There is one question I would love to see you directly address here. Its the one that most keeps me up at night. We all know that these misconceptions about climate science don't happen in a vacuum. They happen in the midst of a very successful well funded effort to create confusion, inspire debate where there is agreement and foster mistrust in general in the scientific process. Given that reality, can you help me to understand what it is about those techniques which make them work so well?
I’m glad you asked this question.
The reason, though, isn’t that I can give you a satisfactory answer. Indeed, in my view, the lack of a good account of how climate change became suffused with culturally antagonistic meanings is the biggest problem with what is otherwise the best explanation of this toxic dispute.
But I do have some thoughts on this topic. One is that the contribution that well-funded efforts to mislead or sow confusion & division -- while hugely important-- are not the only sources of this kind of contamination of the science communication environment. Accident & misadventure can contribute too.
In the case of climate change, consider the movie Inconvenient Truth. According to a study performed by Tony Leiserowitz, only those who agreed w/ Gore went to the movie; yet everyone, however they felt, saw who did & who didn't go, & heard what they all had to say about the film's significance. Inconvenient Truth thus communicated cultural meanings, even to those who didn't see it, Leiserowitz and others conclude, that deepened cultural polarization.
This was surely not Gore’s intent. I think it would be unfair, too, to say that he or the many smart, reasonable people involved in creating the movie should have anticipated it. It was an accident, a misadventure.
The error should be taken account now not to assign blame but to learn something about what’s required to engage in constructive science communication in a pluralistic society.
But in fact, the failure to use what we already know about the science of science communication can definitely be another critical factor that makes policy-relevant science vulnerable to cultural conflict.
Consider the HPV vaccine controversy. There the science communication environment became polluted as a result of the recklessness of the pharmaceutical company Merck, which consciously took risks of creating polarization in its bid to be lock up the HPV vaccine market.
That danger could easily have been foreseen. Indeed, it was foreseen. But there was no apparatus inside the FDA or CDC or any other part of the regulatory system to steer the vaccine out of this sort of trouble.
What we should learn from that disaster is how costly it is not to have a science-communication intelligence commensurate with our science intelligence.
Of course, once misadventure, accident, or lack of intelligence lay the groundwork, strategic behavior aimed at perpetuating cultural antagonism, and at exploiting the resulting motivation it creates in people to be misinformed, will compound problems immensely.
What to do to offset those political dynamics is a huge, difficult issue, I admit. But precisely because that problem is so difficult to deal with, there’s all the more reason to avoid contributing to the likelihood of them through accident, misadventure, and the lack of a national science communication intelligence.
So certainly, we need good accounts -- ones based on good historical scholarship as well as empirical study -- of how climate change came to bear the antagonistic meanings.
Indeed, “How did this happen in the first place” is to me the most important question to answer, since if we don’t, the sort of pathology of which the polarized climate change debate is a part will happen again & again.
So I’m really really glad you asked it. Not because I have an answer, but because now I can see that you, too, recognize how urgent it is to find one.