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Are Scientists Confusing the Public About Global Warming?

Credit: istock

“Do you believe in global warming?”

I assure you no one in the earth science community is asking that question. But they are desperately seeking an answer to a related question — “Why are we failing to communicate climate science?”

In December, I attended the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), a gathering of about 16,000 earth scientists. I attended in order to hear about new research and to network with colleagues, but I found myself mostly distracted by the issue of climate science communications. As one of the central themes of the meeting, there were a number of sessions and workshops devoted to this topic.

The relevance of the communications issue was made all too apparent on the second day of the meeting when news reports emerged of a leaked FOX News memo ordering all station journalists to "refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question."

The release of the memo hints at the disconnect: among the thousands of scientists who study climate change, there is little criticism of the evidence of warming and its human fingerprint, yet among the public, the science is viewed as contentious, confusing, and up for grabs.

In daily interactions with members of the general public, when I tell people I work on climate change, they almost inevitably ask me: “So, is it really happening? My understanding is the science is too uncertain.” Newspaper and TV station reports, recent polling, and these casual conversations all point toward a profound disconnect between public discourse and mainstream science.

The question is: why is there this disconnect? And what is the scientists’ role in creating it, and responsibility for rectifying it?

As I listened to various presentations and spoke with colleagues in the halls of the cavernous Moscone Conference Center in San Francisco, Calif., four competing hypotheses emerged.

Hypothesis #1: Scientists are terrible communicators. Their dry, analytical presentations of data fails to capture the imagination of the public. Scientists bury their findings in complicated graphs and jargon, and as a result the public often has no clue what they are talking about. Climate science would be better understood if scientists communicated more clearly and simply whenever possible. 

This perspective was illustrated best in a workshop on December 14 called “Communicating Climate Change Science.”  An audience of at least 200 squeezed into the overpacked room, lining up along the walls, knee to knee in the aisles, to learn how to be “deadly communications ninjas of climate science,” from writer Chris Mooney and others. The audience listened raptly, waiting to hear about that silver bullet solution, a nugget of profundity that would give them the tools they needed to allow the public to suddenly understand everything just as they do.

The audience nodded their heads in resignation as Susan Joy Hassol, a climate communications consultant, doled out her tidbits of wisdom:

  • Start with the big picture; say why it matters.
  • Focus on the things you know and understand, not the things you don’t understand.
  • Don’t use jargon like “aerosols”. That word will always mean spray cans to the public, not tiny particles that come from soot and other pollution.
  • Don’t use the word “anthropogenic,” just say human-caused.

The list of do’s and don’ts went on and on.

However, all of this advice assumes the public is interested in climate science, and that they are just getting lost in the complexities.

But what if people aren’t really interested in the details of climate science?  

How can scientists expect to communicate climate science if people aren't interested? Credit: istock

Hypothesis #2: Scientists are not speaking enough from their hearts. Their cold, analytical presentations of data fail to capture the imagination of the public. Climate science would be better understood if scientists made more passionate appeals. 

This sentiment was best expressed on Wednesday, December 16, in a session with bestselling book authors. Greg Craven, a high-school science teacher who became famous overnight after the 2007 release of his 10-minute youtube video, “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See”, which has reportedly been viewed some eight million times, stressed a similar message to Hassol and Mooney.

But his tone and tenor were quite different. Craven suggested that the job of scientists is not just to re-package information with less jargon and more gloss, but also to change their whole approach. Forget offering up more, shinier data, he suggested. Instead, we should put on our daddy and mommy hats and get emotional.

In a passionate and at times maniacal speech — part clairvoyant, part nervous breakdown — he rambled about how the time had come for scientists to reveal themselves and their raw, unabridged hopes and fears to the American people.

As Craven issued his battle cry, the smirks around the audience were all too visible. His remarks were strange and out-of-place in this meeting of professionals, with other sessions focused on technical topics like “Was the Archean mantle thermal regime special?” rather than emotional discussions about hopes and dreams.

Craven was making a difficult proposition. On the one hand, it made sense. Earth scientists understand the implications of their research better than any other portion of the public, so if they are worried about the planet we are leaving our daughters and sons (which I assure you many of them are, including myself), then yes, they should get out there and speak openly and passionately.

On the other hand, would such public exposure of hopes and dreams undermine their role as objective translators of our best scientific understanding? I don’t know the answer to that important question. There must be historical case studies through which to explore this issue. When scientists have gone not just public, but passionately so, what happens to their credibility?

Instead of trying to answer that now, though, let me continue to explore whether this communication crisis is really about science anyway. Because if it isn’t, then perhaps Craven is right that a gear-shift is needed, maybe not an emotional one, but a gear-shift for sure.  

Scientists such as myself are beating their heads against the wall by carefully describing why an apple is an apple for the billionth time. Meanwhile the public may be staring at an orange. 

Hypothesis #3: The public is being manipulated by a massive, and highly effective disinformation campaign. This campaign is motivated by free-market economic ideologues who oppose government regulation of greenhouse gases. The media have been duped, or worse, complicit, (again, think FOX News memo), in giving voice to these unscrupulous attacks on the science. In light of this, climate change would be better understood if scientists collaborated across disciplines to provide more relevant, compelling information that could break through the disinformation. 

