by Judith Curry
So, exactly what are we trying to communicate, and how and why?
The traditional model of climate science communication has been: experts convey climate science to the public –> the public then acts in accord with the views of the climate scientists, i.e. urgent action needed. In other words, the emphasis was on communication and PR.
The traditional model hasn’t been very effective, and science communication is becoming more sophisticated (and interesting). Communication and PR are waning, with engagement (good) and propaganda (bad) waxing.
Below are summaries of some recent science communication essays that are of relevance for climate science.
Engagement vs communication
Andrew Maynard has a superb essay Confessions of a Science Communicator that describes his philosophy of science communication, which contains many elements of successful engagement. Excerpts:
Respect. The participants typically represented a cross section of American society. Not many of them had higher degrees, or well-paid jobs, or knew much about science and technology. First, these people asked intelligent, insightful questions – they were smart. And second, they contextualized the conversation around new technologies in terms of what was important to them – their health, their families, what excited them and worried them; their passions and convictions. I developed a tremendous respect for the participants. These weren’t the scientifically illiterate “public” I’d been led to believe made up society, but intelligent individuals with their own interests, concerns and insights.
Listening and learning. Sure I had expertise in one particular area. But I began to discover how ignorant I was in so many others – including understanding how people think and respond when faced with new information and complex decisions. This informal education was continued through listening to and learning from many others who had expertise and perspectives outside of my own, including academics, business leaders, policy makers, activists, and, of course, journalists. It became increasingly clear that I had to put the needs and interests of the person or group I was communicating with first. And this meant listening to them, getting to know them, and understanding where my expertise ended and theirs began.
Ditching the deficit model. Implicit in the deficit model is the assumption that there is a small, privileged group of people who know what is right and wrong, and it is their responsibility to impose this on others who don’t have this privileged insight. I do not buy into this assumption. Where there are complex decisions to be made that depend on a tangled mass of personal, social, economic, environmental and other factors, about the only certainty is that no one group has the monopoly on what is right or wrong. This is especially true where there are disparities between those making – or imposing – decisions, and those who end up living with the consequences.
Community-centric communication. So why shouldn’t I impose my “superior” knowledge on those who are unaware of how much their lack of understanding is harming themselves and others? Unfortunately, knowledge alone does not confer the right to decide what’s best for others, nor the right to impose your will on them. On the other hand, it does come with great responsibility to empower others.I believe that if I know something that can help someone else, I have a responsibility to help them to the best of my ability make use of this knowledge. I also have a responsibility to advocate for what I see as important factors in making decisions that could affect the health and wellbeing of others. But I don’t ultimately have the right to decide on my own what is right for someone else.
When people get stupid. There is of course a glaring problem with this approach to science communication: What do you do when communities are clearly making important decisions based on misconceptions and misleading assumptions? In reality there are rarely cut and dried distinctions between “right” and “wrong” when it comes to decision-making. At best, evidence can elucidate the probable consequences of a certain course of action. But there are often personal, societal, moral and ethical values attached to decisions. Ultimately, what is considered “right” and “wrong” (or “better” or “worse”) are governed by these values – not the science.
Collaboration, not coercion. Of course, the hope is that science and evidence underpin values-based decisions, and that important decisions are not built on misunderstandings and falsehoods. Making science and the insights it leads to accessible and understandable is critical to building a foundation on which informed decisions can be made. This is important at the level of connecting with individuals within society. But it’s also important for empowering communities that do have the legitimacy and authority to bring about change, including professional associations, scientific societies, government agencies, and others.
Engagement vs PR
Alice Bell has an article in the Guardian entitled Science communication needs infrastructure, not more professors. Excerpts:
The Royal Society has advertised for a professorship in public engagement with science; “a well-established scientist with exceptional scientific communication skills and media experience to support the society’s public engagement work.” There are two problems with this.
Firstly, they seem to want someone to do PR, not public engagement. These are different, and it’s an important distinction. As the bullet points of the job description outline, they want someone to help increase the public understanding of science, and are quite open that the role is designed to help increase public support for science. But public engagement is about more than such advertising. It’s about building space for discussion and involvement, not publicity. An engagement approach also acknowledges that attempts by the scientific community to get everyone to like them rarely works as a system for building trust, and isn’t really that useful anyway. At its most simple, engagement is two-way, not top-down. But part of the point is that science in society shouldn’t be managed as rigidly as any such simple model can describe. Rather, engagement is about opening up science for a larger, unruly conversation as opposed to simply offering a series of patriarchs to talk down to us.
