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Idealog—in the ideas business

Communicating science across cultural divides

A recent study in Nature Climate Change by Dan Kahan and others has attracted interest for its findings on public apathy over climate change.

It’s not incomprehension of the science that is the problem, the article finds, but the strong influence of the cultural environment and philosophical inclination of individuals, predisposing them to downplay the science even when they are well-equipped to understand it. 

It’s not my purpose in this post to communicate the substance of the study – there’s a very good short piece in the Economist which will do that for you – but I want to offer some reflection on its conclusions.

The claim that there are severe limits to the effectiveness of relying on simple communication of the science is not a new one. Social scientists have been declaring for some time that cultural and economic perceptions are what prevent the climate message from making headway in significant sectors of the community. This paper is further confirmation.

I don’t think there is any message here for climate scientists. They do science. Their work is to understand what is happening to the biosphere as greenhouse gas emissions continue to mount and to try to work out what it portends for the future. If some of the public say they don’t believe it, or they don’t believe it’s as serious as the science suggests, then there’s little  more scientists can do than to reiterate that it’s real and it’s serious and to keep adducing the evidence  which  leads them  to that conclusion. The evidence is mounting. There is nothing in sight to suggest the science has got it wrong.

But if the science is not sufficient to persuade those who resist it for cultural or ideological reasons what alternatives are there?  This is where the observations of social scientists tend to run out in the sand. Kahan’s article does its best by suggesting different communication strategies. He envisages a new science of science communication, which I presume falls in the domain of the social sciences.

First the problem:

A communication strategy that focuses only on transmission of sound scientific information, our results suggest, is unlikely to do that [ie. overcome resistance to the science]. As worthwhile as it would be, simply improving the clarity of scientific information will not dispel public conflict so long as the climate-change debate continues to feature cultural meanings that divide citizens of opposing world-views.

Then how to address it:

It does not follow, however, that nothing can be done to promote constructive and informed public deliberations. As citizens understandably tend to conform their beliefs about societal risk to beliefs that predominate among their peers, communicators should endeavour to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values. Effective strategies include use of culturally diverse communicators, whose affinity with different communities enhances their credibility, and information-framing techniques that invest policy solutions with resonances congenial to diverse groups. Perfecting such techniques through a new science of science communication is a public good of singular importance.

The problem with this is that the best available science demands a realignment of many of our practices. There may be disagreement over how best to manage the transition, but there’s no getting round the fact that we can no longer treat fossil fuels as a cheap source of energy. Whether we do it by cap-and-trade mechanisms or a carbon tax or by regulation or other means can be debated, and political groupings can divide and seek electoral support for their preferences.

But the irreducible central requirement to stop using fossil fuels long before they run out cannot be avoided. If that crosses some ideological divide there’s no way the requirement can be softened. The ideology has to give. The enormity of climate change puts our ideological differences into perspective. They pale into relative insignificance in the face of the threat to human society and civilisation posed by such planetary-scale disasters as large sea level rise or greatly increased desertification.

If there are communicators who can gather the “hierarchical individualists” into a corner away from the “egalitarian communitarians” and gently persuade them of the seriousness of the risk of climate change by all means let them do it. But when the resisters emerge from that huddle convinced, they are still going to have to join forces with the rest of the community to battle against the common threat. Which means paying due attention to climate science.

And one of the messages from the science is that we don’t have much time left to begin the process of emissions reduction. Enough time for a new science of science communication?  For that matter has the full impact of the science been recognised by those who say they are respectful of it?

The government of New Zealand doesn’t scorn the science or accuse the scientists of hoax. But it resists its full impact. It dilutes the scientific message in what it sees as the interests of today’s economy. It hankers after wealth from fossil fuels.

I guess there’s some sort of ideology tied up there, albeit not as rabid as that exhibited by many current Republican legislators in the US. Do the milder ideologies also need communicators with special affinities? What science communicator could prove congenial to the course the New Zealand government is currently pursuing and at the same time faithfully represent the science? There must be some sort of challenge even from the most sympathetically attuned communicators.

The terrifying possibility exists that nothing, neither the unadorned science nor the best efforts of culturally diverse communicators, will persuade societies to abandon the fossil fuel habit. But any form of scientific communication has to be adamant that nothing less will do, however sensitive the communication is to the cultures it addresses.

