Much Buzz Surrounding Communications on Climate Science

Two two-day workshops among climate science communications experts and a hot new paper published in Nature Climate Change provide plenty of grist for ongoing point and counterpoint analyses.


Add “heuristics” and “numeracy” and “cognitive” to the growing world of climate change terminology scientists, policymakers, activists, and the media increasingly may be dealing with in their efforts to reach a common end … the public as the ultimate audience.

Emerging social science findings are slowly moving the spotlight away from long-term favorites involving arcane issues like climate sensitivity, solar radiation, and feedbacks. Going forward, talking points involving those and numerous other critical scientific issues are likely to be sharing the stage with nuances involving framing of messages and credibility of messengers; information needs and tastes of various audience segments; and improved understanding of people’s acceptance or rejection of climate science concerns.

Two wintry days of consideration of just such social science issues took place in January at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and the full report of those proceedings now is available here.

In addition, a recent National Academy of Sciences “Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium” in Washington, D.C. — “The Science of Science Communication” — brought together a wide range of science messengers and audience representatives for two days of discussions that focused largely, but not exclusively, on climate science communication. Prospects appear likely that the proceedings from that discussion will become essential reading for serious students and practitioners of climate change communications, and there already are plans under way for a follow-up Academy session on the subject over the coming year or so.

Adding fertile kindling to the already increasingly hot fires of climate science communication is a provocative report generating a lot of buzz in climate circles and recently published as a “Letter” in Nature Climate Change.

Entitled “The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate Change Risks,” the report by Yale Law School’s Dan M. Kahan and colleagues challenges the common assumption that seemingly widespread public apathy to climate change risks stem primarily from the inherent complexity of the fundamental climate science and the broad public’s generally knowing “too little science.”

“Widespread limits on technical reasoning,” the authors explain, “aggravate the problem by forcing citizens to use unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk.” Their study, outlined in the paper, finds “no support” for that line of reasoning and maintains that those most facile with science and technical reasoning in fact are not likely to be among the most concerned about climate risks.

“Public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare,” the authors write.

Kahan and his colleagues in the study outline two alternative explanations — the cultural cognition thesis (CCT) and the science comprehension thesis (SCT). In the former, individuals form their views on societal risk as do those in groups with which they most closely identify. In the case of the SCT, on the other hand, the tension is behind the scientific community and the public at large, the latter not knowing or understanding what the scientists understand based on their view of the evidence.

SCT “attributes low concern with climate change to limits on the ability of ordinary members of the public to engage in technical reasoning,” they write. They add that most people process information through “rapid visceral judgments” rather than through more time-consuming and more mentally taxing “conscious reflection and calculation.” That prior approach works well in many cases, but can lead to an underestimating of climate risks, which the authors note are “remote and abstract compared with a host of more emotionally charged risks (for example, terrorism) that the public is thought to overestimate.”

As a result of their study, they suggest that “as respondents’ science-literacy scores increased, concern with climate change decreased.” In contrast to what SCT predicts, “higher degrees of literacy and numeracy are associated with a small decrease in the perceived seriousness of climate change risks.”

The SCT/CCT report has triggered a flood of rich analysis, support, and opposition on the blogosphere, with a wide range of expert commentaries mixed in with an ample supply also of blogospheric “noise.” Among many examples, one by veteran science writer Charles Petit at the MIT Knight Science Tracker points to online chats having “gone into full obsession, fulmination, and a dash of meditation.”

Taken together, the University of Michigan/Union of Concerned Scientists seminar proceedings, coupled with the Sackler Colloquium dialogues and videos and the Kahan Nature Climate Change analysis and its ongoing aftermath provide a rich smorgasbord of practical and academic insights on how to improve communications with the public on climate change. It’s dialogue certain to continue over coming months as experts and nonexperts alike search for keys on how to unlock continuing confusion and ambivalence on a social and scientific issue bound to be front-and-center on the public policy agenda for decades into the future.

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2 Responses to Much Buzz Surrounding Communications on Climate Science

  1. gws says:

    I have seen and heard Dan Kahan at last year’s AGU Fall Meeting. His results and related theory are convincing (to me). They also match with personal experience (aka group-think and non-representative personal experience based choices are prevalent in society) much more than SCT. As teachers, we hope that SCT holds water because we want the facts to matter. But what works with most young people in high school and maybe still in undergraduate education in college, largely fails with the public at large. More education “on the facts” is futile. Instead, CCT requires that we communicate not the facts but the emotions (e.g., why do you insure your house?). We need to convince (cultural and political) leaders to drive opinion, not the other way around. We also need to sit down with the “Mad Men” and see what works. I know scientists (system two thinkers) in general will not like or want that.
    The large prevalence of system one thinking and heuristics outside the scientific roam will require that science communicators use much more system one examples to relate, which on the other hand makes us vulnerable to denier attacks; so it’s a fine line to walk. Many of us know that from public speaking and subsequent blogosphere fallout.

    • Jan Freed says:

      I have been in the ‘Commentosphere’ adding my two cents to many threads. Google Alerts points me to articles on Climate Change. I read them and add a comment. I sense two different contrarian audiences. One, thick as a brick, and one with real questions. The latter, I believe, are worth talking to.