Consensus messaging – a follow up

I’m away on a family trip, so don’t have time to write anything much. As a follow up to my earlier post about consensus messaging I thought I would quickly highlight a new paper on Communicating the Scientific Consensus on Human-Caused Climate. The key conclusion seems to be that they

find that communicating the scientific consensus has (positive) direct effects (across the political spectrum) on belief that climate change is happening, human-caused, and a serious threat that requires societal action.

and they also

find little evidence of identity-protective cognition and no evidence of belief polarization across these groups.

Dan Kahan, however, appears to think that it’s misleading.

I find myself returning to the basic point that I was making in my earlier post; that there is a strong consensus with respect to AGW is essentially true. It’s hard to see how avoiding making that clear can aid science communication. Also if doing so is toxic, that would seem to suggest some interesting societal dynamics. I don’t know if consensus messaging actually does aid the communication of climate science, but there are certainly studies suggesting that it does. Whatever is actually true, there certainly does not appear to be a consensus with regards to the efficacy of consensus messaging.

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29 Responses to Consensus messaging – a follow up

  1. dana1981 says:

    Kahan doesn’t like evidence that contradicts his hypotheses, which, when it comes to consensus messaging, is the vast majority of the evidence.

    Note that what he calls “misleading” nevertheless contradicts his hypothesis: conservatives were more accepting of AGW after learning about the consensus. He seems motivated to find a reason to reject that data.

  2. When someone writes a spittle-flecked string of old climate denial memes on some website, it’s a legitimate response to point out (with a suitable link) that they’re contradicting the world’s climate experts. Sure, you’re not going to budge him an inch—in fact he’ll probably dig in further—but he’s irrelevant: he represents only a tiny vocal group of false ‘skeptics’. Only the uninformed matter, and they’re probably the vast majority of readers. I believe if they read the comment and the response—and they’re open to reason—they’ll be swayed by the consensus argument.

    Where’s the evidence to show my belief is not true? If someone can actually demonstrate that consensus messaging does not work I’ll happily reconsider.

  3. Andy Skuce says:

    I mistakenly retweeted Kahan’s Tweet, not seeing his sarcasm for what it was. Silly me.

    As George Bush said:

    There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”

  4. johnrussell brings up a point I’ve often made; responses to invalid claims are not to dissuade the author of the claim from his false beliefs, but to lay down a marker for other readers. On many blogs the number of lurkers far outweighs the number of commenters. Engaging with a blog author or commenter provides the lurkers with the necessary information to make reasonable decisions.

  5. When someone writes a spittle-flecked string of old climate denial memes on some website, it’s a legitimate response to point out (with a suitable link) that they’re contradicting the world’s climate experts.

    Even if that were not an optimal response, let Kahan show that this is not better than getting into a long technical argument that suggests to the readers who cannot follow it that there is still a legitimate debate on this issue. Or that it is better than not responding at all.

    Likely the optimal response is actually some mixture of strategies, rather than one of them.

  6. Willard says:

    I don’t always enjoy scientific commentaries, but when I do, they contain the word “misleading.”

  7. Willard says:

    > Likely the optimal response is actually some mixture of strategies, rather than one of them.

    It’s likely more than likely:

    Matching pennies is the name for a simple example game used in game theory. […] The game is played between two players, Player A and Player B. Each player has a penny and must secretly turn the penny to heads or tails. The players then reveal their choices simultaneously. If the pennies match (both heads or both tails) Player A keeps both pennies, so wins one from Player B (+1 for A, -1 for B). If the pennies do not match (one heads and one tails) Player B keeps both pennies, so receives one from Player A (-1 for A, +1 for B). This is an example of a zero-sum game, where one player’s gain is exactly equal to the other player’s loss.

