The cultural challenge to climate science writing

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Credit: woodleywonderworks, via Flickr (CC-BY)

Credit: woodleywonderworks, via Flickr (CC-BY)

My previous posts on the inevitable politics of climate science, I was flattered to see, figured into a terrific article this week by David Roberts of Grist about the futility of “just the facts” approaches to explaining that science to the public. Read his whole post for the thoughtfully developed argument, but these paragraphs offer the gist of it:

… [A] democratic public does not want bare facts. It wants meaning. It wants to know why climate science matters and what can be done about it. More fundamentally, it’s not just that people want meaning, it’s that they only absorb facts through meaning. Our identities are how we make sense of information. This is the whole point of cultural cognition research: We seek out information that reinforces our identities.

Scientists, at their best, avoid this kind of blinkered, identity-reinforcing cognition, at least when they’re engaged in scientific work. They struggle to unearth their own assumptions and subject them to testing, to render them falsifiable. It’s a kind of mental self-discipline that requires considerable training. Scientists should not imagine that members of the general public do or could or should share that same self-discipline. If they want the information they convey to be understood and absorbed, they will have to speak as humans speak, from within a cultural identity and a set of values, not hovering above such mortal concerns.

Roberts notes my “morose conclusion” that scientists should advocate for whatever they want because nobody seems to care what they think, then makes the case that by building bridges to cultural groups with whom they can find real affinities, scientists can become more persuasive. (He cites climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe as a success at this.)

He and I are actually not far apart in our optimism. My remark was perhaps a little too flip: I was only trying to say that I think the potential harm from scientists discussing policy intelligently can get overstated. The kind of engagement that Hayhoe has managed seems like a wonderful example for at least some others to follow, and it should be an inspiration to anyone who wants to help build the democratic consensus that real progress on climate policy will need.

Cultural cognition—people’s universal tendency to screen their perception and acceptance of facts through cultural attitudes—gets a lot of attention from science writers these days, as it should. Walk into a meeting of science writers and talk about the need to better educate climate deniers and a fluttery squawk of scolding about “information deficit models” will erupt from every corner. I mostly agree with this, but will also confess to being frustrated for two reasons at how unproductive the recognition of cultural cognition typically becomes.

My first, lesser reason is that on the face of it, cultural cognition often seems to explain too much. It seems like such a potent force in shaping attitudes that I’m left wondering how anyone ever gets persuaded of ideas at odds with their social groups’ values, even though this clearly must happen all the time. Plenty of Americans haven’t been culturally comfortable with fighting wars, accepting tax hikes, abiding by environmental regulations, or accepting legalized abortions and gay marriages, and yet somehow those things happened through a political process anyway. No doubt the lesson is that in those cases, ways of making those propositions culturally tolerable were found, which makes sense—but it also suggests that instances of cultural cognition only get defined by failure in retrospect, which makes me suspicious.

My other, bigger reason is that in practice, people often treat cultural cognition as a showstopper, and a justification for haughtily criticizing certain communication efforts without offering meaningful alternatives. It’s easy to chide science writers for pointlessly throwing more scary climate facts at a public that doesn’t want to hear them, or for tut-tutting that some climate news will sound like the same old doom-saying hysterics unless it’s been watered down to pabulum. But what exactly are the bridges to those people’s realities we should be using instead? And what do we do if the value frameworks within which they define the world don’t allow meaningful policy responses and their intransigence carries consequences for everyone else?

(Here I should also acknowledge a third reason, which is more of a bias: I’m all for reaching out to others’ cultures with understanding and respect, but if somebody’s culture shows a deep, committed refusal to at least acknowledge empirical physical reality, then it’s hard for me personally to maintain that respect.)

Yet I could be very wrong on these points, which is why I’m glad that some people in science communications are trying to engage with the significance of cultural cognition more meaningfully. It’s why I’ve always been impressed by something that Dan Kahan, cultural cognition’s most prominent investigator, posted this past February, which I’ve called the most edifying and useful thing I’ve read about cultural cognition because it carries a clear message for communicators. Rather than deploring how some unscientific ideas come to be bound up within certain cultural sets, Kahan writes, science journalists need to be more attentive to how these mistaken notions become rallying cries in the first place.

The entanglement of facts that admit of scientific investigation—e.g., “carbon emissions are heating the planet”; “deep geologic isolation of nuclear wastes is safe”—with antagonistic meanings occurs by a mixture of influences, including strategic behavior, poor institutional design, and sheer misadventure. In no such case was the problem inevitable; indeed, in most, such entanglement could easily have been avoided.

These antagonistic meanings, then, are a kind of pollution in the science communication environment.  They disable the normal and normally reliable faculties of rational discernment by which ordinary individuals recognize what is collectively known.

One of the central missions of the science of science communication in a liberal democratic state is to protect the science communication environment from such contamination, and to develop means for detoxifying that environment when preventive or protective measures fail.

Granted, that advice doesn’t do much to help unpollute the existing atmosphere for climate discussions, but it points to ways of preventing the situation from getting still worse. And that may be a second step toward improvement, falling right after the sympathetic outreach efforts of scientists like Hayhoe.

It’s also great that science communicators as a profession may be starting to take a more scientific approach to overcoming these cultural blocks to understanding, as John Timmer of Ars Technica reviewed splendidly back at the beginning of August. And although I’m not attending the ScienceOnline Climate conference now in progress, the feed of tweets emerging from it testifies to the value of the discussion. The program is also giving lots of attention to exactly these kinds of communications issues, such as the plenaries on “Testing Climate Communications Hypotheses” and “Credibility, Trust, Goodwill, and Persuasion,” as well as sessions on “Lamenting Eden-Climate Change Discussions Across Ideologies,” on “Problem solving, democracy, and handling climate change,” and on “Engagement Strategies—The CCTI & Beyond.” Follow along on #scioClimate and let’s see what we can all learn.

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