Why is science communication hard? Why don’t people blindly accept what scientists tell them? In a time when 97% of climate scientists agree about human-caused climate change, why do some people still think that a single cold winter disproves global warming? Is it because scientists are stuffy academics, tight in their ivory tower? Because scientists aren’t very good at disseminating and knowledge and communicating information? Or because information is not available in an accessible, engaging format, with key data in pay-walled publications?
Scientific consensus, public scepticism
Science communication has a long history, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science was established way back in 1831. Yet today, despite an abundance of scientific information being readily available, climate change remains a confusing subject for many. While it appears that, in Britain, a majority of people believe in the existence of climate change, scepticism about the causes and seriousness or impacts is common. Likewise in America, a survey in May 2011 showed that 64% of Americans thought the world was warming, but only 47% believed that any global warming was mostly caused by human activities. In the UK and in the USA, the proportion of the public and policy makers who reject climate science and the idea that humans are causing climate change has grown[6, 7]. Worldwide, the strong scientific consensus on climate change is not recognised by a large part of the general public[6, 7]. More positively, recent research has suggested that awareness and self-reported knowledge of climate change has increased over the last two decades, and a large proportion of the public consider climate change to be a pressing environmental threat.
Why don’t some people believe in, or care about, climate change?
The short answer is that people are complicated. Their beliefs and judgements can be clouded by their religious upbringing, political leaning, their ideologies and self-interests, what news channels they watch and what newspapers they read. Together, these factors all contribute to differences in opinion and social conflicts over science. Below I’ll summarise a few of the key things that influence how people make decisions and judgements on scientific topics.
People are affected by their own cognitive biases, things such as the Bandwagon Effect (the tendency to believe things because other people believe them), or Confirmation Bias (where people search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms their own preconceptions). People can be very good at ignoring or reinterpreting information based on partisanship or self-interest. People are also good at developing attitudes that justify their behaviour and identity. It’s easy to only read things that support your way of thinking; for example, on Twitter, political conversations take the form of separate, polarised crowds. People reply, retweet and interact with people who think like them.
News coverage is fragmented with abundant choice and it is often biased along political lines with numerous ideological commentaries to choose from[12, 13], making it easy to ignore science journalism that is adverse to your political beliefs. As a result of the increasingly fragmented media, press releases about science and climate change may reach even fewer people than they did a decade ago. It’s easy to choose to only read or watch news that reinforces your beliefs about a particular scientific topic.
In addition, because the norm for journalism is to provide balance and dramatisation, the media frequently portray climate science as a debate, an uncertain controversy, with two equally credible sides[6, 14]; More conservative stations like Fox News are more likely to present a wide range of climate doubters. It’s easy to see why people can find it confusing.
In the case of climate change, these biases have resulted in two polarised opinions, divided on ideological lines. Whitmarsh (2011) found that climate change scepticism was far more likely to be influenced by a person’s environmental and political values, than by education or knowledge. Poortinga and colleagues found that climate scepticism was particularly prevalent among older individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds with conservative politics and traditional values. Indeed, whether or not you believe in climate change is, in America, increasingly part of what it means to be Republican or Democrat[10, 15].
A complex, invisible issue
Climate change is difficult to understand. It’s a complex issue researched by thousands of scientists, each with a different specialism; even scientists don’t always understand it. People are likely to disregard information they regard as too scientific or complex. Climate change is also difficult to see and it hasn’t got many immediate, discernible impacts; scientists are reluctant to attribute a single flood or other catastrophic event to climate change. No single news item or image can be used to catalyse action. Because climate change is intangible and abstract, it is difficult for people to engage with the topic and to not feel uncertain about it. Conversely, perceived personal experience of climate change (like your house flooding) tends to lead to increased belief certainty.
Trust in scientists as a source of information on global warming has dropped in recent years, particularly among conservative politics. “Climategate”, the release of emails from University of East Anglia, had a significant effect on public trust in scientists. This is important, as people rely heavily on trust to make sense of conflicting information.
There is also a well-funded campaign that seeks to spread disinformation about climate science, motivated by economic, financial and ideological ideas. Some fear limitations to the free market or short-term profits. This campaign, with its public-relations superstars, has been very successful at convincing parts of the public.
Is a lack of understanding at the root of social conflict over science?
Science sufficiency, public deficiency
If scientific information is more readily accessible than ever before, why do conflicts over controversial scientific issues persist? The belief that the simple conveyance of information from scientists to the public would solve these conflicts is known as the “Knowledge Deficit Model”. It can be summarised as:
“If you knew what I know, you’d believe what I believe.”
This view, that a lack of information and knowledge is at the root of social conflict over science, led to science media being used to educate the population about the detail of controversial issues. The idea was that, once citizens were up to speed, they would judge the issue as the scientists did. End of controversy.
