by Judith Curry
Where trust is most needed, it is least likely to be gained by relying on the source factors identified in empirical scholarship on persuasion.
In the early days of Climate Etc., Communication was a frequent topic for posts. This topic was not a popular one among the denizens, but I felt that it was an important one in understanding how the public has come to form opinions about climate change, and also to help me learn how to be a more effective communicator. Many of the papers discussed here seemed more geared towards propaganda than to genuine communication.
So I am very pleased to discuss a new paper on this topic by by Jean Goodwin at Iowa State University, that I think presents some important insights about communication in climate change debates. Jean Goodwin’s work has been discussed on these previous threads:
Communication strategies for earning trust in climate change debates
Jean Goodwin and Michael Dahlstrom
Climate scientists need the trust of lay audiences if they are to share their knowledge. But significant audience segments—those doubtful or dismissive of climate change—distrust climate scientists. In response, climate scientists can undertake one of two general communication strategies for enhancing trust, each appealing to one of two broad types of cognitive processing mechanisms. In the first, the communicator displays traits like humor, attractiveness, vigorous delivery, and likeability that audiences use as heuristics in determining whom to trust. But this strategy is unlikely to be successful with the very audiences who are its main targets, since those audiences will be primed to employ amore analytic and critical approach to assessing trustworthiness. In the second communicative strategy, the communicator earns trust by undertaking burdens and commitments and making herself vulnerable in ways her audience can enforce. This vulnerability signals her trustworthiness, since the audience can reason that she would not undertake such risks unless she was confident in what she was saying. Climate scientists have a variety ofways ofmaking themselves vulnerable, including committing themselves to engaging with doubtful and dismissive audiences, undertaking burdens of proof to argue with them, empowering audiences to assess the science themselves, admitting error, and focusing on small issues. Overall, when adopting the second strategy, climate scientists must extend trust in order to earn trust, committing themselves to an on-going relationship within which their true trustworthiness will become apparent.
WIREs Clim Change 2013. doi: 10.1002/wcc.262 [link] to abstract.
These models recognize that humans have two broad capacities for processing information. One—sometimes called ‘heuristic’ or ‘peripheral’ processing, or most simply ‘Type 1’—is rapid, low effort, based on rules of thumb and associations, and generally unconscious. The other—’systematic,’ ‘central,’ or ‘Type 2’—is slow, high effort, analytic, and at least partially under conscious control. The former allows us to respondmquickly and easily to the flux of circumstances: to run away from the tiger, without pausing to think. The latter allows us to reason our way through complex problems: to make prudent decisions about retirement investments.
Persuasion research suggests that source factors appear to have the most influence on judgments when the audience is employing Type 1 processing, but have less direct impact when audiences use Type 2 instead. In a pair of classic studies, attitudes towards a topic of high relevance to the audience were found to be primarily affected by the quality and quantity of the arguments presented. By contrast, when the proposal was of low importance, audiences were influenced primarily by the communicator’s apparent expertise or likeability. Such reliance on source factors is not lazy or irrational; instead, it is a prudent strategy for actively managing the flood of information characteristic of contemporary life.
What does this mean for the communication of climate science? The public controversy surrounding climate science and policy creates conditions under which key audiences are likely to employ the more effortful, Type 2 critical thinking. Audiences tend to adopt a Type 2 approach when the topic has significant personal consequences, when it relates to their personal values and when they expect to interact with others about it. Prior knowledge about the topic and the presence of multiple, competing messages on the topic have also been identified as increasing the likelihood of elaborated processing.
Several of these factors are likely to be triggered for doubtful and dismissive audiences, who rate their involvement in politics high and believe policies to address climate change will be very costly. But if key audiences will process their messages with Type 2 cognitive approaches, then enhancing the likeability, humor, delivery, and attractiveness of climate scientists will not help them communicate more effectively. Where trust is most needed, it is least likely to be gained by relying on the source factors identified in empirical scholarship on persuasion.