This post originally appeared on Sciblogs.


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Comments

It is not just the carers (“egalitarians”) who are pitted against the self-interests (“hierarchicals”). The biggest player in the game is big business. The oil/coal/gas/etc moguls understand perfectly the science of climate change - that is precisely why they are fighting it so hard and pouring so much effort into spreading misinformation to encourage the “self-interests” to continue to deny it and go on consuming their product. You can't really blame them - the essence of corporate capitalism is to maximize and protect profit, though the tactics of some are morally reprehensible. I believe that governments have a three way obligation: to represent business interests, community interests (which pull in both directions, caring and being selfish) and the future (which does not just include our descendants but also all life on the planet). Most governments like ours are actually there to promote business, with some gestures towards the community. But sadly it is the failing of democracy that they do nothing for the future because that requires sacrifice in the present, and that is a losing ticket for any government. Who will act for our mokopuna, and if no one does what will they think of us … If there are any?!

So the people out there who pay all the taxes are stupid, is that it? And they need to be nudged over to your world view, is that it? So they will pay more taxes to fund this silly climate apocalypse fight, is that it? “Terrifying” is dead right.

There is nothing in sight to suggest the science has got it wrong.”

What a contemptible lie. Like so much of the AGW BS.

The case against AGW is very simple. Let me spell it out for you.

The climate scientists came up with the theory of AGW.
They developed global climate models (GCMs) to test the theory by predicting what would happen to temperature over time if the theory of AGW was correct.
The GCMs predicted a trend line of a rise of 3.3 degrees per century.
Over the last 10 years (longer than just “weather”) CO2 levels increased but the global temp has just barely increased statistically significantly. The actual increase is not just a lot lower then the 3.3d C per century the GCMs predicted, it is well below the bottom 95% confidence interval of the GCM. In other words, the theory of AGW, as tested by the GCMs developed by the climate scientists has been falsified. Period. Falsified, no ifs, no buts, no maybes. Falsified.

This is why people don't believe climate change. We don't believe it because it has been falsified under it own terms, according to its own models. And because we are not f*&6king stupid, gullible schmucks who will take anything a scientist with a hard on and a research grant says and just believe it. And because skepticism is not just rational, it is at the core of the scientific method. “Prove it” should be the first order of business with any theory. And AGW is not just not proven, it is falsified, based on its own models.
Scientists and do gooders have gotten many things wrong before, and will do so again. You have heard of eugenics? How did that work out?
This post may come across as a bit strident, but I am so sick and tired of the patronizing, paternalistic tone of people peddling this load of bs and the policies based on it that would be so devastating if implemented.
More co2 and a temp rise of a few degrees c far from being bad, would be much more likely to be beneficial to the planet and mankind.

Even James Lovelock, of Gaia fame, and a previous hell fire and brimstone AGW advocate can see what is so obvious to the rest of us. He recently said:
“The problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago. That led to some alarmist books – mine included – because it looked clear-cut, but it hasn’t happened,” Lovelock said.
“The climate is doing its usual tricks. There’s nothing much really happening yet. We were supposed to be halfway toward a frying world now,” he said.
“The world has not warmed up very much since the millennium. Twelve years is a reasonable time… it (the temperature) has stayed almost constant, whereas it should have been rising — carbon dioxide is rising, no question about that,” he added.
http://worldnews.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/04/23/11144098-gaia-scientist-james-lovelock-i-was-alar…

So Mr.Walker, can I suggest you stop promoting this climate change bullshit and do something useful with your life? The game is up, it is nothing to do with culture. The only question worthy of further research is “why do so many people still buy this crap?”

David Trubridge

Actually James, Lovelock does still believe in climate change. From the same article:
<He said he still thought that climate change was happening, but that its effects would be felt farther in the future than he previously thought.
“We will have global warming, but it’s been deferred a bit,” Lovelock said.>
But you don't want to believe that, and as the original article said you will pick the facts to suit your viewpoint, so what is the point?

David,
Can you address the fact that the the global climate models produced by the scientists to predict what would happen to global temp with the addition of man made co2 emissions predicted an increase at a rate of 3.3 d c / century and actual temp change over the last decade has been much less than this. So much less that the non increase is below the 95% confidence interval.
Does this not falsify the models developed to prove the theory of agw, and therefore the theory itself?
Please address this point directly.


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