Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Pollution in scientific communication

Ask not what science communication can do for you, ask what you can do to perfect the new science of science communication!

If you have 16 minutes, invest them in listening to this fascinating talk by Daniel M. Kahan (I watched it twice, from start to finish!). 16 minutes that can change your view of science communication.

It is science communication seen by a professional in communication science. The main point of the story is that some subjects being communicated show a tremendous right/left, conservative/liberal polarization. The main example is climate change, which is seen in completely different ways by conservatives and liberals. But the interesting point is that this polarization does NOT occur for some issues where people, instead, simply trust the experts; as when you use antibiotics to treat an infection.

Kahan concludes that science communication should be protected from what he calls "pollution," an effect of the media and of political campaign. This is destroying the usefulness of the science in which we have invested so much and that we need so much. So, he concludes with the radical proposal that science communication should be "protected" as the environment is protected. Not so easy, surely, but it is a fundamental issue that should be discussed. 

1 comment:

  1. I think what Mr. Kahan says above makes sense but who would "protect" science communications or the "environment within which they take place" and how? If it were the government, some conservatives would be very likely to say that the government (which is clearly getting "too big" and ubiquitous) was trying to skew perceptions in favor of "liberal scientists". The fundamental reason for the polarization is that it is a contentious political issue. As a result of that different media also treat it differently and in contentious or misleading ways thereby compounding the original contentiousness. If it weren't a contentious issue politically then probably there would be much less polarization.

    It's hard to make that go away by trying to erect some kind of firewall whether ideological or other around the communications or trying to un-pollute the communications environment. Another aspect I would suggest is important is the general ideological climate and whether it is conducive or not to scientific thinking and to science or not. For instance during medieval times science may have been more likely to be disputed or questioned. Since clearly what religious texts said should have priority.

    Another good point is the fact that "science comprehension" is in fact not that relevant. I consider myself scientifically reasonably "literate and numerate" and I do also know and understand some of the specific climate science. But the reason why I think climate change is a problem (a big problem) doesn't depend on my understanding the finer points of James Hansen's arguments about various specific climate issues. I simply trust what he and other recognized climate scientists are saying and am satisfied that they are following normal scientific procedures to arrive at their conclusions. (I don't have to understand every step of or detail of those procedures and understanding more of them will not convince me any more or any less) I also trust the scientific consensus. And I am not sure that I do that because I have "egalitarian or communitarian" values or orientations rather than"individualistic or hierarchical" ones. I trust what the climate scientists are saying (or at least that's what I think I am doing) because I generally trust the methods and the processes of science. I have only a very superficial understanding of black holes but I trust what Stephen Hawking has to say about them anyway. And if I were not convinced I would rather look around to see what other specialized scientists think about black holes too, before making up my mind instead of getting a PhD in cosmology myself first so that I could follow every single one of Hawkins' equations. In other words I would not try to increase my science comprehension but rather I would seek out the views of others that I know I can trust who have that particular science comprehension already. (it's a natural short cut, otherwise to believe anything I would have to become an expert in 5000 difference disciplines) So although I think Mr Kahan makes some very good points worthy of further analysis and discussion I am not 100% convinced by what he is saying. (if I have understood what he is saying correctly)