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« On the science communication value of communicating "scientific consensus": an exchange | Main | What is to be done? »
Tuesday
May212013

Cultural resistance to the science of science communication

I’m in Norway. Just stepped off the plane in fact.

Am going to be giving an address at a conference sponsored by the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo. The conference is for professional science communicators (mainly ones associated with universities), and the topic is how to promote effective public dissemination of and engagement with the IPCC's 5th Assessment Report, which will be released officially in October.

Obviously, I will stress that it all comes down to making sure the public gets the message that  the IPCC report reflects “scientific consensus.”

Actually, I will try to communicate something that is very hard to make clear.

When I have the opportunity (and privilege) to address climate scientists and professional science communicators, I often feel that I’m deflating them a bit by advising them that I don’t believe that what scientists say—independently of what they do—is of particular consequence in the formation of public opinion. The average American can’t name a Supreme Court Justice. Say “James Hansen” and he or she is more likely to select “creator of the Muppets” than “climate scientist” on a multiple choice quiz.  Anyone who thinks things could or should be otherwise, moreover, doesn’t have a clue what it is like to be a normal, average, busy person.

There are some genuinely inspired citizen scientist communicators in our society. But to expect them to bear the burden of fixing the science communication problem betrays a naïve—and pernicious—model of how science is communicated.

What’s known to science becomes known to ordinary people—ones to whom what science knows can in fact be quite vital—through a dense network of cultural intermediaries. Moreover, in pluralistic liberal democracies (which are in fact the only types of society in which science can flourish), there will necessarily be a plurality of such networks operating to inform a diverse array of groups whose members share distinctive cultural commitments.

These networks by and large all do a great job. Any that didn’t—any that consistently misled its members about what’s known to science—wouldn’t last long, given the indispensable contribution scientific knowledge makes to human welfare.

The spectacle of cultural conflict over what’s known to science is a pathology—both in the sense of being inimical to human well-being and in the sense of being rare. The number of health- and policy-relevant scientific insights on which there is conflict akin to that over climate science is miniscule relative to the vast number on which there isn’t.

Something has to happen—something unusual—to invest a particular belief about some otherwise mundane issue of fact with cultural meanings that express one’s membership in and loyalty to a particular group.

But once that happens, the value that an ordinary member of the public gets from persisting in a belief that signifies his or her group commitments will likely far outweigh any personal cost from being mistaken. Clearly this is so for climate change: nothing an ordinary person believes about the science of climate change will have any impact on the climate—or any impact on policies to offset any adverse impact human activity might be having on it—because he or she just doesn’t matter enough (as consumer, as voter, as “public deliberator”) to have any impact; if he or she takes the “wrong” position relative to the one that signifies loyalty to his or her cultural group, and the amount of suffering that person has to endure can be immense.

The pathology of cultural conflict over a societal risk like climate change can’t be effectively treated, then, by radiating the patient with a bombardment of “facts.”

It can be treated only with the creation of pluralistic meanings. What needs to be communicated is that the facts on climate change, whatever they might be, are perfectly consistent with the cultural commitments of all the diverse groups that inhabit a pluralistic liberal democracy.  No one has to choose between believing them (or believing anything whatsoever about them) and being who one is as a person with a particular cultural identity.

As I said, communicating this point about science communication is difficult.  Not so much because the ideas or the concepts—or the evidence that shows they are more than a just-so story—are all that hard to explain.

The problem has to do with a kind of cultural resistance to the message that communicating science is about protecting the conditions in which the natural, spontaneous social certification of truth can be expected to happen.

The culture that resists this message, moreover, is not that of “hierarchical individualists” or “egalitarian communitarians.”

It’s the culture of the Liberal Republic of Science, of which we are all citizens.

Nullius in verba.  It’s so absurd! Yet so compelling. So much who we are.


