I haven’t paid much attention to Dan Kahan’s work, but recently noticed a post on his blog about the *public consensus* on what climate scientists think about human-caused global warming. The basic premise seems to be that although your political leaning might influence whether or not you agree that there is solid evidence that global warming is mostly human-caused, most still accept that a scientific consensus exists. According to Dan Kahan’s post:
… there’s barely any partisan disagreement over what climate scientists believe about the specific causes and consequences of human-caused climate change.
The post then goes on to say
“97% consensus” social marketing campaigns ….. aren’t telling ordinary Americans on either side of the “climate change debate” anything they haven’t already heard & indeed accepted: that climate scientists believe human-caused global warming is putting them in a position of extreme peril.
All the “social marketing” of “scientific consensus” does is augment the toxic idioms of contempt that are poisoning our science communication environment.
I don’t really know how best to interpret what is being suggested here. So, consensus messaging is somehow toxic and damages other attempts at science communication? Well, that there is a strong consensus with respect to AGW is essentially true. If consensus messaging is toxic, then that seems to suggest that some respond poorly to being made aware of something true, which is – in itself – interesting. There may well be better ways in which to use consensus messaging, but to suggest not using it at all would seem to imply avoiding saying something that is true. I find that mildly disturbing.
I actually don’t really know what else to say about Dan Kahan’s post. It’s possible I’ve misunderstood it (I’m hoping that Joshua, or someone else who understand Dan Kahan’s ideas, can clarify things) but I find the underlying premise quite strange. I could understand if someone was suggesting a better, or an alternative, way to communicate science. However, suggesting that others – who are promoting someone that is true – are damaging science communication just seems a little bizarre. It’s certainly not a hugely constructive approach.
I think, however, that there may be an issue of terminology here. To me, science communication is about communicating scientific ideas to the public, or to policy makers. Whether they accept it, or not, is their choice. Of course, someone could advise on how best to communicate science, but suggesting that something shouldn’t be said is not – typically – a suggestion that I’d regard as reasonable. Considering how best to get people to accept a scientific position – rather than how to understand it – seems more like marketing, than science communication. Of course, this is part of the motivation behind consensus messaging, but that doesn’t change that there is indeed a strong consensus.
In some sense, I don’t really see consensus messaging as science communication. At best, it’s peripheral; it’s part of getting people to accept that there is a scientific position that can be communicated. It’s part of getting people to recognise that some scientific ideas are regarded as not credible. It might play a role in science communication, but – by itself – it doesn’t really communicate any science; well apart from the existence of a basic consensus position. It would be wonderful if it was so well-accepted that we didn’t need to point out that it existed. I realise that Dan Kahan is suggesting that it is, but the apparent negative response to pointing it out, might suggest that it’s not quite that simple.