    […]

    This game has no pure strategy Nash equilibrium since there is no pure strategy (heads or tails) that is a best response to a best response. In other words, there is no pair of pure strategies such that neither player would want to switch if told what the other would do. Instead, the unique Nash equilibrium of this game is in mixed strategies: each player chooses heads or tails with equal probability.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matching_pennies

  8. andrew adams says:

    This is probably a statement of the bleeding obvious but different communication strategies are appropriate for different audiences. There are clearly many people whose natural instinct on a technical subject where they don’t have the ability to make an independent judgement is to give a large amount of weight to expert opinion – these people are the natural audience for consensus communication. There are other groups of people who are not.
    Where a particular method of communication fails it might not be that it is not valuable but that it is being used on the wrong audience.

  9. Andrew,
    I think that’s right and it’s why I find Dan Kahan’s framing so odd. There is not a one-size fits all strategy and it may well be that consensus messaging does no good in some circumstances. However, as you say, there are others where it’s valuable, especially amongst those who do tend to give weight to expert opinion.

  10. andrew adams says:

    ATTP,

    Yes, and I think that those for whom consensus messaging is effective will tend to be those who don’t have particularly strong views on the subject and don’t get involved in the public debates about climate change. So a number of vocal individuals on the internet portraying themselves as representatives of the ordinary guy in the street and loudly proclaiming that consensus messaging doesn’t work for the them isn’t particularly meaningful.

  11. Steven,
    And that’s relevant to the consensus how? Are you going through your strawman phase?

  12. dikranmarsupial says:

    Does anyone claim there is a consensus on “the risk of extreme weather and climate events”?

  13. Joshua says:

    ==> “Our results suggest that event attribution approaches comprising of a single climate model would benefit from ensemble calibration in order to account for model inadequacies similarly as operational forecasting systems.”

    Steven presents a good example of why “skeptics” will always have a winning hand in the eyes of those who have a predisposition of dismissing the risk of,dangerous climate change attributable to aCO2.

    Climate scientists note uncertainty, and recommend ensembles to address that uncertainty, and that will get ignored in the interest of using studies that recommend ensembles to advance the cause of dismissing the value of ensembles.

  14. Joshua says:

    Anders, Andrew –

    Even if different strategies have different levels of effectiveness with different people, that in itself doesn’t disprove that a particular strategy has a net negative impact.

  15. dikranmarsupial says:

    Joshua writes “Even if different strategies have different levels of effectiveness with different people, that in itself doesn’t disprove that a particular strategy has a net negative impact.”

    A strategy may have a net negative impact if used indiscriminately for all audiences and still have a net positive impact when used selectively. For example I wouldn’t employ “consensus messaging” if I was talking to an audience of scientists, just as I wouldn’t use differential equations when explaining the carbon cycle to an audience of politicians. IMHO both of those strategies are good, provided they are used with some consideration of the audience.

    Having said which, the only evidence I have seen so far for consensus messaging having a negative impact is based on a confrontational video with a party political position made explicit before the consensus on climate change had even been mentioned. Seems to me that it is more that partisan rhetoric and confrontational manner has a net negative impact, but consensus messaging per se is fine.

  16. Willard says:

    > A strategy may have a net negative impact if used indiscriminately for all audiences and still have a net positive impact when used selectively.

    In other news:

    Rhetoric (pronounced /ˈrɛtərɪk/) is the art of discourse, an art that aims to improve the capability of writers or speakers to inform, most likely to persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhetoric

  17. Just found a new poll that asks about climate change in a US survey on energy. They find that 73% of the respondents agree that global climate change is occurring. Only 16% give the wrong answer that climate change is not occurring. (11% don’t know)

    That sounds like more than enough people to start solving the problem, if only America were a democracy where the will of the people and not the will of the corporations determines policies.

    It also sound like more than values from other US polls. Am I right there? That would then suggest that context matters.

    Report:
    http://www.utenergypoll.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Topline-Wave-10.pdf
    Some graphs:
    http://www.utenergypoll.com/

  18. Joshua says:

    Dikran –

    ==>> “A strategy may have a net negative impact if used indiscriminately for all audiences and still have a net positive impact when used selectively. ”

    Fair enough.