The decades-old Knowledge Deficit Model was seen as a transmission of information, where the facts would speak for themselves and everyone would interpret them in the same way. It assumed “public deficiency, science sufficiency”, and it adopted a one-way, top-down communication process. Scientific information flowed from “pure” sources of information in the lab to a variety suitable for mass-media consumption. The scientific community was very much in control of the information flow.
Why doesn’t it work?
In fact, as we can see from the points above, this approach is unlikely to ever be successful. Blaming science controversy on ‘public ignorance’ is likely to inflame the issue and alienate key audiences; people who deny the evidence for climate change are often very well informed. Furthermore, simply blaming the public ignores the fact that, just perhaps, scientists aren’t all that good at communication. We know that knowledge is only one factor that shapes how individuals make judgements on scientific issues. Ideology, politics, trust, social identity, religion can all have equally strong impacts[7, 19]. The knowledge deficit model also overlooks the fact that science information, given the wide array of content choices, is likely to only reach a small number of knowledgeable science enthusiasts.
The knowledge-deficit model of science communication persists[19-21], despite decades of research proving its ineffectiveness. To focus on science literacy as the cause and solution to failures in science communication is a major distraction. In addition, arguing that the science speaks for itself within policy debate reduces scientific knowledge to just another resource that groups can use in political battles. This will inevitably lead to a contest over uncertainty, with hype or distortion of the expert agreement. Each time an exaggerated claim is shown to be false or inaccurate, it further alienates the distrustful crowd. This can be seen in UK public policy; policy makers that have implemented policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions have downplayed scientific uncertainty about climate change.
From Science Communication towards Public Engagement
Understanding the audience
In order to be more successful at science communication, scientists need to have a better understanding of what factors might shape an individual’s beliefs and policy decisions. They must research and understand their audience (who is your target audience? Are they actually at your science event?) and listen to and connect with their audience on their terms. Communicators need to understand what their audience needs, and to be able to evaluate and evolve in response to these needs.
Dialogue and engagement
Conversations ensure that issues have been understood. The “Public Engagement” model therefore has deliberative contexts and dialogue at its core. Any event should be as interactive as possible. Stakeholders are encouraged to participate in a dialogue, informing research and science policy and priorities with an emphasis on participation and feedback. Outreach in this format is a tangled web, with feedbacks between policy makers, scientists, stakeholders and journalists at all levels. Dialogue should include more than just the scientific findings – it should provide insights into how these findings came about, which can enrich policy discussions.
Effective science communication is more than just audience research and dialogue. You must also be a good communicator. The public’s attention and imagination must be caught. Scientists must highlight the relevance of their work to the public; the “so what” question. People are busy, and they want to know why they should care. What is at stake and why should it matter to a particular community? Simple messages, well-crafted and often repeated, are very effective, especially as too much detail overwhelms people. Speaking and writing in plain language and using familiar numerical units is also essential. Metaphors, analogies and narrative, carefully tailored to a specific audience, bring dry science to life. Everyone wants to know how large something is in comparison to the size of Wales!
Frames can be a highly effective tool for science communication. Frames are interpretive storylines, and they communicate why the issue is a problem, who is responsible and what should be done. Conveying the context of our knowledge, with strong narrative, human interest and dramatic storylines, is likely to be more effective. Graphics and photographs capture the imagination and maintain interest, as does humour.
As scientists, we have many exciting stories to tell. We do fieldwork, interesting labwork, meet passionate people at conferences, write original papers. We should use personal narrative to highlight our research, explaining the how and why as well as the what. And we should tell people why they should care.
Summary and conclusions
Science communication is hard because we’re up against powerful forces. However, simply telling people about your science or making scientific findings available are unlikely to solve our social conflicts over science. Further, it is clear that the drive to make all published science articles publically accessible (“open access”), while commendable, is unlikely to, on its own, increase public understanding of science. Providing a large amount of information is not enough; people’s beliefs about climate change are far more easily determined by their politics, values, identity and lifestyle. Alarmism and downplaying uncertainty are likely to backfire, alienating audiences and inflaming the issue.
However, if you ensure you know your audience and understand their needs, have the ability to evolve in response to these needs, and emphasise listening, understanding, dialogue, conversation and engagement, you are more likely to be successful. If you can communicate your science as a humorous narrative or tell a personal story, enriched with graphics, imagery, metaphors and allusions, you’ll be even more successful. Scientists have lots of interesting stories to tell. Let’s tell them.
Read some more of Bethan’s blogs on science communication on her Antarctic Glaciers website by following these links:
1. Cook, J., D. Nuccitelli, S.A. Green, M. Richardson, B. Winkler, R. Painting, R. Way, P. Jacobs, and A. Skuce, 2013. Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research Letters, 8(2): 024024.
2. Baron, J.H., 2003. What should the citizen know about ‘science’? Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 96(10): 509-511.