Is poor science communication the fault of the media? Credit: istock

The evidence for this disinformation campaign and an analysis of its motivations has been thoroughly researched by science historian Naomi Oreskes, who also spoke at the AGU authors session.

She and her co-author Eric Conway detailed their work in the recent book, Merchants of Doubt. As she told my colleague Andrew Freedman in an interview earlier this year, "This is not about gaps in climate science... it's about a strategy to undermine the science whenever the science logically leads to a need for government regulation. That's the pattern, that's what people need to understand. This really is about regulation."

Her research follows a small group of scientists – mainly physicists – who are motivated more by political convictions than scientific evidence, as they journey from careers in cold-war weapons programs to speaking out about scientific issues ranging from the links between tobacco smoke and cancer, air pollution and acid rain, and of course, climate change.

Oreskes argues that since these individuals by and large are not engaged in sincere informed debate, scientists should not focus on communicating more evidence about the warming trend and how it is influenced by human activities. Rather, scientists need to provide “a clear and vivid portrait of what will occur if we continue with business as usual.” I asked her in an email afterwards what she means by a “clear and vivid portrait.” She responded:

“I think a lot of people still don't really get what the science means. They don't understand the implications, and I think this holds for many educated people. Sure, a bit of warming, but so what? Why does it really matter? And scientists have trouble answering because it gets them out of the realm of established facts and into more subjective domains, like, it matters because there is going to be a good deal of suffering, and that suffering will be unfairly imposed on people who did not necessarily benefit from the prosperity created by burning fossil fuels.”

The public debate on global warming requires greater engagement and scholarly contributions by social scientists, such as anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists and historians, to articulate a cohesive narrative about possible futures. For that narrative to inform public discourse, however, it needs to be faithfully communicated to wider audiences, which raises another set of challenges.

Hypothesis #4: The public DOES understand the threat of global warming. The perception of a large disconnect is a myth produced by poorly crafted polls and media sensationalism.

Following the headlines of the leaked memo, on the fourth day of the AGU meeting, Jon Krosnick of Stanford University — who also sits on the Board of Climate Central — seized the opportunity to remind us of his research that throws a monkey wrench into the starting proposition that there is a communication disconnect between scientists and the public in the first place.

Contrary to recent headlines suggesting plummeting belief in global warming, Krosnick’s long-term polling research concludes the public’s “belief” in climate change is overwhelmingly high. According to Krosnick’s work, while it is partisan, with Democrats and Independents being more convinced and concerned about global warming than Republicans, the overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens think global warming is happening and is human caused (~75 percent) and want to see more action to stop it (~85 percent). 

His polling finds that even the majority of FOX News viewers are convinced about climate change (though they tend to be less convinced than a person who gets their news elsewhere). In June, Krosnick wrote a New York Times op-ed about Republican efforts to overturn the U.S. EPA’s carbon dioxide regulations:

“A vote to eliminate greenhouse gas regulation is likely to be perceived by the nation as a vote for industry, and against the will of the people.”

Credit: istock

Four Hypotheses? Four Truths?

In returning to the question I started with: Are scientists confusing the public about the science of global warming?

I think the most straightforward answer is, no.

Putting the failure on the scientists, as the first two hypotheses do, assumes that there is a failure of understanding. It assumes that if the American people had all the information at their fingertips, they would make a different choice. An equally likely scenario that emerges, particularly from insights found in humanities and social science research, is that people do understand, but the range of their other interests and values prohibits them from “believing” it’s true, or making the sacrifices necessary to adjust behaviorally, or pushing more forcefully for action from political leaders.

Yale Professor Dan Kahan and colleagues' research on “cultural cognition” illustrates how the compatibility of empirical data with a person’s cultural values influences their acceptance of that data. So data that conforms to or reinforces an individual's preexisting values is more likely to be accepted, while data that is opposed to such values may be rejected. For instance, people who hold an individualistic worldview may be more reluctant to accept scientific evidence of manmade climate change because addressing the problem would require restrictions on commerce and industry.

The research shows how the messaging around empirical data claims can significantly alter reception by individuals with different values.

Yet even given these lessons of social science and psychology for science communications, I am uncomfortable with proposals that inch too far down a road towards Hollywood and Madison Avenue. I worry that if scientists drive too far down this road in desperate attempts to be heard, they will give up too much. For in the end, we don’t need scientists to be better salesmen, we need them to provide us with information to live well on this planet. And asking them to just pitch it better, somehow misses the mark.

In response to the communication disconnect, I would venture that it is not the scientists that are failing the public, rather, the political and media environment is failing the scientist. 

All the earth scientists I know work for the sole reason of understanding this complex planet we call home. In exploring basic physics and chemistry, their work has revealed huge risks to human society if we continue on a business-as-usual path. And so, over the decades, they have slowly compiled evidence, contributed to technical assessments, and testified in the halls of government and before the media about what they know and don’t know about how the earth‘s climate system works. Some have crafted their messages employing the best communication tactics, most talk in ways that are familiar and natural for them.  

And yet here we are, in 2011, still debating the basic science and risks of climate change, and whether the risks justify regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions. So I’d be a fool to argue that we should ignore any of the lessons of these four hypotheses, and scientists should just sit back and pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

But what’s clear, and I think important about looking at these four hypotheses in sum, is that they highlight the complex nature of the problem and the shared responsibility for rectifying the disconnects between the public and the science community.