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Reader Comments (20)

Have you done any testing of the cultural values associated with the term 'consensus'? Isn't a consensus something Egalitarianism seeks to promote? Doesn't it denigrate the contributions of genuine (individualist) mavericks? If so, how could you describe the ' scientific consensus ' without inflaming anti egalitarian sentiments?

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFourcultures

@4:

Interesting! Answer is no--haven't done that.

My conjectures: (1) For a general population sample, "consensus" wouldn't do much of anything unless it was presented in way that connected it argumentatively to climate change, in which case subjects would respond to it in "yay" or "boo" fashion characeristic of the subjects' cultural outlooks. But (2) there would likely be some subset of nullius-in-verba subjects -- identifiable only w/ some more fine-grained measure -- who'd react negatively. See Lucia's comment in last post).

Ordinary members of the public are neither philosophers nor cultural zealots, so I think the likelihood that they would react in strong way to term "consensus" is low.

To me, one attraction of "group-grid" is that it can predict risk perceptions of people who don't have theories. In other words, it identifies theories that have ordinary people...

May 22, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan, you wrote: "The ability of democratic societies to protect the welfare of their citizens depends on finding a way to counteract this culture war over empirical data." I believe this to be true. I also believe it indicates one of the reasons there is conflict over CC/AGW. It is the word empirical.

With such a broad range of ECS, policy prescriptions, I will state, are impossible or inappropriate at this time, except at the local level. The first problem is that we do not have recognized regional forecasts that are known the be correct, much less usable. The reason of failure is the fundamental attribute of our free liberal scientific society. It is specialized and technical in nature.

The specialization and technical includes, law, philosophy, engineering, accounting, communication, and about all aspects one can of our life one can name. Even religion notes that it addresses faith and well being, not the repository of all that is or will be as was claimed in the past.

The technical becomes the problem when one looks at the range of ECS. Technically one can support encouraging fossil fuel consumption to drastic reduction of FF use. One cannot specify something that meets this criteria except those that are "no regrets." But in a way, this means they are useful for some other reason, not the reason of mitigation.

The specialized becomes a problem when one wants to harness the work that our society can bring to bear on a problem. The researcher makes a discovery, or progresses some knowledge. The engineer sets the specification such that the item can be built, the accounting function determines can money be made, the lawyers determine patent rights and legalities from specifications, the contractor builds the machine or factory to specifications, the process persons run and change the system to optimize, even improve the product. The CC/AGW policy is not a specification that can be fitted in what we know we do well.

Finally, without the empirical, what are we actually arguing but ethics and morals about our beliefs. Not belief in the law of gravity. But a belief that we can set up a counterfactual that will somehow be worth the money invested in it, and yet we cannot even measure the phenomena properly. There is a system like this. It is called religion.

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

To me, one attraction of "group-grid" is that it can predict risk perceptions of people who don't have theories. In other words, it identifies theories that have ordinary people...

Right, to me too. And so my own conjecture is that "consensus" would have a special attraction to EC's for both egalitarian and communitarian reasons, even (or maybe especially) for those who are neither philosophers nor cultural zealots. For the more philosophically inclined, though, the idea that consensus establishes or ought to establish authority might help explain why a defining motto like the Royal Society's "Nullius in verba" arouses persistent opposition.

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Dan,
On this,

But (2) there would likely be some subset of nullius-in-verba subjects -- identifiable only w/ some more fine-grained measure -- who'd react negatively. See Lucia's comment in last post).

My sense is the group I described doesn't necessary react badly to the notion of consensus itself. So merely saying one exists wouldn't necessarily evoke any negative reaction. Everyone understand that consensus exists on many things and often should be given deference. For example: There is a general consensus among those doing mechanics that Newton's laws of physics are useful. There is a consensus about where and when they can be usefully applied.

Moreover, we all understand that there is some sort of "center of mass" in scientific belief about any particular claim at particular time. If there is strong enough agreement, that may be called a consensus. (And of course the consensus may remain in place for 100s of year or it may be overturned. )

However, the typical "consensus" argument needs to tip-toe cautiously past a minefield.

