There’s an interesting article on Dan Kahan in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education. Kahan, for those who don’t know, is the current guru of science communication. His updating of the work of Mary Douglas is valuable; I always liked Douglas even though I found her politics unappealing. There is some Douglas in my earlier writing on risk norms (for instance in Markets and Mortality).
In general, I think Kahan is right that tribal affiliation is a major impediment to communicating the science of climate change. This is a problem for both sides—not only for denialists who see themselves fighting to save the free market against enviro-crypto-socialists but also the enviros who see the climate problem as a vindication of their disdain for economic growth and materialistic values. Now how much the economy should be regulated and what sorts of values contribute to a good life are important questions and deserve all the attention and reflection we want to give to them, but the tribal identities people have developed around them can only get in the way of dealing with climate change in a rational fashion.
In other words, this isn’t just about anti-science Republicans or Koch-funded denialism (which do exist), but also environmentalists using the climate to act out their moralism. Big cars are b-a-a-a-d. TV is b-a-a-a-d. Trying to make money is b-a-a-a-d. Climate change is nature’s revenge on humans for all that badness. (See more venting about green moralism here.)
It’s difficult to get green folks to stop doing this because they get reinforcement from their tribe (including their inner tribe) every time they denounce the moral turpitude of the other side. But they should see that it’s not working and stop.
One other, more specific thought about science communication: scientists spend their life honing observation and measurement. For them, science consists of devising and applying new methods for identifying, documenting and measuring our world. When they think of communication, they have in mind explanations of what empirical results they’ve established and the methodological basis for them. The assumption seems to be that public understanding of science takes the form of an unordered collation of facts about observations and methods. We have ice cores! Here are fluctuations in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere over the past 150,000 years! Here is the change over 50 years in the range of a beetle that damages spruce forests! Here is our best estimate of the relationship between global temperatures, thermal expansion and sea level rise!
But that’s not really how people think themselves through complex issues. Rather, they need stories, and science succeeds when it supplies a compelling story that provides a structure for individual facts. The story doesn’t have to be perfectly correct in all its particulars, just true enough that it does the job. You can qualify it as you go deeper.
This is why I cringed when I read the latest synthesis report from the IPCC. Of course, there is nothing scientifically wrong about their brief distillations of research into the various aspects of greenhouse gas emissions, carbon response and the like. But this is not a story. What I tried to do here, here and here was a stab at a story. I’m not a scientist (just an economist), and my presentation was radically simplified even by my standards, but something like this is what might reach people who do not do science for a living.