Climate Change

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

March 1, 2013

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, 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.

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  1. 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.

  2. 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:

    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.

    1. 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).

  3. 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.

  4. Well dear, if the reference is public alarm in the 1970’s about nuclear power, then there’s a massive problem.
    Public alarm about nuclear power was based on lies, pure and simple lies about the dangers of radiation, lies, pure and simple lies about the actually feasible alternatives and turning a blind eye toward the fact that the unbuilt nuclear plant were directly replaced by coal plants which have a massively more negative impact both on the environment, the climate and the health of population, as shown last year by none other than Hansen himself.

    Without that alarm, we would have many less coal plants in the US, very probably hundreds less also in China (without the failure of the US effort, it would have been much more convincing for the Chinese to build up nuclear instead of coal in the early 2000), and the climate situation would be quite better now than it is.

    Actually I think that Greenpeace, Friend of the Earth, etc. tried to reproduce for climate change exactly the same process than what had worked so well against nuclear in the 70’s, with the same mix of exaggerations, false trues, lack of scientific rigor, fear mongering instead of rigorous demonstrations. They did efficiently stop nuclear power in its tracks. But to get that, they never convinced a whole population that its was bad, just having a large enough part of it convinced of it was sufficient.

    However the fight against climate change has been much more difficult, with now the realization you need convince fully almost everybody to win, for a pair of reason, amongst them the fact they were now fighting against fossil power instead of having it as a discrete ally in the back against nuclear, but also the fact they were now pushing solutions that don’t work. It’s very easy to substitute a nuclear plant with a coal one, even if it has the bad effects mentioned above (but you can ignore them for quite a while especially in a country where population density is low and coal doesn’t generate as dense a pollution as in China), but it’s not the case at all for wind and solar. And the alternative of lowering consumption actually means creating recession.

    Also after all, the fight against climate change has been a success, a very big success. More than 3 000 billions $ has been spent in renewable energy since the early 2000’s. The reason why we can’t celebrate success now is that this doesn’t work, this huge investments never has had the required impact, and the response of the climate change team has been denial, denial and more denial about that, and requesting even more massive investments. Which would require not a wide or large approval, but a complete approval from about everyone.

    So now we are at the stage of saying how do we convince everybody to dump everything else in the fight against climate change. Well, this will never work. However if the solutions for climate change were more reasonable and not so costly, this wouldn’t be required, and the effort would stand a chance.

  5. I worked with my local church for twenty-five years, offering films, discussions, speakers, local actions, contacts with representatives, attendance at rallies – had no real way of measuring response except by numbers in attendance at lectures – see little change in congregation as a result. There was no real “threat” that could galvanize attention. Now, perhaps, it might be different…. There is still a pollinator garden that blooms faithfully every year!

  6. Thanks for such an interesting read! Really helped me understand my university project 🙂