The place where things to haywire is when a consensus message is presented in such a way seems to suggest that one must agree with the consensus because it is a consensus or insist some principle exists that dictates individuals are not permitted to decide for themselves when they have the skills to evaluate certain claims and to decide when they wish to apply their skills to evaluate a claim if they believe evaluation falls inside their skill set.

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterlucia

Lucia -

My sense is the group I described doesn't necessary react badly to the notion of consensus itself. ...The place where things to haywire is when a consensus message is presented in such a way seems to suggest that one must agree with the consensus because it is a consensus or insist some principle exists that dictates individuals are not permitted to decide for themselves when they have the skills to evaluate certain claims and to decide when they wish to apply their skills to evaluate a claim if they believe evaluation falls inside their skill set.

I think this is only 1/2 of the story.

The other half I see in reactions such as blog posts that provide a long list of past times when the "consensus" was wrong, without also describing the overwhelming number of times that we simply accept consensus as the most expedient way through areas that at the extremes might be considered uncertain.

I also see the other have in reactions such as blog posts which present a one-sided philosophical treatise on the potential downsides of consensual processes, without elaborating the potential upside.

So yes, the group you are describing doesn't necessarily react badly to the notion of consensus itself, but they sometimes do react badly to the notion of consensus itself (rather than limit their negativity to the counterproductive potential of consensus balanced against the productive potential), and there is a notable selectivity to when they do and when they don't.

My point is that both sides use consensus as a mechanism for expressing the biases of motivated reasoning in their analysis (please note, I am not impugning motivations here). This can be easily predicted, as motivated reasoning affects how we all analyze these issues, and we all use similar tools that are at our disposal. My point here is in keeping with the bi-lateral description of the problem as you described in the previous thread.

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Joshua

The other half I see in reactions such as blog posts that provide a long list of past times when the "consensus" was wrong, without also describing the overwhelming number of times that we simply accept consensus as the most expedient way through areas that at the extremes might be considered uncertain

I do see people making that argument and I see it at my blog. I'm not sure if those people are in the group I'm thinking of-- but it's difficult to explain why they are not because, 'inter alia', I haven't pinned down the precise boundaries of 'the group'. (If you've read enough blogs, you know who people are often imitating with 'inter alia'. :) )

Like all arguments that can be turned into sound bites, "the consensus can sometimes be wrong" can be included in a range of arguments. Sometimes, "the consensus is sometimes is wrong" communicates little more. Other times, the person does seem to argue as if the fact that it is a consensus means it is more likely wrong than an alternate notion that is held by many. The former is an appropriate response to someone whose entire argument is 'you must believe this because it is the consensus'.

But the latter? We'll it's simply not true that one must believe in something because it's the consensus. It's wise to give deference especially to the specific claims for which wide consensus exists. But it's also always wise to carefully scrutinize the claims to figure out if that specific claim really is "the consensus" and learn how broad the consensus is. (I have read consensus claims that both over and <I>under interpret what the IPCC has claimed.) If one has the skills and inclination to do so, I think it's reasonable to test whether the consensus seems sound. While some may think I'm wrong about that, they are unlikely to ever be able to disabuse me of that notion. I mean short of the virgin mary appearing to me while I'm wondering through a a flock of sheep never. As an atheist, if that happened, I might ask my husband to drag me to the nearest psychiatrist.


My point is that both sides use consensus as a mechanism for expressing the biases of motivated reasoning in their analysis (please note, I am not impugning motivations here).

Sure on it's not just "one side". Sure to: saying people have motivated reasoning is not impugmign their actual motives. Despite the appearance of "motive" in there, if I understand Dan Kahan's points properly, it's the opposite.

But be careful here: first you are referring to sides. That suggests you might be thinking I consider all "(scarequote)-skeptics" to fall in the cultural group I'm envisioning. Or if you are familiar with my blog, you might think I believe all of my blog readers do. Neither is the case.

