I've been corresponding with a friend whom I -- & many others -- regard as an extraordinary climate-science communicator (& whose skills in this regard are matched by the depth of her civic virtue). In addition to how she manages to communicate so successfully, we have been discussing my view of how big an impact her efforts, if they could be enlarged in scale, could be expected to have in reducing public conflict over climate change. My position is complicated; and I'm not nearly as good a science communicator as she is! But I thought I'd share my best efforts so that the 14 billion readers of this blog might also tell me how to improve my communication of this point, and of course whether it is a point that merits wider communication.
I don't disagree w/ anything you are saying about how to engage people whose cultural identities are threatened by information on global warming. On the contrary, I think there is a tremendous amount to be learned from your example about how to counteract this dynamic in settings in which educators and others are helping people understand the basic mechanisms of climate change and the weight of the scientific evidence on its causes & consequences.
What I'm less sure about is the connection between promoting comprehension in those settings & promoting more constructive engagement with climate science in our national political life.
Essentially, the science communication environment has become polluted with antagonistic cultural meanings that transform "positions" on global warming into badges of membership in & loyalty to competing cultural groups. Those meanings effectively disable the faculties that diverse citizens use, very successfully most of the time, to align their own decisionmaking (personal & collective) with the best available evidence.
I see you as implementing, as it were, a kind of cognitive adaptation strategy. By proving to suspicious listeners that you harbor no hostility to their identities, you create conditions in which people do what they normally do with their reason--use it to make sense of complex things &, even more important, to reliably recognize what’s known by science.
Again, I view that as enormously important-- & will say more in a moment about why.
But the fact remains that what you are doing doesn't actually repair the polluted science communication environment.
You are making it possible for people to reason within that environment when you yourself are presenting information to them. But when you finish, the antagonistic meanings that make global-warming positions into symbols of membership in opposing cultural groups persist in the world in which those people live.
Those meanings will certainly continue to shape the perceptions of those you didn’t get a chance to talk to-- who outnumber those you did by orders of magnitude.
But even more important, those meanings are also likely to continue shaping how the people you did talk to engage the climate issue in democratic political life. That's because the positions people adopt on climate change in that realm aren’t caused by any deficit in their understanding of how climate works; on the contrary, they are a consequence of just how keenly perceptive they are of what stances on global warming express about people's group identities.
Observational studies support this: individuals who display the highest degree of science comprehension generally & climate science comprehension in particular are the most culturally polarized over whether human-caused climate change is even occurring. That question, on a survey & in our political life, measures who they are--whose side they are on--not what they know.
My surmise, then, is that even though the people you have communicated with have genuinely learned something--& likely now enjoy a comprehension level that puts them at the very top of the scale for public "climate literacy”-- they'll continue to orient themselves toward the issue of global warming in a way that evinces their group identity.
That means, among other things, that someone who otherwise possesses the requisite sorts of values & the formidable degree of intelligence that these citizens appropriately look for in selecting congressional representatives is unlikely to enjoy a very long career in national politics if that person decides to make addressing the risks of climate change one of his or her priorities.
That would be the equivalent of the obtuse Presidential candidate who decides to highlight his support for gun control in advertisements in West Virginia because a pollster has just handed him a survey showing that a majority of its residents favor it. He doesn't get that what stances on gun control say is much more important to citizens than what restrictions on guns would do. For West Virginianians, the decision of a candidate to make gun control one of his key positions "says a lot about who you are and who you aren't"--and the only message his ads will succeed in communicating is that "he's not one of us.'' (If only someone had told him!)
As long as the positions that people--ordinary citizens or politicians--adopt on climate change convey "who they are," the issue will continue to polarize culturally diverse groups, no matter how much their members know about the dangers of failing to address global warming.
That means we need a science communication environment mitigation strategy. We need to staunch the "us-vs.-them" sources of pollution, which emanate from both sides. We need to detoxify that environment, so that reasoning people & their representatives don't face the sorts of conditions that in fact make it perfectly rational for them to form climate-change positions that express who they are instead of what they know.
As I said, I don't think creating conditions in which people can learn & comprehend is sufficient to do that.
Nevertheless, creating such conditions is vitally important.
It is vitally important, first, because it has intrinsic value: people who want to be able to know what is known by science should be enabled to know that. Science communicators who virtuously respond to this need should learn how to do what you do.
Second, doing what you do is vital because even amidst the toxic conditions that stifle constructive national policymaking on climate change, many people will need to make consequential decisions that should be informed by the best available evidence.
No matter what happens at the national level, e.g., people will have to make collective decisions about how to adapt to climate change--not cognitively but physically.
They'll have to decide individually, too, how to make all manner of adjustments in their private affairs to reflect a changing climate. Think, e.g., of farmers in the midwest who, despite "not believing" in human-caused climate change, are in fact very interested to hear about the latest climate modeling forecasts of the USDA & EPA (also the work that firms are doing to create genetically modified crops that will fare better in changed climate conditions).
Communicators need to know how to convey this information to these actors, too -- and can learn something from you about how to do it.
Third, what you are doing is vital because it is making us smarter about how science communication works.
Again, I don't think that the success you are achieving in helping individuals to learn about climate science by itself offsets the dynamics that make climate change polarizing, and that stifle exploitation of our scientific knowledge in national policymaking.
But you are showing in one very important setting how to disentangle the question "who are you, whose side are you on?" from "what do we know about how the world works?"
By systematically studying how you & other communicators (particularly educators) are able to achieve this effect, we can learn a tremendous amount about the dynamics of "disentanglement" generally & thus figure out more quickly what sorts of things we should do to reproduce that effect in our politics.
In sum, the work you do not only fills me with admiration & awe. It also fills me with hope & excitement, and with a sense of motivation & direction in my own research, my highest aspiration for which is that it will contribute to formation of a science-communication culture that embodies your skill & knowledge.
But I do think that the benefit we can get from learning how to do what you do will depend on getting a lot of other people to recognize that improving popular comprehension of climate science won't in itself do much to resolve the cultural conflict over global warming.
On the contrary, we need to decontaminate our science communication environment of antagonistic cultural meanings so that we can get the benefit of what you & others are doing to help citizens comprehend what science knows.