I recently had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by David Goldstein, the Energy Program co-Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC – check out his own blog right here). At his seminar he focused on the role that science and scientists play in directing public policy, and how talking about climate change is different from other types of policy concerns.

General public views scientists as one of the most trusted sources of information – As indicated by this survey released a few years ago, despite events like climategate, scientists are still the most trusted source of information for the general public. While this is a good piece of information for scientists wishing to influence public policy it comes with a catch…

The Public agrees with scientific findings in certain circumstances – While scientists may be a trusted source of information, that doesn’t mean that people will believe whatever they happen to say. David indicated that the general public was more inclined to trust scientists in two circumstances:

  1. The findings are extremely removed from everyday experience. For example, general theories of quantum mechanics and relativity are typically not experienced in everyday life. If the basic understanding of either of these theories were to change tomorrow, most people would accept it as they have no day to day experience in the effects of either of them.
  2. The findings reinforce people’s “instinct” or experience. An example is the theory of continental drift. While only a handful of decades old surveys determined that people believe this to be true, as it fits with their instinct and experience. It makes sense that South America once fit into Africa as they seem to have complimentary coastlines.

Climate Change does not fit within either of these circumstances – The difficulty in explaining climate change arises from the fact that it does not fit within either of these circumstances. Regarding criteria #1, people experience “climate” everyday (ignoring for the moment that weather and climate are not the same thing). They go outside everyday and have a general feel for the trend of weather, temperature, rainfall etc. Regarding criteria #2, climate change may not jive with those experiences. A year of typically snowier/colder winter experiences can put someone off accepting the idea that climate change may be warming the planet. Compounding this effect is the fact that…

Scientists must be clear about certainty when conversing with the public – As a trusted source of information, scientists need to be absolutely clear when talking about the certainty of their results. It may be tempting when talking about scientific results to politicians to say that something is completely definite or certain in order to sway public policy (or funding). However, this makes it difficult when talking about the effects of climate change as they are gradual and influence things in the background. For instance a climate scientist cannot point to a particularly devastating hurricane and say “This hurricane was caused by climate change.” They can only truthfully say “this hurricane may have been more destructive because of climate change, but we cannot prove that with certainty.” This lack of certainty may lead members of the public to conclude that there are no concrete examples of climate change affecting the planet and as such may find it harder to accept the general theory of climate change.

The TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) Summary:  Scientists are a trusted source of information, but they must use that role carefully when trying to inform the public about climate change.

3 responses »

  1. iampotassium says:

    Love this post, Paul! I thought it was a really interesting seminar too.

  2. Rose says:

    This is my favorite piece on the importance of scientists and communication: http://www.radiolab.org/blogs/radiolab-blog/2008/jul/29/tell-me-a-story/

  3. […] use climate change as an example for how politics/the public view science and scientists. My friend Paul summed up his talk pretty nicely if you’re interested. I thought that Bill Nye’s talk […]

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