Prominent Social Scientist Baruch Fischhoff: On Need for Climate and Decision/Social Sciences

A respected social scientist, Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon University, sees his discipline having to play an increasingly critical role in the climate change arena if citizens are to become fully engaged and involved in the issue.

Fischhoff said in a March telephone interview that climatologists and physicists central to the gradual evolution of public understanding of climate change science have faced a delicate balancing act in communicating with the public. “I think it’s important, if people say things that you believe to be false, that you counter them. But they have to first act in their role as a scientist. They’re scientists, they’re not politicians, and they’re not polemicists. They don’t stoop to rhetorical tricks in order to undermine their opponents.”

“There are people who are trying to cast science as just another ideology,” he continued. “And if we behave like just another ideologically motivated movement, then at some level we’re doing those peoples’ work for them.”

So far, Fischhoff said, he thinks natural scientists have “failed the public” by not assuring their scientific findings are communicated to nonscientist policy makers and the public in a credible and understandable way.

For the past 30 years, “it’s been all about them,” Fischhoff said, allowing that it is understandable that physical scientists – under a prolonged and blistering attack from climate contrarians – naturally wanted to ensure the veracity of their findings. But he said he is concerned that those wanting action to address climate change “won’t win, but rather will lose over a glacial timeframe” unless scientists’ findings about the seriousness of climate change are communicated effectively to the public.

He said it is “understandable, but not necessarily the right response” for natural scientists and their funders to have focused, in his opinion, virtually exclusively on the physical sciences, given the nature of the criticisms. “In a world in which the social scientists were in charge,” Fischhoff said, acknowledging a sensitivity to turf-consciousness, “we probably would have done the same thing.”

Fischhoff said prolonged public policy/science debates on the risks of smoking and cancer – and now continuing debates over evolution – could portend prolonged public indecision on whether and how to react to risks posed by climate change. He said that even increased public awareness of climate change may not lead to decisive civic involvement in the absence of being able to adequately communicate constructive steps. “We’re going to lose this moment … they’re still bickering.”

Lacking: ‘Bridge Into People’s Lives’

“If you view marketing as just advertising,” Fischhoff said, “well, you don’t have the products now. If you view it as a design process, whereby you get to know your customers, find out where people are, find out what they need and want,” prospects for success increase. “But we’ve spent 10 or 15 years defending the climate science to the exclusion of the human element,” he said. “It’s the bridge into people’s lives that we’re lacking now.”

“My impression is that we basically knew in the early 1980s onward how bad this could be, how wide ranging the effects could possibly be, and it should have been enough to motivate anybody to action,” he continued. “Those who are going to believe in climate change, you could have told them the story 20 years ago.” With the physical sciences having “sucked up all the resources” for research, he said, “If you took just a tiny fraction of them and tried to figure out where the public was, used social science standards to determine where the public is and what it will take to motivate them,” prospects for near-term citizen involvement would be greater.

Fischhoff recently spelled out his view on climate change communication, and in particular “nonpersuasive communication,” in an essay for the American Chemical Society’s Environmental Science and Technology.

In that provocative piece, Fischhoff weighs the pros and cons of some respected climate scientists’ becoming “not just messengers but also advocates for the implications of climate science” given what they see as the expected severity of the impacts.

“Scientists typically resort to public advocacy after concluding that, without it, the science will not get a fair hearing,” he wrote in that essay. “One way or another, the public is blamed for this failure …. Such advocacy runs the risk of winning battles over what science says, while losing the war over what science is.”

Moral High Ground No Option ‘in a Collapsing World’

It’s not that Fischhoff is unsympathetic. He writes of “20 years of irrational inaction” despite a compelling body of scientific understanding. “If it took this long to acknowledge the problem, how long will it take to decide what to do to solve it?”

“Waiting for better science to clarify choices can be rational, but only if the evidence accumulates faster than the situation deteriorates. Otherwise, the expected value of the new science is less than the expected cost of inaction.”

Again, he is not unsympathetic to scientists seeing a need to engage in the policy and political process: “What good is taking the moral high ground in a collapsing world?” he asks.

Advancing his own profession as a social scientist, Fischhoff expresses his concern that the climate scientists’ advocacy “might be like shouting at people who speak a different language, thus losing their trust while conveying little content, resulting in unpersuasive communication.” (See note below.)