I do not consider the entire swatch of "(scarequote)-skeptics" as members of the same cultural group, particularly in the ill-defined subgroup I am have proposed exists. I don't even think everyone commenting at my blog falls in this group. I think <I>I do. I could name a bunch of regulars who do <I>at least one of whom is not by any means a "(scarequote)-skeptics". He is a "(scarequote-truebeliever)".

My point here is in keeping with the bi-lateral description of the problem as you described in the previous thread.

Good. Because I think the problem is bi-lateral.

Hopefully I won't screw up and post twice now.

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNot Joshua

Why does my comment say it was written by Joshua? Arghh!!!!

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterlucia

I would have agreed with you had you posted it twice.

I'm sorry for the indignity you must feel at having my name appear as the author of your comment:

The former is an appropriate response to someone whose entire argument is 'you must believe this because it is the consensus'.

No doubt.

But be careful here: first you are referring to sides. That suggests you might be thinking I consider all "(scarequote)-skeptics" to fall in the cultural group I'm envisioning. Or if you are familiar with my blog, you might think I believe all of my blog readers do. Neither is the case.

These discussions are severely hampered by a lack of agreed-upon definitions. Terms like "skeptic" and "realist" are only marginally useful at best, and more likely counterproductive. An element of the counter-productivity is that terms that aren't necessarily reductionist (as if there really were two distinct sides) are ridiculously unwieldy (I used to try to use ridiculously long, but I felt accurate terminology, but gave up in part because no matter how hard I tried to be non-reductionist in my language, people inevitably interpreted my language through their partisan lenses, and in the end it made no practical difference).

But some language is needed to communicate. So, what to do?

My preference would be to declare a moratorium on any discussion of climate change until agreed upon definitions were established. But obviously, that is an impossibility in the wide context (although it could be an essential component of smaller-scale work on climate change done in a participatory and collaborative planning model).

At any rate, don't read too much into my scare quotes. I use terms that both sides like to use for themselves, but put them in quotes to connote a potential putative meaning - since, as you alluded to, I have seen skeptical "realists," realistic "skeptics," unrealistic "skeptics" and unskeptical "realists."

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Joshua--
I didn't consider it being listed as Joshua an indignity. It's just it wasn't correct and could be confusing.

These discussions are severely hampered by a lack of agreed-upon definitions.

Agreed. I usually try to avoid using them. It's difficult if we start discussing "sides" because that brings to mind 4th graders picking teams for dodge ball on the playground. (That's not to say blogs aren't a bit like that!)

(I used to try to use ridiculously long, but I felt accurate terminology
I try to avoid them. But it can be difficult. My comment was merely to note that the group that happened to pop into my head when I read Dan's discussion of motivated reasoning and so on is a quite specific sub-group.
My preference would be to declare a moratorium on any discussion of climate change until agreed upon definitions were established.

I sympathize. But that's not going to happen. Also: some topics do need to be discussed. Lack of "names" to attach to "groups" isn't a good reason to prevent discussion. It would be nice to prevent people from wanting to attach "names" to "groups" and then use those in the way they are used at blogs, but, also: that's not going to happen.

At any rate, don't read too much into my scare quotes.

Also oddly: I wasn't commenting on your use of scarequotes. You may or may not be aware that the term "fake skeptic" is used fairly often at skeptical science. that "Skeptic" gets applied pejoritively to a wide group of people, including those who believe AGW is true (e.g. Roger Pielke Sr. and Jr. Me. So on.) Heck, I've been called a denialist. I've also been accused of being a "warmist" and even a "CAGW" person-- though the latter accusation is extremely rare. I have the hide of a turtle shell: I don't care. Scarequotes have a lot of uses including that one is using a word in a unconventional manner. I don't have a huge problem with it. But I do think it's important to recognize that labels can both interfere and facilitate communication.

