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Weekend update: "Communicating normality"--a fragment

From something I'm working on in connection with the CCP Evidence-based science communication initiative.

1. Overview. This section describes an evidence-based and evidence-generating program of science communication  carried out in support of effective local policymaking. Known as “Communicating Normality,” the program aims to stimulate within key opinion-formation communities self-replicating interactions that maximize citizens’ exposure to the confidence of their own peers in the science that informs local climate-policymaking initiatives.

2. Theoretical grounding. In order to live well—or just to live—ordinary individuals must make effective use of far more scientific information than they have either the time or capacity to understand in meaningful detail.  For this purpose, they become experts not in particular forms of decision-relevant science but in recognizing the forms of insight generated by valid scientific methods. The primary source of information that guides this expertise is individuals’ observation of others whom they trust and regard as informed, socially competent actors. These actors, whose ranks include not just science-trained professionals but ordinary individuals’ own neighbors, friends, and coworkers, do not, for the most part, “frame” or deliver “messages” about science; rather they vouch for the validity of science through the by relying on in making decisions of consequence (CCP 2014). 

The dynamics of “communicating normality,” moreover, not only explain why it is that ordinary citizens normally converge on the best available scientific evidence but also why they sometimes don’t. On issues like climate change and the HPV vaccine, conspicuous forms of cultural conflict obscure, distort, and ultimately stifle the orienting signals that culturally diverse citizens use to identify valid decision-relevant science (Kahan 2012, 2013, 2015).

3. Practical evidence. “Communicating normality” as a science communication strategy has played an important role in the activities local governments involved in promoting public engagement with climate science. Those governments have used a variety of public outreach techniques aimed at vitalizing the spontaneous community interactions that ordinary citizens use to recognize valid science. 

In effect, ordinary citizens who already are actively involved in the local-decisionmaking processes have been encouraged to assume the role of “proselytizers of normality” to make their own views about the legitimacy and importance of local decisionmaking initiatives known within relevant opinion-formation communities: from local business groups to home-owner associations, from church congregations and civic organizations (Kahan 2015).  This activity, government actors believe, has contributed to their success both by amplifying the signals that individuals use to recognize valid science and by counteracting the disruptive impact of groups committed to entangling the their policymaking agendas in the forms of cultural rivalry that have prevented public recognition of the validity of climate science generally (CCP 2015).

“Communicating normality” is both an evidence-informed and an evidence-generating strategy (Kahan 2014; Han & Stenhouse 2014; Stenhouse 2014). Applying their experience-informed judgment to the best available evidence, local government actors and affiliated communicators, with assistance from researchers affiliated with the CCP Evidence-based Science Communication Initiative, have implemented it, and in the course of carrying it out have assessed its impact and revised its operation, on the basis experimental studies the designs of which they were intimately involved in formulating.

4. Enlarging the program.  The outlined program would systematize and enlarge the “Communicating Normality” strategy.  As valuable as “Communicating Normality” has been, its overall role local government communications activities, it has been constrained by the limited government staff and staff available to carry it out.  Moreover, these government actors justifiably anticipate an intensified need for the contribution that “Communicating normality” is uniquely suited to making: as their activities to use climate-science to protect their communities’ interests assume an increasing larger profile in the everyday lives of ordinary citizens, those citizens will have even greater need both for access to the orienting signals they use to identify valid decision-relevant science and greater insulation from the (often strategically orchestrated) forms of cultural-rivalry that obscure and distort the accessibility of those signals.  Finally, this program is founded on the conviction that the information generated by the evidence-based science communication techniques that guide “Communicating normality” should be magnified in extent and made as widely accessible as possible to groups pursuing similar objectives (Kahan 2014).


CCP, Evidence-Based Science Communication Initiative Rept. No. 1: Assessing and Forecasting the Quality of the Local Science Communication Environment (Oct. 13, 2013).

CCP, Evidence-based Science Communication Initiative Rept. No. 2: Proselytizing Normality, an Experimental Assessment (Nov. 14, 2014).

Han, H. & Stenhouse, N. Bridging the Research-Practice Gap in Climate Communication Lessons From One Academic-Practitioner Collaboration. Science Communication, 1075547014560828 (2014).

Kahan, D.M. Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem. Political Psychology 36, 1-43 (2015).

Kahan, D.M. A Risky Science Communication Environment for Vaccines. Science 342, 53-54 (2013).

Kahan, D.M. Making Climate-Science Communication Evidence-Based—All the Way Down. in Culture, Politics and Climate Change (ed. M. Boykoff & D. Crow) 203-220 (Routledge Press, New York, 2014).

Kahan, D. Why we are poles apart on climate change. Nature 488, 255 (2012).

Stenhouse, N. Spreading Success Beyond the Laboratory: Applying the RE-AIM Framework for Effective Environmental Communication Interventions at Scale. Conf. Paper National Communication Association 100th Annual Convention (Mar. 26, 2014).

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Reader Comments (7)

I suspect the use of "normality" may raise some hackles...

==> "Moreover, these government justifiably actors anticipate"


These government actors justifiably anticipates...????

April 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua



why hackles?

April 11, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

For me, it sounds elitist, or at least normative, in a way that would be likely to engender a response where people think they're being called abnormal.

But you've been doing this a while and I would guess that you haven't encountered that reaction, so maybe not.

April 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

In other words, TravisBickleism.

April 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


It's a label. But the idea is that the normal way people rationally figure out what is known by science is to observe the normal activity of those who they have good reason to believe know what is what. The premise is that their perception of that is being obscured by the fog -- or smog -- of cultural conflict over "belief in climate change" as a badge of membership in cultural status competition that in fact has nothing to do with what *to do* in order to live well.

I think only people who have an behaviorally/psychologically unreaslistic sense of how rationality works (one that reflects the silly conception of nullius in verba) would confuse this stance w/ elitism; it is anything but elitist-- it reflects tremendous respect, even awe, for power that ordinary people have to rationally discern when knowledge originates in methods that conform to science's distinctive way of knowing.

April 11, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan - I got all of that. (it's what you wrote in the post).

But there is a track record of what happens when some people read that sort of description: TravisBickleism.

I could be entirely wrong, but I think that the judgmental connotation "normally" associated with "normal" is likely to produce an unnecessarily counterproductive response in some folks. Kind of like the "motivated" in motivated reasoning.

April 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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