In discussions, you can either stress the disagreements and differences, or you can search for common ground. Greg Craven (the high school teacher with the youtube climate hit a few years ago) does the latter very well, see eg this video of his, where he sais:
I point out that my motivations are simply pragmatic, because in my experience, that’s the case for a lot of you, as well, so it’s common ground for us. (…) What I’m concerned about is me and mine, and our lifestyle.
Terrific. That hits home, it hits a nerve, and more importantly, it hits quite a strong nerve especially with those that are not convinced of the urgency of the problem.
Greg has since written a book (“What’s the worst that could happen?”), meant for the layperson to make sense out of the climate debate. I haven’t read it (yet), but judged from his video’s and website, he’s a great communicator with a healthy dose of both humour and common sense.
Simon Donner makes a similar point with respect to addressing religious constituencies. That one is a challenge for me though, I have to admit. More on that in a later post.
Even when two people disagree, they often both make valid points. Most scientists are good at doing science, and are not great storytellers (with, of course, many exceptions). So they naturally resent being told to go and tell a story, especially so when they feel that they’re being (partly) blamed for the public confusion about the issue. On the other hand, Olson is right, that the nature of the game has changed, and that scientists who do communicate to the public better be aware of how the public filters and digests information these days, and shape their message accordingly.
The latter episode is an example of an all too common pattern: When someone’s role is criticized, it invokes a defensive reaction. Whereas more often than not, there are multiple reasons for the problem under consideration. In this case, there are weaknesses in all parts of the chain that hamper the communication and use of climate science: A lack of good communication by scientists, a lack of scientific literacy amongst the public, the education system, the political system, a lack of fact-checking by the media, disinformation by vested interests, etc. And in many of these cases, it’s very hard for individuals to change their behaviour for the better, since the institutions were built in accordance with the status quo. E.g., the way scientific work is structured and valued actually dissuades them from engaging in public outreach.