Communicating science: finding common ground


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.

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5 Responses to “Communicating science: finding common ground”

  1. Heiko Gerhauser Says:

    I don’t think the public is all that confused or that better understanding and communication of the science would change much in the way of policies that the public would support. The vast majority of the public knows a lot less about climate sensitivity, the link between hurricanes and CO2 or analogues with past climates than either you or I do, but the link between these issues and actual policy is quite convoluted.

    I think the vast majority of the public understands that there are good reasons to consider emissions reductions, but also realises that the word “catastrophic” can have a very wide range of meanings and that we are not talking about a 100% chance of humanity going extinct by 2050 unless we get emissions down by 20% from 1990 levels by 2020.

    In other words, the public will live with minor inconveniences to deal with the issue, but they are not convinced that World War II type mobilisation (with rationing, cars being confiscated, 50% of GDP being devoted to the fight etc.) or anything like it is necessary. And I don’t think explaining the science better is going to change that.

    I think for actual policy making it matters to look at ways of doing something that are both effective and can be supported by a wide coalition. I am quite excited about the possibilities for technology agreements, which can work well together with other measures. I don’t know whether you’ve read Heleen’s thesis now, it’s interesting; I think the examples for technology agreements in her thesis could use a few more theses for further detailing.

    I also think that “vested interests” and polluters’ interests need to be taken into account. I think of the approaches Margaret Thatcher and Helmot Kohl took to dealing with phasing out coal mining.

    Instead of putting taxes on steel producers and putting them out of business, or of putting up taxes and tariffs to prevent Chinese manufacturers taking over, you can also reduce provide some subsidies to get more efficient steel production methods into use. It helps not to create enemies unnecessarily.

  2. Bart Says:

    I’m afraid that you’re right. More information/knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to changed behaviour. OTOH, If half the public has a very different view of the issues than scientists do, that’s a problem. The representatives take the public’s opinion into account in their decision-making (either directly, or via their voting behaviour). So it is important that the public is well informed.

    Also, as a scientist, that’s one of the few things in my power to do. If I were a politican or businessman, I’d focus on other things, that could arguably be more effective.

  3. Heiko Gerhauser Says:

    It’s hard to know what the public actually believe. Looking at opinion polls is one way, but look at the same issue phrased in different questions and the results seem quite different.

    There is one opinion poll that asks about natural vs man made and in the US more say natural than man made, yet other polls say that less than 10% of the US public want the government to do less to combat climate change (which kind of implies that 90% believe it’s an issue of some sort or at least haven’t made up their mind that it’s definitely not worth doing anything about) and another poll asks about whether climate change will affect people now, in 50 years or future generations or will never have an impact and less than 10% again say never. And while over 70% can say they want their government to do more to combat climate change, over 80% can be against taxes on electricity to reduce electricity consumption.

    When you get down to nitty gritty detail, like say, ask the average person on the street “Is it scientific consensus that there will be more hurricanes in 2100, if the world is 3C warmer then due to greenhouse gases?” you’ll easily get 50% giving the wrong answer. As you’ll know there is no consensus on that particular question yet (from what I recall there may be little change in numbers, or maybe even somewhat fewer, but among these there should be more intense ones, but hurricanes are one of the more difficult things to predict).

    I think 90% of the public do realise that climate change is a real issue and not some kind of hoax and I also think that 90% of the public correctly see that the kind of catastrophe implied is seriously removed from a complete wipe-out of humanity, and does not require really serious measures (tripling electricity rates, banning much car use etc.). They may say they want serious measures, but when asked about specifics, these serious measures turn out to be quite tame.

    Now, I am blogging about climate change just like you are, so I can hardly moan about you doing something ineffective. What I am not convinced of is that the misunderstandings of the public, which there are of course many, actually mean they don’t get “the big picture” right. I actually think the vast majority of people do get “the big picture” right. That’s where I kind of disagree with your “If half the public …” sentence. Yes you can narrow the issue down into some carefully worded phrase about CO2, where 98% of scientists will say it’s consenus and 50% of the public say it’s not. But that’s I think because the public is uninformed about specifics, and even when an equally carefully worded phrase is used, where 98% of scientists know it’s not consensus, the same 50/50 split among the public will come up, and all that means is they don’t know scientific language and the specifics of the issue well and otherwise it says a lot less than you might think at first glance it says.

  4. Bart Says:

    Hi Heiko,
    I realize the limited use of opinion polls, though with that caveat, I thought this Doran and Zimmerman survey was amongst the better ones. For one, the questions were well posed. The general public answer is actually taken from another poll (Gallup); they just did the scientists survey.
    See here for a funny example of how weird opinion results can be.

    Now, I think pretty much all opinion polls (never mind anecdotal evidence) points towards the public having a different view on the causes of current climate change that the relevant scientists do. Guess we could argue about how different, but I find it worrisome

  5. Heiko Gerhauser Says:

    In general you would expect experts to have a better grasp of detail. I wouldn’t exactly find it surprising if say to a question about how much of the mass of sugar goes towards CO2 and how much towards ethanol, the general public will be less well informed than scientists in general and scientists who publish on fermentation specifically.

    I also do not think the questions are actually that well posed. As you said in your presentation, a substantial fraction of the warming from greenhouse gases still sits in the pipeline or is compensated by aerosols. Forecasts of the future are not based on extrapolating temperature trends, or hang on whether the 0.7C of warming to date is 0.4C anthropogenic and 0.3C natural, or rather 0.3C anthropogenic and 0.4C natural. Surely, it does not all hang on the fact that Europle cleaned up its aerosol emissions and therefore anthropogenic warming very likely slightly or moderately outedges natural warming compared with 200 years ago, and if Europe had not cleaned up its act a little and temperatures were 0.2C lower today, global warming would be a non issue.

    Members of the public who doubt that industrial emissions have had much of an effect yet compared to natural variability, but are still worried enough to want something done, because a lot may still happen, are not actually that far from what the science actually says.

    I’d say that upwards of 95% of the public have little idea that of the order of half the warming of greenhouse gases is compensated by cooling from aerosols. A sizeable fraction will not even know what CO2 is, I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority didn’t know that there are other greenhouse gases besides CO2.

    Considering how little much of the public actually knows, I think their policy relevant knowledge about climate change is quite reasonable. And what exactly would be changed, if the public were educated about aerosols and greenhouse gases and temperature histories and the fact that at least 50% of the 0.5-0.9C change compared to 200 years ago is with 90 to 99% likelihood due to the net effect of anthropogenic factors? Would that really make much difference for people who doubt that climate change is all that bad in the here and now, but are sufficiently worried to want something done that doesn’t inconvenience them too much? Would they take a different position?

    As far as I can see, the attribution of a few tenths of a degree of warming is not very significant. What matters are questions like how much sea level change how quickly? Will hurricanes become so bad as to regularly flatten entire coastal towns in Japan or the southern United States? Will agricultural production crater in places like India or Brazil as they become near deserts?

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