But on the more substantive issue: I merely want to say that I don't think the subgroup I was trying to describe to Dan corresponds to all "skeptics". It's a different grouping. It's not clear that most are skeptics. But there are types of arguments that will be highly counter productive if they happen to predominate in your audience.

I could further explain why I think the existence of this subgroup is important. To do so: I might want people to think about the roles of the following blogs in "climategate":

The Air Vent, The Blackboard, Climate Audit and Bishop Hill.

I don't normally like assigning homework. At my own blog, I would recognize this as an inferred rhetorical question, which is forbidden unless answered by the person who asked it. But I figure Dan doesn't have that rule. :)

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterlucia

Lucia -

I got that you weren't saying it was an indignity - just playing on the fact that I am a rather widely un-respected blog persona in the "skept-o-sphere." Like you, I take it with a grain of salt - it's the nature of the beast...if you can't take the heat....

because that brings to mind 4th graders picking teams for dodge ball on the playground. (That's not to say blogs aren't a bit like that!)

Geez, ya' think? Actually, I'd say more than a bit, and I think that phenomenon is quite striking, and I find it quite interesting. In case you're interested, I just commented on it earlier today at Judith's.

http://judithcurry.com/2013/05/21/how-to-humble-a-wing-nut/#comment-324527

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Lucia -

I got that you weren't saying it was an indignity - just playing on the fact that I am a rather widely un-respected blog persona in the "skept-o-sphere." Like you, I take it with a grain of salt - it's the nature of the beast...if you can't take the heat....

because that brings to mind 4th graders picking teams for dodge ball on the playground. (That's not to say blogs aren't a bit like that!)

Geez, ya' think? Actually, I'd say more than a bit, and I think that phenomenon is quite striking, and I find it quite interesting. In case you're interested, I just commented on it earlier today at Judith's.

(I'm thinking linking my comment snagged the spam filter. Just add the prefix for Judith's blog if you're interested).

......2013/05/21/how-to-humble-a-wing-nut/#comment-324527

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Joshua,
Your name is just rare enough and just common enough that someone can't be sure that this Joshua is one they've run into elsewhere. (At my blog, I prod people to adopt non-overlapping handles. So we have AndrewKY, AndrewFL and so on.)

I like Judy, and sometimes email her personally. But I just can't deal with threaded comments!! I'll go read what you wrote so I can develop a prejudice against you so that I can become a thrall to my tendency for "motivated reasoning".

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterlucia

Joshua,
You tantalize me with the notion that if I read your comment at Judy's I might disrespect you and then you send me to a comment where you say willard (@nevaudit) is juvenile?

willard was so horribly "stream of conciousness/ Chaucy Gardiner" at my blog I wrote a for-private-use Wordpress plugin for personal use to deal with willard. But i don't want to turn Dan's comments into a discussion of willard.

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterlucia

In the spirit of not mucking up Dan's threads, I'll try to be unusually brief. A correction: I didn't say willard is juvenile (I tend to be a stickler for precision), and don't want that to be misconstrued. I try to steer clear of characterizing individuals in such a way.

May 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

A CICERO conference on how to publicise IPCC AR5 taking place in Norway. Interesting that there is no link here to information about this meeting, nor can I find any mention of it on the IPCC or CICERO websites, or anywhere else on the web. Did I miss it, or are these science communicators remarkably uncommunicative?

May 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Matthews

@Paul:
As the post relates, I'm at this event. It's more of a workshop than a conference. Attendees consist mainly of professional communicators (mainly ones at universities of IPCC-scientist contributors) who will be participating in press activities upon release of the 5th Assessment. Nothing's being communicated *by* the communicators; they're getting information on "scientific consensus" -- which is that there isn't any! -- on how how to communicate science in terms that promote public comprehension and engagement.

Likely you know that there's lots of discussion about whether all the work associated with IPCC should more "public," "transparent," etc. I don't know enough about all the aspects of the IPCC process to be able to make an informed assessment of all the considerations. I can see why it wouldn't occur to the professionals doing the gear-up/prep work that ECCO is set up for to be treating an instructional/planning event like this as a public conference.

