Why Everything You Know About Science Communications is Wrong, and More Science is the Answer

77089896_e47289734f_z

Reynald Chabot. Image credit: Vu Bui/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Bob Lalasz is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy.

Recovery begins by admitting you have a problem. But the real problem with communicating science — particularly around climate change and other issues involving risk — is that we’re often focused on the wrong problem. And, as a must-read new paper by Yale Law School risk communications scholar Dan Kahan argues, only getting truly serious about the science of science communications can keep us from digging the hole even deeper.

Think back to the last conversation you had about climate change with someone who wants global action on the issue. Chances are, the conversation quickly devolved into a cycle of finger pointing that went something like this:

* Blame scientists, because they don’t communicate the risks of climate change clearly and simply enough. Or emotionally enough. Or starkly enough. (Or maybe they shouldn’t be communicating at all, because they’re just no good at it.)

* Blame the media, because they’re not covering climate change enough (or prominently enough, or in a way that connects with people, or with the right mix of local and global relevance, or because the airwaves have been flooded with anti-climate-change rhetoric fueled by big money interests).

* And blame the public, because it’s not “scientifically literate” enough to understand the risks of climate change, or it’s too distracted by media-fueled triviality to care.

The assumption underlying all this blame? The public isn’t getting the gravity of the problem — because if they did, how could they fail to act? (This is what Kahan and other social scientists call the “public irrationality thesis.”)

Ergo: If we could just transfer our scientific knowledge to enough people (and make enough people receptive enough to understand it), those people would of course change their minds to agree with us, change their voting patterns and behavior in the ways we desire…and the world would be saved.

Communications scholars call this chain of reasoning the “injection” or “empty bucket” or “science deficit” model of communications. The real problem: About two decades of science on the science deficit model have shown that it’s not true.

Instead, it’s your cultural identity and norms — what Kahan calls “cultural cognition” — that are far more decisive for what you think about science (and even what you perceive as “scientific”) than how well or often findings were communicated, or how scientifically literate you are.

You’re much more likely to believe science when it ratifies the assumptions of your friends and neighbors. You judge whether someone is a scientific expert on the same criteria. You even perceive weather to have been warmer or cooler based on your cultural worldview. Cultural cognition explains why positions on climate change have become so polarized and entrenched — because it’s not about “the science”; it’s about you.

And yet most climate communicators — especially advocacy communicators — cling to the science deficit model when it comes to climate change, arguing that the answer to changing hearts and minds is simply bigger, louder, simpler, scarier projections and modeling outputs.

This habit — an insistence that the blunt force instrument of a one-size-fits-all message must work for everyone, because it so convincing to us — isn’t just a bad one. It actually backfires.

Indeed, Kahan and his colleagues have found that, the more science-literate an “individualistic/hierarchical” person is (as opposed to “egalitarian/communitarian”), the less likely they are to believe in the urgency of acting to stop climate change.

So what’s the answer?

Here’s where it gets potentially frustrating, especially to those who think we needed that answer yesterday. Because what’s bracing about Kahan’s new paper is his refusal to give pat recommendations, and his insistence that science communications needs to grow up and take a “genuinely evidence-based approach” to what it does.

In other words: Be scientific.

In fact, the science of science communications has given us a rich catalog of lab-modeled techniques. But we can’t just grab from this Chinese menu and start applying what looks good, says Kahan. (That would just be replicating our present reliance on blind instinct.)

Instead, science communicators (and, let’s face it, any scientist who wants to communicate effectively) need to treat their communications interventions scientifically — as hypotheses. To work with social scientists on experimental design.  To collect data and measure their results. And to publish their results so others can learn from them.

“Genuinely evidence-based science communication must be based on evidence all the way down,” says Kahan, without pity.

That’s strong beer to a lot of science communicators and scientists. It means we can no longer just be factory-style communicators — getting our findings out, getting a little media and social media attention for them, maybe generating some buzz on academia.edu, and then moving on to the next paper with little or no metrics to measure our impact outside being asked to testify at a policy hearing.

Science is slow, and alongside the very real need to address climate change has arisen a culture of rhetorical urgency that will resist waiting years to assemble data. Do we have the patience for this kind of long game?

It’s clear from his new paper that Kahan doesn’t think we have much choice. And he sees hope and lots of opportunities at the local U.S. level, where he argues that the “influences that trigger cultural cognition when climate change is addressed at the national level are much weaker at the local one.”

For instance, we could field test how we communicate about climate change in terms of local threats such as water scarcity, property damage, and drought.

These are situations, Kahan says, where there’s already “a natural shared vocabulary” that locals have “for thinking and talking about these issues, the use of which reinforces their sense of linked fate and reassures them they are working with others whose interests are aligned with theirs.” (The Nature Conservancy has an abundance of work that already fits this definition, so I’m optimistic that we could be early responders to Kahan’s call.)

