Communicating facts in a world of truthiness

Last week, NPR had a fascinating story on how worldview influences belief in climate change.

Participants in these experiments are asked to describe their cultural beliefs. Some embrace new technology, authority and free enterprise. They are labeled the “individualistic” group. Others are suspicious of authority or of commerce and industry. Braman calls them “communitarians.”

…The individualists tended to like nanotechnology. The communitarians generally viewed it as dangerous. Both groups made their decisions based on the same information.

“It doesn’t matter whether you show them negative or positive information, they reject the information that is contrary to what they would like to believe, and they glom onto the positive information,” Braman says.

Scientists deal in data, but it is extremely hard to change people’s minds using data. What to do? Unfortunately the article offers no useful suggestions, saying only

“The goal can’t be to create a kind of psychological house of mirrors so that people end up seeing exactly what you want,” he [Dr. Kahan, the featured researcheer] argues. “The goal has to be to create an environment that allows them to be open-minded.”

I have no idea how to do this or how to help fellow scientists do this, but it’s critical that we figure it out. Climate change has the potential to absolutely devastate the ocean – not just with temperature, but with the increasing acidity of the water. Ocean acidification is incredibly terrifying to every scientist I know, and yet we don’t know how to communicate this to the public. Even Nemo isn’t helping to spur action.

So how can we help people be open minded? Should we make a little table in front of our local Wal-Mart and demonstrate how oysters dissolve in acidic water? Should we scrape together our (rather pitiful) salaries and hire high-priced PR people to fight the high-priced PR people employed by the energy industry? Should we quietly replace Senator Inhofe with a data-crunching Cylon? I don’t know – but it’s clear that our current fact-based communication strategies aren’t working.

Miriam Goldstein (226 Posts)





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16 comments on “Communicating facts in a world of truthiness
  1. I agree with your statement of the problem, and the NPR stories last week on climate change were wonderful. The Kahan you mention had a great article in Nature a few weeks back that you might want to check out, and he has suggestions – http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7279/full/463296a.html

    I have a couple of suggestions for practical ways to help. Randy Olson does a great job in his new book “Don’t be Such a Scientist” explaining how important it is to engage your audience. Once you have them hooked, then you can educate. Randy has tried to do this with his Shifting Baselines organization, and Flock of Dodos, both of which seemed to be as successful as anything else to engage people on ocean issues and evolution.

    But it is clear that this message needs to come from diverse voices, with similar cultural backgrounds as the audience. Maybe this is where science blogging comes in. Many voices speaking out through their networks of readers. And these just can’t be other scientists, but friends and family that will bother to read the blogs too.

    I would love to hear what people think, because clearly the science communication strategy is not working. Maybe if we can convince people that they live on Pandora.

    • Mason, I nearly done with Randy’s book and will be writing a review shortly. I was sort of against his “style”, but he really has some good points so it should be a fairly balanced review.

  2. A good analogy I heard, emerging from the AAAS meeting: Imagine you went into a physician, who says, “You have a very dangerous medical problem” … and the physician stops talking. Would be rather disconcerting, wouldn’t it? The person has the facts, but wants a plan of action.

  3. Mason, thanks for the Nature article. (Thanks also to Liz Neeley on Twitter). I knew there must be something behind the NPR piece but didn’t know what. The Nature article makes two main suggestion: to present information in a way that affirms people’s existing values; and to make sure that information is vouched for by a diverse set of experts.

    I have not yet read Randy’s book but am #1 on the library waiting list, so I will review it sometime after Kevin.

    Zen, that is a good analogy, but in terms of climate change, how do we avoid the values pitfalls? “The ocean has a very serious problem, and we have to reduce CO2 emissions.” is a pretty simple message but it gets complicated very fast, with cap-and-trade and geoengineering and the environmental costs of alternative energy like solar and rich vs poor countries.

  4. Kevin – I will be interested to read what you think of Randy’s book. I am using it as the text in a senior undergrad biology capstone course that I teach, and I have found it really valuable. The students seem to connect with many of Randy’s arguments, and simply enjoy reading it. The students in the class that have gone to professional meetings also recognize the poor communication skills that the book criticizes.

    In my reading of the book, “style” does not necessarily mean getting the facts wrong, but just leaving out some of the nuance and detail until you can pull in your audience. Then you have the opportunity to go a bit further with detail. And come on, you guys use “style” in this blog. Just check out those pictures in the header. Randy was a top-notch marine biologist before ditching the academic life. I don’t think he has it in him to bend the scientific facts.

    I suppose a little disclaimer is in order. I was Randy’s teaching assistant in the marine bio class he taught while in film school at USC. And I have used lots of his videos in science classes over the years, and have always found them really effective.

    Miriam – thanks for pulling up those suggestions from the Kahan article. Do you think that first suggestion is essentially “framing science”? That term sure seems to get slammed around some parts of the science blogosphere. But can’t that be done without betraying the truth of the science?

    I really enjoy your blog.

  5. I’m a new reader of DSN so it’s possible you’ve linked to this before, but you might be interested in the blog “Water Words That Work” namely this post: http://waterwordsthatwork.com/2009/12/09/environmental-awareness-insights-2/ which talks about the weakness of facts when dealing with the public. The author, Eric Eckl is a favorite of ours at the public water utility where I work (our source is a large lake with many public and private uses). I’d recommend anyone concerned about how to communicate more effectively with the public on conservation issues check out his blog.

