Communicating science across cultural divides

By Bryan Walker 07/06/2012

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.