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.