    ==>> “Seems to me that it is more that partisan rhetoric and confrontational manner has a net negative impact, but consensus messaging per se is fine.”

    I’m inclined to agree, so far as it goes. The question then becomes how to determine the dividing line between partisan/confrontational and messaging per se, and whether that dividing line moves about contingent on audience (as consistent with the definition than Willard excerpted).

    Although, I would probably also question the net impact of a specific partisan/confrontational act towards a hostile audience within a preexisting polarized contex. Will anything turn out different if already activated “skeptics” are confronted in a partisan manner? I think not (not to discount any possible opportunity cost). Will anything change from messaging per se for non-aligned audiences? I, for one, remain unconvinced.

  19. dikranmarsupial says:

    Joshua “The question then becomes how to determine the dividing line between partisan/confrontational and messaging per se, and whether that dividing line moves about contingent on audience”

    I personally don’t see anything partisan or confrontational about stating the scientific consensus. The scientific consensus didn’t form as a result of party political leanings, but because that is where the evidence points rather strongly. There is nothing confrontational or insulting about pointing out where the consensus lies, any more than in pointing out that the residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere tells you very little about whether or not the observed rise it a natural phenomenon. There are some places where you will get a hostile reaction if you tell them either of those things, but it isn’t because the message is partisan or confrontational in either case.

  20. Joshua says:

    ==> I personally don’t see anything partisan or confrontational about stating the scientific consensus. …There are some places where you will get a hostile reaction if you tell them either of those things, but it isn’t because the message is partisan or confrontational in either case.

    I guess my point might be considered philosophical navel-gazing, of the sort “”If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” ” but consider the koan “If a message is perceived by an audience as partisan and confrontational, does it make sense to say that the message isn’t partisan or confrontational?”

    I think that what may or may not be confrontational is contingent upon the audience, and then you decide what works to your own personal advantage, accordingly. IMO, it is rather pointless to state that there isn’t anything inherently partisan or confrontational about stating the consensus independent of considering the audience, because there is always a context and part of the existing context around “consensus-messaging” is that it is a partisan context. This is rather like saying that there is nothing about using the term denier that is confrontational…based on some decontextualized dictionary definition of “denier.” I’m a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist. I think that in a communicative context, you have to evaluate rhetoric relative to how what you say is heard by a given audience. You don’t have to change what you do accordingly, but you should be making a deliberate decision as to whether or not you want to make a change based on what the net effect is and what you think should be held sacrosanct. I’m cool with people making whatever decisions they deem appropriate, but I don’t see the point of insisting that something isn’t partisan if an audience perceives it to be partisan.

    The other point that I’m making is that people often allow their own partisanship to influence what they see as partisan (or not partisan). Personally, I feel that very little of the “consensus-messaging” I’ve seen is completely devoid of partisanship, or identity-aggressive rhetorical overtones. I think that almost always, there’s an element of “We vs. Them I think it’s pretty much baked in. And certainly the use of “consensus-message” in almost always linked with the “They are deniers” brand of rhetoric.

  21. “If a message is perceived by an audience as partisan and confrontational, does it make sense to say that the message isn’t partisan or confrontational?”

    Yes, that makes perfect sense. They say so many unbelievable things that are completely wrong.

    If you like philosophical navel-gazing: all we know with some certainty is that they make these claims, we cannot know whether they actually hold these views or why they communicate these views. It is perfectly possible that they communicate this deconstructionistic building of memes because they prefer not to talk about their real reasons to reject mitigation.

    Or even more general: when you look a girl into her sparking eyes, you do not tell her you love her eyes because procreation is what live does, you will say the equivalent of “it is arrogant to think that humans can change the climate and at least there is no scientific consensus anywhere in sight”, but the real reason is procreation and you have to look beyond what is said to understand the situation.

