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Friday
Jun202014

Response: An “externally-valid” approach to consensus messaging

John Cook, science communication scholar and co-author of Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature, Environmental Research Letters 8, 024024 (2013), has supplied this thoughtful response to the first of my posts on "messaging consensus." --dmk38

Over the last decade, public opinion about human-caused global warming has shown little change. Why? Dan Kahan suggests cultural cognition is the answer: 

When people are shown evidence relating to what scientists believe about a culturally disputed policy-relevant fact ... they selectively credit or dismiss that evidence depending on whether it is consistent with or inconsistent with their cultural group’s position. 

It’s certainly the case that cultural values influence attitudes towards climate. In fact, not only do cultural values play a large part in our existing beliefs, they also influence how we process new evidence about climate change. But this view is based on lab experiments. Does Kahan’s view that cultural cognition is the whole story work out in the real world? Is that view “externally valid”?

The evidence says no. A 2012 Pew surveys of the general public found that even among liberals, there is low perception of the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming. When Democrats are asked “Do scientists agree earth is getting warmer because of human activity?”, only 58% said yes. There’s a significant "consensus gap” even for those whose cultural values predispose them towards accepting the scientific consensus. A “liberal consensus gap”.

My own data, measuring climate perceptions amongst US representative samples, confirms the liberal consensus gap. The figure below shows what people said in 2013 when asked how many climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming. The x-axis is a measure of political ideology (specifically, support for free markets). For people on the political right (e.g., more politically conservative), perception of scientific consensus decreases, just as cultural cognition predicts. However, the most relevant feature for this discussion is the perceived consensus on the left.

At the left of the political spectrum, perceived consensus is below 70%. Even those at the far left are not close to correctly perceiving the 97% consensus. Obviously cultural cognition cannot explain the liberal consensus gap. So what can? There are two prime suspects. Information deficit and/or misinformation surplus. 

Kahan suggests that misinformation casting doubt on the consensus is ineffective on liberals. I tend to agree. Data I’ve collected in randomized experiments supports this view. If this is the case, then it would seem information deficit is the driving force behind the liberal consensus gap. It further follows that providing information about the consensus is necessary to close this gap. 

So cultural values and information deficit both contribute to the consensus gap. Kahan himself suggests that science communicators should consider two channels: information content and cultural meaning. Arguing that one must choose between the information deficit model or cultural cognition is a false dichotomy. Both are factors. Ignoring one or the other neglects the full picture. 

But how can there be an information deficit about the consensus? We’ve been communicating the consensus message for years! Experimental research by Stephan Lewandowsky, a recent study by George Mason University and my own research have found that presenting consensus information has a strong effect on perceived consensus. If you bring a participant into the lab, show them the 97% consensus then have them fill out a survey asking what the scientific consensus is, then lo and behold, perception of consensus shoots up dramatically. 

How does this “internally valid” lab research gel with the real-world observation that perceived consensus hasn’t shifted much over the last decade? A clue to the answer lies with a seasoned communicator whose focus is solely on “externally valid” approaches to messaging. To put past efforts at consensus messaging into perspective, reflect on these words of wisdom from Republican strategist and messaging expert Frank Luntz on how to successfully communicate a message: 

“You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you're absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time. And it is so hard, but you've just got to keep repeating, because we hear so many different things -- the noises from outside, the sounds, all the things that are coming into our head, the 200 cable channels and the satellite versus cable, and what we hear from our friends.” 

When it comes to disciplined, persistent messaging, scientists aren’t in the same league as strategists like Frank Luntz. And when it comes to consensus, this is a problem. Frank Luntz is also the guy who said: 

“Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming in the scientific community.  Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.  Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field.” 

Luntz advocated casting doubt on the consensus for one simple reason. When people understand that scientists agree that humans are causing global warming, then they’re more likely to support policies to mitigate climate change. Confuse people about consensus, and you delay climate action. 

This finding has subsequently been confirmed by studies in 2011 and 2013. But a decade before social scientists figured it out, Luntz was already putting into place strategies to drum home the “no consensus” myth, with the purpose of reducing public support for climate action. 

Reflecting on the disinformation campaign and the social science research into consensus messaging, Ed Maibach at George Mason University incorporates both the “internally valid” social science research and the “externally valid” approach of Frank Luntz:

We urge scientific organizations to patiently, yet assertively inform the public that, based on the evidence, more than 97% of climate experts are convinced that human-caused climate change is happening. Some scientific organizations may argue that they have already done this through official statements. We applaud them for their efforts to date, yet survey data clearly demonstrate that the message has not yet reached or engaged most Americans. Occasional statements and press releases about the reality of human-caused climate change are unfortunately not enough to cut through the fog—it will take a concerted, ongoing effort to inform Americans about the scientific consensus regarding the realities of climate change.