See also Alice Bell’s Public Engagement with Science: Top Tips.
PR versus propaganda
Jeffrey Swartz has a short essay PR vs propaganda: what’s the difference? Excerpts:
Sure, both public relations and propaganda seek to shape perceptions and influence public opinion. Both use mass media. Both are directed at specific audiences. The end result of both is to get people to take action (though those actions differ immensely). The main difference? Truth.
Propaganda uses lies, half-truths, innuendo, smears, misinformation, one-sided arguments and inflammatory rhetoric to influence the public’s attitude toward a cause, ideal or, usually, a political agenda.
Public relations uses truth if, for no other reason, their claims can be checked. PR relies on logic, facts and sometimes emotions to spread information between an organization or individual and its publics—information to promote products, services and build good will for the organizations offering them.
Propaganda’s underlying philosophy is us against them. “They” are often denigrated as undesirables or simply “the enemy.”
Public relations’ underlying philosophy is building trust between an organization and its products and services with its targeted audiences for mutual benefit.
Propaganda relies on one-way communications. It seeks to eliminate dissent, and those who disagree may suddenly “disappear.”
Increasingly, public relations relies on two-way communications via social media and encourages different points of view so organizations can better service their clients and customers.
Fabius Maximus describes a disturbing trend in climate science communications in a post The debate about climate science takes a familiar yet disturbing form. Excerpts:
Quietly climate activists (supported by journalists) have shifted the public debate about climate change. Logically, as their previous tactics were failing to produce their desired political change. Polls in the US showed flat minority support (here, here, and here). Worse, the Australian people voting to roll-back their government’s ambitious policies. So they have adopted more aggressive marketing techniques.
(1) The IPCC has dropped from their script. Formerly described as the “gold standard” description of climate science research, the most reliable statement of consensus climate scientists’ thinking, has become “too conservative”. Ignoring the IPCC has become standard practice by activists and journalists.
(2) Activists have replaced professional climate scientists as their spokesman, people willing to give confidence apocalyptic forecasts without qualifications — or strong support in the IPCC or climate science literature.
(3) Aggressive broadcasting of research that supports their message, erasing mention of its qualifications and limitations. Contrary research is ignored. Countering this, putting individual research in a larger context, is a primary function of the IPCC’s work — another reason activists increasingly ignore it.
(4) All “extreme” weather happening today becomes evidence of climate change — and by implication anthropogenic catastrophic climate change. Even when the climate science literature says otherwise (see the IPCC’s SREX; also research summaries here and here).
(5) Even reporting on non-climate change disasters includes mention of the inimical effects of climate change. As in “Will climate change worsen Ebola outbreaks?“.
(6) There is a clear consensus held by the overwhelming majority of climate scientists. It’s being expanded to matters on which there is a weak or no consensus.
For complex wicked problems, attempting to communicate by simplifying the problem and its solution doesn’t work very well, for good reasons. The scientific and advocacy communities are starting to realize this, and we are seeing an increased focus on both engagement and propaganda. The propaganda strategy play book seems well described by Fabius Maximus.
The more intriguing, and ultimately more important strategy of engagement is a work in progress. In Climate Etc.’s About statement: Climate Etc. provides a forum for climate researchers, academics and technical experts from other fields, citizen scientists, and the interested public to engage in a discussion on topics related to climate science and the science-policy interface. To me, the most critical element of engagement is the two-way street, and I’ve found the blogosphere to be a good platform for engagement with the public. Andrew Maynard makes some very insightful comments about the two-way street.
An finally, a few words about climate propaganda, that uses climate science, sometimes with the participation of a climate scientist. The use of ‘science’ to serve propaganda has a negative impact on the public perception of science and its trustworthiness. Scientist/advocates irresponsibly involving themselves in propaganda damage the public trust in science, and can slow down scientific progress. Propaganda tactics are used on both sides of the climate debate, but the ‘science says’ propaganda seems to predominate on ‘warm/alarmist’ side.
The media has a key role to play in keeping both sides accountable and sorting out competing claims. Andy Revkin is a journalist that does this pretty well. And finally, there is far too much silence in the climate community when they see climate science being used in the service of propaganda. I can understand the temptation to fly below the radar, but to me this should be a key role for science communications.