  22. People have the unique capacity to perceive almost anything as partisan and confrontational. Potato chips can be perceived as partisan and confrontational! That certainly doesn’t mean everyone else has to conform to every insane human perception, and ruin a perfectly tasty snack in the process.

  23. WebHubTelescope says:

    “People have the unique capacity to perceive almost anything as partisan and confrontational. Potato chips can be perceived as partisan and confrontational! That certainly doesn’t mean everyone else has to conform to every insane human perception, and ruin a perfectly tasty snack in the process.”

    That’s the genius behind Timbuk2. My fave backpack of all time. The thing even has a bottle opener on the shoulder strap to help wash down the chips !

  24. dikranmarsupial says:

    “People have the unique capacity to perceive almost anything as partisan and confrontational. ” indeed, it is a great excuse to avoid having to deal with the content of the message and hence risk changing your position.

  25. dikranmarsupial says:

    Joshua wrote “If a message is perceived by an audience as partisan and confrontational, does it make sense to say that the message isn’t partisan or confrontational?”

    Yes, it does. If the audience chooses to interpret a message as having an implicit meaning that was not actually present in the message, then that meaning was only ever present in the minds of the audience, and not the message. Now if the message was sent deliberately in the knowledge that it would be perceived by the intended audience as partisan and confrontational then the message might be regarded as such, however it depends on the intentions of the sender of the message, not the receiver.

    “because there is always a context and part of the existing context around “consensus-messaging” is that it is a partisan context.

    This is where we disagree, if someone is pointing out the existence of a scientific consensus so that those who wish to do so can rationally align themselves with it, that is not a partisan context. One would hope that recognition of facts is a non-partisan issue (even if those facts do not support your position).

    “This is rather like saying that there is nothing about using the term denier that is confrontational…based on some decontextualized dictionary definition of “denier.””

    I disagree, I’d say that calling someone a denier is confrontational even with the (correctly) decontextualised dictionary definition of “denier” (substituting an unintended context as an excuse to reject the message is often a rhetorical device to avoid having to deal with its content), because it is making the discussion personal, rather than presenting objective facts about the nature of reality (which is why I generally avoid the term but am happy to talk about “denial”, although I’d much rather discuss the science). Having said which, sometimes being confrontational is the right thing.

  26. I wouldn’t start any discussion about climate change with uninformed people by launching straight into consensus messaging at the start. That would sound a little desperate. But in any discussion someone is very likely to say, early on—in all innocence—something like, “don’t scientists disagree about the causes?” This is the perfect moment to gently correct their misunderstanding by explaining just how united scientists are in agreeing the causes of climate change. To not mention the consensus at that point would be a dereliction of duty as a science communicator.

  27. John Hartz says:

    Recommended supplemental reading:

    Science confirms it: Denial of climate change is all about the politics by Chelsea Harvey, Energy & Environment, Washington Post, Feb 22, 2016

    Harvey’s article summarizes a new paper published Monday in the Nature Climate Change, Meta-analyses of the determinants and outcomes of belief in climate change.

  28. Tadaaa says:

    @ oneillsinwisconsin
    [i]johnrussell brings up a point I’ve often made; responses to invalid claims are not to dissuade the author of the claim from his false beliefs, but to lay down a marker for other readers. On many blogs the number of lurkers far outweighs the number of commenters. Engaging with a blog author or commenter provides the lurkers with the necessary information to make reasonable decisions.[/i]

    absolutely right – I have said this a lot recently, in fact in some reply’s on the most contrarian sites/threads I actually state I am addressing the “lurkers”

    like creationist, if the deniers where going to be swayed by simple evidence or rational thought they would not be where they obviously are – which is down a deep rabbit hole.

    as you say one can only hope to arm the lurkers with enough information to think more rationally and critically

    people have looked into this topic btw

    https://www.nngroup.com/articles/participation-inequality/

    it is known as the 90-9-1 rule

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