As I've learned bits & pieces about the "transparency/formality" discussion generally, it occurs to me that a good model would have been how National Academy of Sciences panels combine public fact-gathering/evidence-gathering meetings (at which anyone can submit materials, make presentations) w/ nonpublic meetings in which panel members convene to participate in generating workproduct. I'm not sure if the Royal Society does the same thing -- maybe somoene knows & will say. There are similar types of procedures, of course, for govt admin agencies, although I'd say that the IPCC is more like NAS or RS or some other "blue ribbon" panel than an agency.

May 24, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan, thanks for the further details. I like pointing out what seem to me to be little ironies, as you may have noticed.

May 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Matthews

I'm a bit late to the party,* and I'm not sure which post is most appropriate for my comment, but I might as well drop it here. Someone else may have said this all already -- and someone else may have refuted it. I haven't been able to read all the comments.

If we're trying to think of why science communicators won't accept scientific consensus on science communication, I think it makes sense to look at what is motivating what looks a lot like motivated reasoning on their part. (If there really is conflict -- if Lewandowsky 2012 and other papers legitimately challenge the idea that spreading word of consensus will be ineffective at best and polarizing at worst -- then all of this is somewhat irrelevant. But I'll assume for now that the CCP work and corroborating studies tend to align on this question.) I'd do this in a few steps.

Step 1: Who are these people? There are a lot of people who are science communicators: scientists whose words make their way to the public via papers or interview quotes, press release writers for research institutions, writers/anchors for major media organizations, writers for smaller media organizations, and bloggers or other independent writers. (The categories all intersect, of course, and I'm probably forgetting about some people.) I gather that in these discussions you're talking mostly about the last three categories, although I'm not sure. (If you can specify more, that would be great for targeting these thoughts!)

Step 2: What do these people care about? As you note in an earlier post, they "want to promote constructive public engagement with climate science," and more simply, they want to teach as many people as possible about what the science says and, to they extent they can, why we know it says that. But they also want to do their jobs, the ones that pay them in money, attention, and feedback. This is, I imagine, the larger day-to-day motivation of most science communicators. Either for their own reasons or because of pressure from their employers, they want people to read what they write. (They certainly can't do much good without readers.) And stories that take a side do tend to attract a lot of attention. They also want to do their jobs by, well, writing more instead of less. When a study relevant to their beat comes out, they'll want to cover it rather than let it slide by because of its polarizing impact. This is all the truer if they know their competitors will be covering the story, and they'll lose out of they don't -- plus, not only will they lose, but if everyone's reading about the polarizing study anyway, they did no good. This sort of collective action problem (tragedy of the science communication of science communication commons?) is tough to address with anything short of your seemingly-unconstitutional proposed regulatory agency.

Step 3: What is to be done? (Thanks for choosing the better of two possible Russian novel names.) Communicate with science communicators in ways that minimize the threat of constructive science communication to the things they care about. Study and publicize techniques that allow them to write more popular stories (pay attention to cool new techniques being developed to combat climate change, like geoengineering, advances in nuclear, heck, Tesla paying off its government loan early), and frame results that could conflict with their professional goals positively (the desirability of having culturally diverse communicators is a reason for more joint projects, not a reason for eager communicators like Al Gore to stay the heck away). And don't denigrate them for their failures, because that will be alienating.

These are, of course, hypotheses and not empirically verified solutions, but I think most of them are pretty intuitive, given what we know. You disagree or just want more and better verified ideas?


* Actually, as with most parties, I was on time but spent most of it standing around awkwardly, unsure how to integrate myself into one of the many vibrant conversations.

May 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMW

@MW:

next time at such a party, walk up to one of the groups & ask them if they've read the latest about Dark Matter. I'm sure you'll enchant them!

May 26, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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