A few weeks ago I attended a meeting on science communication and the increasing public distrust of science. Climate was not the major theme, though it did come up as an example (not least because I was an invited speaker, as a blogging scientist / scientific blogger).
The first speaker was professor in communication science, Cees van Woerkum. I attended his lectures 19 years ago. He explained how the old model, of a sender and a receiver of communication, was no longer valid (if it ever was). Modern communication is characterized by a much more active role of the audience in selecting what information to take in. Also, the message is not inert, but rather gets meaning in an active and social process.
Drawing on examples from biotechnology, carbon capture and storage, and vaccination he argued that scientists should take the concerns of citizens seriously. Laughing at somebody for calling biotechnology “unnatural” is not going to take their worries away or change their mind. Calling fears of side effects from vaccinations “dangerous nonsense” doesn’t quite work either, especially not if those concerns have already been anchored to a certain extent through social construction. If a scientist calls the chance of CO2 leakage from a storage facility vanishingly small, the response is “so it’s not impossible?!” A potential way out according to van Woerkum is to ask what’s behind their concerns: What do you mean by unnatural?” Then you can at least start to have a conversation.
This was followed by a presentation by author and historian Jona Lendering. Although the topic of his talk was something entirely different (about ancient Persia) the similarities with the climate debate were striking. He explained how this field of academic enquiry (about the origin of Western civilization) was being “attacked by anti-scientific tendencies” (aiming to glorify one culture’s role). The scientific establishment hardly participated in the public debate on the internet. As a consequence, the anti-scientific views got more traction and mainstream science failed in (what should be) one its core missions: Informing the public. He repeatedly stated the mechanism: “Bad information drives out good information”. He also mentioned the “intense hate” with which the “attack-machines” approach science. It was as if I was listening to Kevin Trenberth; the dynamic between a skeptical-cynical part of the audience and mainstream science was just too similar.
I talked about the dynamics of blog discussions and about the dilemmas that one encounters in trying to communicate scientific insights to a broad audience:
The last one I actually added based on the dilemma that van Woerkum alerted the audience to: As a scientist (or science journalist), you can no longer easily claim “listen to me, I’ll tell you how it is”. You have to take the concerns of citizens seriously. But what to do if those concerns are not openly expressed, but rather disguised in scientific sounding (but incorrect or sometimes even plain silly) arguments? “Climate change is due to the sun” or “Iran is the origin of Western civilization” or “vaccination causes autism”? The underlying reason for skepticism often remains hidden. As a scientist, you’re sucked into a quasi-scientific argument. How else can you react, than by saying: “no, that’s not the way it is. It’s this and this way, for such and such reasons”? But such a reaction is being characterized by skeptics ((mis-)using van Woerkum’s words) as “unjustified superiority of science”. Is explaining how science sees it a hopeless strategy?
In line with van Woerkum I think it’s important to focus on the underlying motives for distrusting science. We should really try and figure out and discuss why we disagree so strongly about climate change (e.g. due to differences in worldviews and in risk perception). Discussions about hockeysticks and feedbacks are all very interesting, but they are not the crux of why there is a such a heated and politicized debate about climate change. We don’t have a similar public debate about the mating behavior of fruitflies after all.
I also mentioned the issue of ‘false balance’: the journalistic tendency to give equal attention and weight to opposing viewpoints. For political topics (about what ‘should’ be done) that is often a laudable principle, but not so for scientific topics (about what ‘is’). Not every scientific sounding proposition is equally plausible, and good journalism ought to make a judgment call. Now that is easier said than done (though clues to do so exist). But already a much better picture of scientific insights is given if the microphones and writing space are distributed somewhat in proportion to how the scientific opinions about the topic are distributed. Assuming that the aggregated scientific opinion is strongly dependent on the strength and direction of the available evidence (i.e. having trust in the scientific process), this should give a pretty good picture of the robustness of scientific knowledge. Science is more than just another opinion.