3. Miller, S., 2001. Public understanding of science at the crossroads. Public Understanding of Science, 10(1): 115-120.
4. Poortinga, W., A. Spence, L. Whitmarsh, S. Capstick, and N.F. Pidgeon, 2011. Uncertain climate: An investigation into public scepticism about anthropogenic climate change. Global Environmental Change, 21(3): 1015-1024.
5. Leiserowitz, A., E. Maibach, C. Roser-Renouf, and N. Smith, 2011. Climate change in the American mind: Americans’ global warming beliefs and attitudes in May 2011. Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
6. Somerville, R.C.J. and S.J. Hassol, 2011. Communicating the science of climate change. Physics Today, October: 48-63.
7. Whitmarsh, L., 2011. Scepticism and uncertainty about climate change: Dimensions, determinants and change over time. Global Environmental Change, 21(2): 690-700.
8. Nisbet, M.C. and D.A. Scheufele, 2009. What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions. American Journal of Botany, 96(10): 1767-1778.
9. Oswald, M.E. and S. Grosjean, Confirmation Bias, in Cognitive illusions: A handbook on fallacies and biases in thinking, judgement and memory, R. Pohl, Editor. 2004, Psychology Press: Hove, UK. 79-96.
10. Nisbet, M.C., 2009. Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter for Public Engagement. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 51(2): 12-23.
11. Smith, M.A., L. Rainie, I. Himelboin, and B. Schneiderman, Mapping Twitter topic networks: from polarised crowds to community clusters. 2014, Pew Research Centre: http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/02/20/mapping-twitter-topic-networks-from-polarized-crowds-to-community-clusters. p. 57 pp.
12. Hmielowski, J.D., L. Feldman, T.A. Myers, A. Leiserowitz, and E. Maibach, 2013. An attack on science? Media use, trust in scientists, and perceptions of global warming. Public Understanding of Science: 0963662513480091.
13. Feldman, L., E.W. Maibach, C. Roser-Renouf, and A. Leiserowitz, 2012. Climate on Cable: The Nature and Impact of Global Warming Coverage on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 17(1): 3-31.
14. Kellstedt, P.M., S. Zahran, and A. Vedlitz, 2008. Personal Efficacy, the Information Environment, and Attitudes Toward Global Warming and Climate Change in the United States. Risk Analysis, 28(1): 113-126.
15. Dunlap, R.E. and A.M. McCright, 2008. A widening gap: Republican and Democratic views on climate change. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 50(5): 26-35.
16. Myers, T.A., E.W. Maibach, C. Roser-Renouf, K. Akerlof, and A.A. Leiserowitz, 2013. The relationship between personal experience and belief in the reality of global warming. Nature Clim. Change, 3(4): 343-347.
17. Leiserowitz, A.A., E.W. Maibach, C. Roser-Renouf, N. Smith, and E. Dawson, 2013. Climategate, public opinion, and the loss of trust. American behavioral scientist, 57(6): 818-837.
18. Smith, B., N. Baron, C. English, H. Galindo, E. Goldman, K. McLeod, M. Miner, and E. Neeley, 2013. COMPASS: Navigating the Rules of Scientific Engagement. PLoS Biol, 11(4): e1001552.
19. Bubela, T., M.C. Nisbet, R. Borchelt, F. Brunger, C. Critchley, E. Einsiedel, G. Geller, A. Gupta, J. Hampel, R. Hyde-Lay, E.W. Jandciu, S.A. Jones, P. Kolopack, S. Lane, T. Lougheed, B. Nerlich, U. Ogbogu, K. O’Riordan, C. Ouellette, M. Spear, S. Strauss, T. Thavaratnam, L. Willemse, and T. Caulfield, 2009. Science communication reconsidered. Nat Biotech, 27(6): 514-518.
20. Frewer, L., S. Hunt, M. Brennan, S. Kuznesof, M. Ness, and C. Ritson, 2003. The views of scientific experts on how the public conceptualize uncertainty. Journal of Risk Research, 6(1): 75-85.
21. Besley, J.C. and A.H. Tanner, 2011. What Science Communication Scholars Think About Training Scientists to Communicate. Science Communication, 33(2): 239-263.
22. Oppenheimer, M., 2011. What Roles Can Scientists Play in Public Discourse? Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union, 92(16): 133-134.
23. Stewart, I.S. and T. Nield, 2013. Earth stories: context and narrative in the communication of popular geoscience. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 124(4): 699-712.
24. Miller, J.D., Reaching the attentive and interested publics for science, in Scientists and journalists: reporting science as news, S.M. Friedman, S. Dunwoody, and C.L. Rogers, Editors. 1986, Free Press: New York. 55-69.
25. Tatalovic, M., 2009. Science comics as tools for science communication: a brief, exploratory study. Journal of Science Communication, 8(4): 1-17.
26. Davies, B.J. and N.F. Glasser, 2014. Analysis of www.AntarcticGlaciers.org as a tool for online science communication. Correspondence paper. Journal of Glaciology, 60(220): 1-8.