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AGU Fall Meeting 2016: Climate communication – hated and against scientific training

By Liz Kalaugher

“Don’t talk to me about climate communication, I hate that.” Those were the words of Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol, UK, and University of Western Australia during a session on climate literacy at the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

Lewandowsky has stopped saying that The Debunking Handbook he wrote with John Cook is fantastic. “It’s still right,” he said, “but we’re no longer dealing with misinformation.” Instead, many Americans share a belief system that’s disconnected from “what we might call facts or evidence”. This goes beyond misinformation – “it’s an alternative reality”.

Lewandowsky’s research has shown that if you give people false information but then correct it, the correction has no effect on their voting intentions.

Given our post-truth and post-fact world, “it’s not a matter of climate communication, it’s about politics,” Lewandowsky explained. “There’s an ethical imperative for us to frame the issue as it really is, rather than accepting other people’s frames. And that’s politics.”

Although a social scientist himself, Lewandowsky thinks there are limits to what social scientists can do on the public rejection of science. “We can analyse it,” he said, “…but it’s ultimately all about politics and we need a political solution.” As a first step, he recommended scientists attend the “Rally to stop attack on science” in San Francisco’s Jessie Square on Tuesday at noon.

What’s the story?

Ironically, up next after Lewandowsky was science historian Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University to speak about climate communication. Oreskes detailed how a scientific training can hamper scientists’ ability to communicate to the public about their work. “Almost everything we learn to do as scientists acts against effective science communication,” she said. As she learned whilst working with film-maker Robert Kenner on the documentary about her book Merchants of Doubt, the keys to good communication are keeping it simple, telling a story and making it stick.

But scientists hate to keep it simple “because simple feels simplistic” and they’re not comfortable with stories because they feel they’re made up. On both these points, Oreskes thinks the solution is for scientists to “get over it”. It’s a narrative structure that makes something a story, not whether it’s true or not. An Inconvenient Truth, for example, was the story of Gore’s run for president.

When it comes to the last point, making a story memorable, “short of singing a song, and I’m not going to to do that”, the keys are to say something personal and evoke emotion, Oreskes explained. But scientists think science should be impersonal, unemotional and dispassionate – people believe that to make good decisions you have to separate reason from emotion. Here Oreskes was able to use science to prove her point; we now know that this is wrong scientifically. Studies have shown that emotion is an essential part of reasoning.

“It is rational to be upset about things that are upsetting and it is rational to be alarmed about things that are alarming,” Oreskes said.

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