change that ordinary people, left and right, are worried about,and that farmers and other practical individuals are taking steps to protect themselves from, is to protect our science communication enviornment from the toxic effects of the other climate change—the one that people believe or disbelieve in to express their tribal loyalties.

That’s the lesson of Southeast Florida climate political science.

Because people in that region are as diverse in their outlooks as the rest of the Nation, they are as polarized on the “whose side are you on” form of “climate change” as everyone else.

Nevertheless, the member counties of the Southeast Florida Climate Change Compact—Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Monroe—have approved a joint “Regional Climate Action Plan,” which consists of some 100 mitigation and adaptation items.

The leaders in these counties didn’t bombard their constituents with “consensus messaging.”  Instead they adopted a style of political discourse that disentangled the question of “who are you, whose side are you on” from the question of “what should we do with what we know?”

Because they have banished the former “climate change question”  from their political discourse, a Republican member of the House doesn’t bear the risk that he’ll be confused for a cultural traitor when he calls a press conference and says “I sure as hell do believe in climate change, and I am going to demand that Congress address the threat that it poses to my constituents.”

There are some really great organizations that are helping the members of the Southeast Florida Compact and other local governments to remove the toxic “whose side are you on” question from their science communication environments.

But they are not getting nearly the support that they need from those who care about climate change policymaking, because nearly all of that support—in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars—is going instead to groups that prefer to pound the other team’s members over the head with “consensus messaging.”

The 2013 Cook et al. study was not telling us anything new. There had already been six previous studies finding an overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, the first of which was published in Science, a genuinely signficant event, in 2004.

The people advocating “consensus messaging” aren’t advocating anything new either. Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection spent over $300 million to promote “consensus messaging,” which was featured in Gore’s 2006 movie Inconvenient Truth (no doubt the organization gave a $1 million to an advertising agency, which conducted a focus group to validate its seat-of-the-pants guess that “reframing” the organization’s name as “Climate Reality” would convince farmers to “believe in” climate change).

Public opinion on climate change—whether it is “happening,” is “human caused,” etc.—didn’t move an inch at all during that time.

But we are supposed to think that that’s irrelevant because immediately after experimenters told them “97% of scientists accept climate change,” a group of study subjects, while not changing their own positions on whether climate change is happening, increased by a very small amount their expressed estimate of the percentage of scientists who believe in climate change?   Seriously?

The willingness of people to continue “believe in” consensus messaging is itself a science communication problem.  That one will get solved only if researchers resolve to tell people what they need to know, and not simply what they want to hear.

3. Perpetuating a toxic discourse.  No doubt part of the appeal of “consensus messaging” is how well suited it is as an idiom for expressing contempt.  The kinds of real-world “messaging campaigns” that feature the “97% agree” slogan all say “you are an idiot” to those for whom not believing climate change has become identity defining.  It is exactly that social meaning that must be removed from the climate change question before people can answer it with what they know: that their well-being and the well-being of others they actually care about requires doing sensible things with the best available current evidence.

Did you ever notice how all of the “consensus messages” invoke NASA?  The reason is that poorly designed studies, using invalida measures, found that people say they “trust NASA” more than various other science entitities, the majority of whch they’ve never even heard of.

I don’t doubt, though, that the US general public used to revere NASA. But now bashing NASA is seen as more effective than bringing a snowball onto the floor of the Senate as a way to signal to farmers and other groups whose cultural identity is associated with skepticism that one has the values that make him or her fit to represent them in Congress.

Did I say “consensus messaging” hadn’t achieved anyting?  If so, I spoke to soon.

Yay team.

* * *

Climate science models get updated after a decade of real-world observations.

The same is necessary for climate-science-communication models.

A decades’ experience shows that  “Consensus messaging” doesn’t work.  Our best lab and field studies, as well as a wealth of relevant experience by people who are doing meaningful communciation rather than continuously fielding surveys that don’t even measure the right thing, tell us why: “consensus messaging” is unresponsive to the actual dynamics driving the climate change controversy.

So it is time to update our models.  Time to give alternative approaches–ones that reflect rather than ignore evidence of the mechanisms of cultural conflict over societal risks–a fair trial, during which we can observe and measure their effects, and after which we can revise our understandings once more, incorporate what we have learned into refined approaches, and repeat the process yet again.

Otherwise the “science of science communication” isn’t scientific at all.

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