“It is impossible to judge people fairly or to provide them with needed information without knowing what is on their minds when they formulate, resolve, implement, and revise climate-related choices,” Fischhoff argued in his essay. “Acquiring that knowledge requires research that is informed by climate science, decision science, and social science …. Together, these sciences can show where communication has broken down between citizens and scientists, how it might be improved, and what limits there are to lay understanding.”

He cautioned against making “sweeping generalizations” about how to communicate on climate change to various audiences. But he pointed to National Public Radio’s year-long daily “Climate Connection” broadcasts as the kind of nonpersuasive communication that can be effective.

Baruch Fischhoff
Fischhoff emphasizing his points on climate change.

The investment needed to better understand the potential of climate change nonpersuasive communication “is small compared with that supporting persuasive communication,” Fischhoff wrote. Yet “the temptation to move directly to persuasion is clear: at a time when action is urgently needed, research can be seen as slowing things down and diverting scarce resources.”

But he still cautions the natural sciences against moving too quickly to persuasive communication mode:

People overestimate how widely their values are shared. As a result, people may mistakenly believe that others will find their messages as persuasive as they do. People overestimate how widely their knowledge is shared. As a result, they may omit vital facts, assuming them to be common knowledge. People overestimate how clearly they communicate. As a result, even when people know what to say, they may not realize that they are not getting through.

“For each element of a communication, climate scientists should attest to its accuracy, decision scientists to its relevance, social scientists to its clarity, and designers to its format,” Fischhoff suggested. “Failing any of those tests can undermine a message’s accuracy, tone, or comprehensibility.” Such an effort requires strong leadership, he acknowledged, but “without it, nonpersuasive communication has little chance.”

Scientists: ‘Peddlers’? Or ‘Arbiters of Truth’?

Communications on climate change will drive the human behaviors shaping the extent and effects of climate change, he wrote.

The nonpersuasive communication approach will let the science “speak for itself,” and if that approach fails, scientists’ persuasive communications must come next, complete with the risk of “turning scientists into peddlers rather than arbiters of truth.” Scientists’ advocacy communications must be effective to compensate for the risks of “eroding scientists’ status as trusted observers and reporters.”

He cautioned that with long-term problems such as climate change, “communication is a multiple-play game. Those who resort to advocacy might lose credibility that they will need in future rounds.”

In the end, Fischhoff said, “I think that science has a kind of high ground as long as it stays nonpersuasive, and that it loses that high ground once it acts like another ideological mission. On the general facts of climate change, probably as many people have been persuaded as are going to be persuaded. As for people who aren’t, they have ideological reasons for not liking science. I think the inaction does not have that much to do with belief or nonbelief in climate change.”

Without a stronger social science involvement in climate change communications, Fischhoff said in the phone interview, “I’m pretty pessimistic.” He said he thinks the scientific and research institutions that climatologists and physicists “have a death grip on,” such as national laboratories and much of the academic community, “are weak in the social sciences. So are most of the institutions that could provide alternatives. Most in the academic world are off doing something else and are not, I think, made to feel particularly welcome by the natural scientists.”

“My optimism is pretty well extinguished, but I’m stubborn, and I don’t give up,” he said.

NOTE: Fischhoff writes that nonpersuasive communication “lets the science speak for itself. If it fails, then persuasive communication may be needed.” He cautions that “climate scientists should not demand simplistic messages because they believe that laypeople can’t grasp uncertainty.” When that would-be persuasive communication fails to achieve its intended results, it becomes unpersuasive communication.

Fischhoff: Start with the Consumer, not the Producer

“You can’t just look back at the things that are at the center of your universe, and assume that they are at the center of other people’s universe.

“So if you’re interested in whether people will engage in energy saving measures, you have to look at the obstacles from their perspective. Is it that they can’t afford to pay the transaction costs? Do they want to give it a couple of years so prices will come down? Something missing in their own equation – are they planning to downsize by moving when they’re ‘empty nest,’ so it might make sense for them to wait?

“Unless you get inside their heads, find out what it is they’re facing, it’s very hard to get them the information they need about existing options, or create options. Any design process begins with the consumer. And most of the process with climate change begins with the producer,” for instance those with an energy supply or a fancy gizmo to sell.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail:
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