    As a enviro sci undergrad returning to biology grad school after working as aninterpretive educator, I’m keenly interested in how the general public relates to science and scientists. A relevant principle of interpretive education (think park rangers) is to personally connect an audience with a resource by appealing to their sense of values. I’m going to be thinking on how that approach would work with these different worldviews.

    Thanks for the blog! I’m enjoying it.

  6. Thanks, Nelle, as a San Diego resident myself that’s especially interesting.

    Mason, I will not be lured into the hideous vortex of the Framing Blogwarz!11ONOES!! Let’s just say that as a former theater person (sadly crippled by a total lack of talent) I agree that it’s important to connect with one’s audience. This doesn’t mean that you can’t ever challenge them, but you need to EARN it.

  7. I think that the “skeptics” viewpoint is that it is too economically costly to shift our energy economy to other sources on short notice, and even those who accept that the climate is warming but don’t accept that the cause is industrial activity are in favor of actions to “keep a clean backyard.” They say they want more facts before they change their viewpoint on the anthrogenic nature of GW, but what they really want is to see the economic benefit of greening energy.

    The loss of ocean habitat is certainly going to be incredibly costly, but how does that translate into what it costs me in my own budget? And is that more or less than the cost of fluorescent bulbs, reusing grocery bags in stead of plastic ones, getting a hybrid or electric car, putting solar panels on my roof?

  8. How about:
    1) Higher costs for seafood as commercial species become rarer (and quality gets worse). Even higher costs if that mahi mahi and tilapia has to be transported to Heartland of America.
    2) Higher costs and lower quality environment at your favorite tourist destinations, like Hawai’i, Florida, the Southeastern and mid-Atlantic coasts because habitat is degraded, reefs are bleached, etc.
    3) As tourist economies wane coastal areas become even more impoverished becoming a burden on state economies, which trickles down to the taxpayer. Maybe if you are a midwesterner you don’t care, but summer vacations at the beach won’t be the same for your family.
    4) Property and land is lost to rising coastlines being a burden on not just those owners, but all taxpayers too as federal and state money is used to salvage what they can, pay for beach replenishment, etc.
    5) Relocation of coastal and island communities is costly.
    6) Increased frequency of damaging and fatal weather phenomena (hurricanes, tornadoes) will cost taxpayers and anyone with insurance as premiums go up for everyone (one needs only look at California right now to see how insurance plays out)

    This list can go one, climate change affects everyone. All of these are happening RIGHT NOW, you don’t even need to mention global warming for people to realize this. What GW (or as I prefer climate change) tells us that we can expect this become more of the norm.

    Some of the problem communicating about climate science is that baselines are quickly shifting. What my grandfather knew and grew up with for ‘normal’ weather is not the same as what I or my kids will grow up feeling is normal weather. The old politicians making laws and having debates suffer from ghosts of times past.

  9. Hi Miriam, it’s Lindsay from EarthSky! I stumbled upon this blog and was quite pleased to find you writing here. IMHO, I think you do a fine job of communicating facts as a scientist – certainly, having the willingness and desire to communicate with the public is a really important starting point. What’s going on with climate change, though, is a really extraordinary and dangerous situation. And desperate times call for desperate measures. Although I love my job as a science journalist and I am committed to advocating for science, I don’t think that scientists can trust the media at large. The recent coverage on the public “debate” has not helped the cause of science, and it’s been skewed favorably towards the skeptics. Even if that’s just covering public opinion, it’s really damaging to getting things done politically – which is what’s necessary now.

    Climate change isn’t just about facts. It’s about emotions, and ideology, too. My opinion is that science agencies (the NSF, the NAS, the IPCC in particular) need to hire a PR arm which will be just as aggressive as advertisers, making clear messages about what science is about, and how we know what we know about climate change, and ultimately restore the public’s trust in climate science. I think it’s time for the people who do science – especially at the higher, administrative level – to take communicating as seriously as doing science itself.

  10. Hi Lindsay,

    Thanks for stopping by – it’s fun to see you on the internet as well as in person. I think a lot of scientists (myself included) worry that doing aggressive PR means going beyond what the science can say. It’s very hard to communicate “70% likelihood.” One partial solution that I’ve heard to increasing science literacy is teaching probability & statistics in the schools instead of calculus. Most people will never need calculus but everyone needs to understand statistics.

  11. Yes, I am perhaps more fun on the internet than in person. What I mean by “aggressive PR campaign” is not necessarily communicating the idea of “70% likelihood” – it’s more like making people understand how science works. One of the biggest communication fails I’ve seen recently is headlines saying “Scientists admit mistakes” or “Scientists say they were wrong” in things like predicting sea-level rise – an extremely difficult thing to do. But the articles don’t explain that scientists admitting they made a mistake, were wrong, are willing to be corrected and move on, is part of the process of science. It’s a step on the way to better climate science, etc. I think it needs to be asked: What does the public need to understand about climate change science, and how can it counteract the dangerous misinformation being disseminated by the denialists?

    I agree with you about statistics – another recent communication fail was Phil Jones of East Anglia using the words “not statistically significant” in an interview. The public not understanding what that piece of jargon means was easily translated to “no global warming.” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250872/Climategate-U-turn-Astonishment-scientist-centre-global-warming-email-row-admits-data-organised.html) Another step backwards. While changing the curriculum may be a good step to increasing science literacy and exposing the truth about statistics, I don’t think it’s the best answer to getting people (grown, often ideologically driven people) to believe in climate change.

    You might be interested in a podcast I did with Chris Mooney, who wrote a book about America’s failing science literacy and what should be done about it. http://earthsky.org/human-world/chris-mooney-on-why-americans-don%E2%80%99t-trust-science

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