It’s worth seeing whether local studies could give us tested, replicable findings that could break the rhetorical gridlock on climate change at the national level.

After all, as Kahan points out, we already had a rich body of knowledge on the science of science communication before the climate crisis began — born out of public alarm in the 1970s over the safety of nuclear power. Had we applied this knowledge when James Hansen first began warning of the dangers of global warming in the late 1980s, he muses, “perhaps political conflict could have been avoided or at least reduced.”

The situation is infinitely more polarized and complicated today. But how have our current communications approaches been working for us so far? The journey to science communications recovery might begin with a single study.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Correction: Dan Kahan teaches at Yale Law School, not Harvard.

Bob Lalasz is the director of science communications at The Nature Conservancy and the editor of the new Cool Green Science. A long-time editor and writer, he was previously the Conservancy's associate director of digital marketing. He now blogs here about the Conservancy's scientific research and on-the-ground work as well as larger conservation science and science communications issues.



Comments: Why Everything You Know About Science Communications is Wrong, and More Science is the Answer

  •  Comment from Brian R Smith

    There is already considerable evidence that cultural bias has a lot to do with how people evaluate and react to climate (and other) threats, and a body of work on how to communicate under these constraints. But it’s also true that Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, a one-size-fits-all message, broke a lot of ground for a lot of people who were either uninformed or unconvinced prior to it. Approaching it either was has merit. The fact remains, however, that the prognosis of science for climate is dire and unique in its complexity and urgency. We will not get second chances and the ones we have are rapidly slipping away. So NO: we do not have time to wait months and years for the next round of academic revelations about how best to convince biased folk they need to act on the emerging reality. They need to have the truth drummed in (it has not been, yet) and if necessary told to face up to hard truths up for their children’s sake and begin taking responsibility. The facts are what they are and there is no putting a pretty face on them. It’s sink or swim time.

  •  Comment from Mark McCaffrey

    This statement is often repeated and, as Dan and I have discussed, misleading at best: “Indeed, Kahan and his colleagues have found that, the more science-literate an “individualistic/hierarchical” person is (as opposed to “egalitarian/communitarian”), the less likely they are to believe in the urgency of acting to stop climate change.” Kahan’s oft cited study did not look at climate literacy but science literacy (and numeracy) broadly defined. When asked by Fox News which group of his polarized extremes was more literate, he admitted “neither”.

    Actually, there’s plenty of research that shows that climate literacy does matter, that we have to go beyond the inch wide and mile deep information and dueling opinions about climate change and focus on knowledge and, dare we say, wisdom. I’ve touched on these issues here: http://www.climateaccess.org/blog/clueless-about-climate-change

    When it comes to (shallow) information/advocacy, information deficit theory doesn’t work. But there’s some very interesting emerging research suggesting that understanding the mechanisms and basic science of climate change does matter substantially.

    •  Comment from Bob Lalasz

      I wish I could say your post was convincing that “climate literacy” could somehow trump “science literacy.” I don’t see evidence of that there. The fact that people who tend to support action on climate change also tend to get a passing grade on climate science doesn’t mean that understanding climate science means you will automatically tend to support it. In fact, motivated reasoning trumps questions of evidence and expertise — that is Kahan’s overriding point (and one he keeps making again and again).

  •  Comment from Kevin

    I think understanding the evidence is still vital in motivating people to act on that evidence. Understanding is a large part of forming the “why” – why would someone want to commit to the climate change cause? Sure, there’s a cultural aspect to it. But I think that understanding the underlying mechanisms and effects is also important and should not be discarded as an objective for science communicators when communicating to the public.

 Make a comment




Comment

Salmon Cam Returns

We’re pleased to return Salmon Cam, a live view of spawning Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout.

What is Cool Green Science?

noun 1. Blog where Nature Conservancy scientists, science writers and external experts discuss and debate how conservation can meet the challenges of a 9 billion + planet.

2. Blog with astonishing photos, videos and dispatches of Nature Conservancy science in the field.

3. Home of Weird Nature, The Cooler, Quick Study, Traveling Naturalist and other amazing features.

Cool Green Science is managed by Matt Miller, the Conservancy's deputy director for science communications, and edited by Bob Lalasz, its director of science communications. Email us your feedback.

Innovative Science

Forest Dilemmas
Too many deer. Logging one tree to save another. Beavers versus old growth. Welcome to forest conservation in the 21st century.

Drones Aid Bird Conservation
How can California conservationists accurately count thousands of cranes? Enter a new tool in bird monitoring: the drone.

Creating a Climate-Smart Agriculture
Can farmers globally both adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change? A new paper answers with a definitive yes. But it won't be easy.

Latest Tweets from @nature_brains

Categories