From the Conclusion:
In this review, we have focused on communication theories that can orient climate scientists to gaining and maintaining the trust of lay audiences. Social scientific approaches to communication recommend that scientists enhance their likeability, invigorate their delivery and use humor in order to sustain the trust of the favorable or disengaged audiences who are likely to process messages using Type 1 cognitive mechanisms.
Complementing this advice, the humanistic approach to communication taken in rhetorical studies provides recommendations for addressing doubtful and dismissive audiences likely to process messages using Type 2 cognitive mechanisms. Audiences exercising epistemic vigilance recognize that they are undertaking a risk when they accept a scientist’s word; climate scientists can provide such audiences good reasons for trust by conspicuously enhancing the risks that they themselves undertake in response. Gaining and maintaining trust is only the first step in what must be an on-going effort to communicate climate science. But it is a necessary step.
As a recent editorial in Nature concluded, ‘scientists will be only as persuasive as they are trusted—which means that preserving and cultivating the public’s trust must be the scientific community’s top priority.’ The overall message of this review is that climate scientists bear substantial responsibility for securing the trust of their lay audiences. Trust and mistrust are not static, background properties of social interactions. Instead, appropriate communication can create opportunities to get on an ‘escalator of increasing trust’ in which a judgment to extend trust in small ways leads to further interactions that confirm trustworthiness.
Inappropriate communication, by contrast, can create a downward spiral, where distrust leads to limiting interactions and reinforces suspicions. To climb on the upward escalator, a climate scientist might attempt to present herself strategically in ways that her audience finds trustworthy—that is, she might try to play a role. But climate scientists are unlikely to be capable of pulling off strategic manipulation of audiences, especially with doubtful and dismissive audiences who exercise a degree of epistemic scrutiny. As Brian Wynne has commented:
it is simply not possible to expect the other in a relationship to trust oneself, if one’s assumed objective is to manage and control the other’s response. The only thing which one can expect to control, and to take responsibility for, is one’s own trustworthiness—but this cannot encompass the reaction of the other in the relationship.
The theories reviewed in this essay point to strategies for climate scientists to earn trust by making apparent what is in fact the case: that they are willing to sacrifice in order to engage even doubtful and dismissive audiences, that they invite critical scrutiny, and that they are committed to full transparency in regards to data, analysis, limitations, and errors. By undertaking such vulnerabilities, climate scientists put their lay audiences in a position to assess for themselves the true trustworthiness of climate scientists.
Earning Trust Online:
The blogosphere conveniently allows climate scientists to engage diverse audiences without leaving their offices. Judith Curry’s blog Climate Etc. has put the rhetorical principles identified here into practice over the past 3 years. Curry has invested her time to work up three to five posts per week, which has also required breaking down the larger issues into smaller daily chunks. She reads (or at least scans) from 150 to 1000 comments on each post, and not infrequently writes about what she has learned from them. She has welcomed to the blog participants representing the full range of knowledge and views on climate change and climate policy—with the more doubtful and dismissive perhaps being the loudest voices. As is typical in an online forum, ad hominem attacks are frequent in the comment threads. Some of them are leveled against Curry herself, especially for dignifying possibly marginal points of view by choosing to write about them. But the blog’s regular participants (‘denizens’) often come to her defense. Curry’s undertaking of the burdens and vulnerabilities of blogging has apparently laid the groundwork for mutual trust, creating one of the few places online where people find it worthwhile to debate each other on climate issues, and worthwhile also to listen in to those debates.
JC Comments: Well I’m glad someone has figured out what I am doing here at Climate Etc.! I owe thanks to all the commenters who insult me and/or the blog, you are helping build the public’s trust in Climate Etc.
Assuming that Goodwin and Dahlstrom are correct in their analysis (and personally I think they are), the shrill ‘Masters of the Universe’ types screeching ‘denier’ are digging themselves into a deep communication hole in terms of effectively engaging with doubtful and dismissive audiences.