How do we achieve this? Maibach suggests climate scientists should team up with social scientists and communication professionals. What should scientists be telling the public? Maibach advises:

In media interviews, public presentations, and even neighborhood and family gatherings, climate scientists should remember that many people do not currently understand that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus about human-caused climate change. Tell them, and give them the numbers.

The book Made To Stick looks at “sticky” messages that have caught the attention in the public’s eyes. It runs through many real-world case studies (e.g., externally valid examples) to demonstrate that sticky ideas are simple, concrete, unexpected and tell a story. For a general public who think there is a 50:50 debate among climate scientists, learning that 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming ticks many of the sticky boxes.

 

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Reader Comments (83)

Well seeing that Cook's 97% agree paper has been debunked twice in peer review, I'd say there is no consensus to convince the public of CAGW.

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterClyde

This is a great response. I hope Cook is able to see comments and reply. I am left with a few questions after reading this post:

Kahan suggests that misinformation casting doubt on the consensus is ineffective on liberals. I tend to agree. Data I’ve collected in randomized experiments supports this view. If this is the case, then it would seem information deficit is the driving force behind the liberal consensus gap.

This makes sense, but,

It further follows that providing information about the consensus is necessary to close this gap.

This doesn't. Help me understand: Why is it necessary to close this gap? Aren't a good number of those people who think 70% of scientists agree on climate change already themselves in agreement that climate change poses a risk? Is there evidence that nudging liberals' consensus perception of 60-70% toward something closer to the 97% reality would have any effect on their perceptions or acceptance of climate change (if they don't already agree)?

Also on a somewhat separate note, even looking at the more conservative end of that graph, if we could again employ the "make it stick" strategies to get people to consciously acknowledge and accept the 97% consensus, (which I completely agree would not even in itself be futile) it doesn't seem to me like there is any guarantee that people accepting 97% acceptance ascribe credibility and trusthworthiness to it. From my understanding of cultural cognition, I wouldn't be surprised if conservatives who are made to successfully acknowledge and understand that 97% of scientists agree still find ways to rationalize a perception that most of "those scientists" are themselves not credible (because they appear to belong to a cultural in-group that holds values very different from their own). Won't these folks just say, "sure, 97% of scientists agree on climate change, but most of them are not experts and not necessarily taking the right measurements and I don't think they're lying but I'm not that confident in their expertise even if they DO agree..."

To me, and I may be muddling all of this so I appreciate any commentary to follow, this just strikes me as a confusion of two very different rhetorical stases, for lack of a better description. The arguement over whether something is happening or not is distinct from the argument over whether people agree that it's happening, (as well as different from the argument about whether it's good or bad that its happening, and the argument about what to do about it, etc etc). I have yet to see evidence that resolving the latter somehow also attends to the former in this context (but I'm happy to be proven wrong?)

To summarize,

For a general public who think there is a 50:50 debate among climate scientists, learning that 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming ticks many of the sticky boxes.

This may be true- it'll become sticky, people may generally accept that most scientists think X... but I'm still unconvinced that this alone will have any bearing on individuals themselves thinking X...

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJen

Jen, among liberals there isn't 100% acceptance of human-caused global warming or 100% support for addressing the climate problem. The liberal population outside the 60-70% probably has large overlap with the liberal population that doesn't accept the science and/or doesn't support climate policy. So yes, the liberal consensus gap is important.

But mostly it's an indicator that there is an information deficit problem. If the problem were purely one of cognitive biases, as Dan Kahan suggests, then liberal awareness of the expert consensus would be close to 100%. That's because liberals don't have a built-in bias against climate policies that would cause them to reject the consensus information, were they aware of its existence.

On a separate note, I don't buy the argument that hinges on public awareness of the consensus not increasing significantly over the past decade. For one thing, the 97% figure only originated in 2009 with Doran & Zimmerman, reinforced in 2010 by Anderegg et al., then in 2013 by Cook et al. Thus the 97% is a fairly new concrete message that hasn't been tested for a very long period of time. Moreover, we don't have a control planet to test against, where no '97% consensus' messaging has been tried. Public awareness of the consensus could very well have decreased rather than remaining fairly steady, were it not for the 97% messaging, given all the anti-consensus messaging from the denial movement.

As John Cook notes, consensus messaging alone is insufficient and we also have to address cognitive biases. But there's no solid evidence that consensus messaging is ineffective or counter-productive, and there is evidence that it's effective (expertiments by Lewandowsky and Cook).

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDana Nuccitelli

Hi Jen,

In answer to your questions:

This doesn't. Help me understand: Why is it necessary to close this gap? Aren't a good number of those people who think 70% of scientists agree on climate change already themselves in agreement that climate change poses a risk? Is there evidence that nudging liberals' consensus perception of 60-70% toward something closer to the 97% reality would have any effect on their perceptions or acceptance of climate change (if they don't already agree)?

Indeed, there is evidence that public perception of even a moderate amount of disagreement within the scientific community can have a profound impact, not just on the public's beliefs that policy is necessary to address the problem, but that the problem even exists in the first place. As hard as it is to believe, a public perception of ~70% consensus may actually decrease belief in the reality of a phenomenon.

