Climate science communications

What would I advise climate science communicators?” from Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School:

The “science communication environment” consists of all the normal, and normally reliable, signs and processes that people use to figure out what is known to science. Most of these signs and processes are bound up with the normal interactions inside communities whose members share basic outlooks on life. There are lots of different communities of that sort in our society, but usually they all steer their respective members toward what science knows.

But when positions on a fact that admits of scientific investigation  (“is the earth heating up?”; “does the HPV vaccine promote unsafe sex among teenage girls?”) becomes entangled with the values and outlooks of diverse communities—and becomes, in effect, a symbol of one’s membership and loyalty in one or another group—then people in those groups will end up in states of persistent disagreement and confusion. These sorts of entanglements (and the influences that cause them) are in effect a form of pollution in the science communication environment, one that disables people from reliably discerning what is known to science.

The science communication environment is filled with these sorts of toxins on climate change. We need to use our intelligence to figure out how to clean our science communication environment up.

How we know what we know (or think we know what we know, particularly within distinct cultural communities) is seriously interesting and seriously messy. I’ve been reading through Robert Burton‘s On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, which comes from the actual neuroscience side of things and reminds us that we essentially have no idea what’s going on.

On Being Certain

Couple those untrustworthy personal minds with complicated group dynamics… aren’t people interesting? Kahan’s remark that communities generally “steer their respective members toward what science knows”  seems optimistic to me, particularly in light of this country’s ongoing political shenanigans. (Sidenote: Manfriend was listening to Bill O’Reilly and Colin Powell talk gun control last night. I had to shut the door and not listen anymore).

On the Canadian front, Norm Kelly, the chair of Toronto’s parks and environment committee, has once again expressed doubt as to whether climate change is real, citing that considerable scientific debate still exists. In this case his “scientific debate” traces back to the activities of the Heartland Institute. Yep…

On that note, Dan Kahan ends his discussion on scientific communication with this solid reminder:

Where to engage the public, how, and about what in order to improve the political economy surrounding climate change are all matters of debate, of course. So you should consult all the evidence, and all the people who have evidence-informed views, and make the best judgment possible. And anyone who doesn’t tell you that this is the thing to do is someone whose understanding of what needs to be done should be seriously questioned.

So, as Carl Sagan said, “science has taught us that, because we have a talent for deceiving ourselves, subjectivity may not freely reign”. Here’s to evidence-informed views, and effective science communication.