I wouldn't be surprised if conservatives who are made to successfully acknowledge and understand that 97% of scientists agree still find ways to rationalize a perception that most of "those scientists" are themselves not credible (because they appear to belong to a cultural in-group that holds values very different from their own)

I think that is basically begging the question. There are plenty of conservatives who believe themselves to be pro-science. You seem to be assuming that people will assign primacy to their political in group orientation, when in fact they may place a higher priority on their self-image as pro science. There also seems to be a built-in assumption that conservatives cannot be exposed to a message that both nudges their perception of consensus and does not engage a defense of their worldview. My understanding of cultural cognition is that there is no reason to assume this is the case, and that with the proper framing, we could indeed emphasize the 97% message while affirming conservative worldviews/in-group values.

This may be true- it'll become sticky, people may generally accept that most scientists think X... but I'm still unconvinced that this alone will have any bearing on individuals themselves thinking X...

There is evidence that this is indeed the case from a number of studies, with more on the publication horizon. Perception of expert agreement does appear to influence key beliefs about a given phenomenon itself above and beyond the simple issue of acknowledging the consensus. A number of different research groups have reached this conclusion using a variety of methods.

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Jacobs

==> "If this is the case, then it would seem information deficit is the driving force behind the liberal consensus gap."

Seems that the way to test that would be to examine whether or not those liberals would say that they've never heard that an "overwhelming consensus" exists, or haven't heard that often.

That would seem unlikely to me. Seems to me that the message of an "overwhelming consensus" is ubiquitous.

Which would mean that something else, other than a lack of hearing that there is an overwhelming "consensus" would explain the "liberal consensus gap." Maybe they have heard that there is a near-uniform "consensus," and they've heard it often, but still underestimate the degree of the "consensus" Just because they hear that message more doesn't mean that they will, therefore, adopt a belief that there is an overwhelming "consensus."

In a real world setting, (1) they might have been hearing about the degree of consensus from a source they don't particularly trust and, (2) you can't control whether or not they hear a contrasting message. If the reason for the "liberal consensus gap" is the widespread publicity attacking the "consensus" notion, you may not move the needle significantly unless you somehow convince Fox News, Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and basically all Republican politicians to somehow stop attacking the "consensus." Good luck with that.

And this rests on top of Jen's point. Even if an underestimation of the uniformity of view among climate scientists could be addressed through "consensus" messaging, there is a long road between that change and a significant change in commitment to the development and implementation of mitigation (or even adaptation) policies (which are also subjected to relentless attack from those in opposition).

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

In a real world setting, (1) they might have been hearing about the degree of consensus from a source they don't particularly trust

Liberals are hearing about the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change from sources that liberals don't trust? Like who, George Will? ;)

I thought part of the supposed problem with the 97% consensus message was that it was being used too heavily by liberal groups and thus it was too polarizing?

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Jacobs

Joshua,

"Seems to me that the message of an "overwhelming consensus" is ubiquitous."

That's probably because you're the kind of person who comments on this blog! Go around asking random people if they've heard of the 97% expert consensus on human-caused global warming - not just 'consensus', which is vague, but 97% consensus. You'll get a lot of blank stares.

"there is a long road between that change and a significant change in commitment to the development and implementation of mitigation (or even adaptation) policies"

Of course. Consensus messaging isn't a silver bullet. But it does make the road shorter.

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDana Nuccitelli

Peter -

In reverse order:

==> "I thought part of the supposed problem with the 97% consensus message was that it was being used too heavily by liberal groups and thus it was too polarizing?"

I don't agree with that argument. I suspect it has little impact in either direction.


==> "Liberals are hearing about the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change from sources that liberals don't trust? Like who, George Will? ;)"

Heh. Obviously not. But I was referring not to outright distrust (as might be the case with George Will), but to a lack of "particular trust" - in other words a lack of trust to the point where someone would be persuaded merely because someone says that something is true.

June 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

The liberal population outside the 60-70% probably has large overlap with the liberal population that doesn't accept the science and/or doesn't support climate policy. So yes, the liberal consensus gap is important.

I'm not quite sure what you mean by "outside the 60-70%." The 60-70% is the amount of consensus the most liberal people in that chart (far left) think scientists have on climate change. Its not a percentage of liberals. I was just referring to that left-most group to illustrate my point. Anyway, I understand your general point- that there are liberals who don't think climate change is a real threat. What I would really like, from any of the other commenters, is some evidence- are there papers I could link to or look up? that making a group of people who thinks 70% of scientists agree and convincing them that 97% agree will actually change the number of people int hat group who think climate change is real. In other words, if I have a group of 100 people, 85 of whom like Crest toothpaste and on average, these people believe that 7 out of 10 dentists recommend Crest... if we actually tell this group that, no, 9 out of 10(!) dentists rec