I might have to give Dan Kahan some credit. Even though I’m not convinced that consensus messaging is toxic and polarising in general, there are certainly circumstances in which it can be, as I discovered – again – on Twitter yesterday. There appear to be some physical scientists who object quite strongly to its use and, to be quite honest, I have some sympathy with their views; I don’t really like it either.
I wish we lived in a world in which what was obvious to those working in a field, was immediately obvious to everyone else. I wish we lived in a world where all you had to do was explain science clearly and carefully, and everyone would understand it, accept it, and recognise its significance. I wish we lived in a world in which scientists who engaged publicly would always include the caveats to their chosen scientific position, put it into the overall context, and explain how their scientific views were regarded by their peers. I wish we lived in a world in which the media did its best to avoid false balance and aimed to highlight which scientific views were accepted by most and which were disputed by many.
However, we don’t live in such a world. What’s obvious to those who work in a field is almost certainly not to those outside that field. Given that an understanding of the consensus (or lack thereof) is an important part of the scientific process, it would seem that an important part of communicating science is also communicating the level of agreement about the general scientific position. At a fundamental level, this is all that consensus messaging is about; there is a strong consensus about the basics of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).
Of course there might be secondary effects, and part of the research into consensus messaging is to study these secondary effects. If people accept that there is a consensus do they then accept that we’re warming and, if so, that it’s mostly us? If they accept this do they then accept the need for action and understand the need for climate policy? The latter issue appears to be one reason why some dislike consensus messaging; they seem to see it as inherently political. However, I think there are nuances here. We all do research and publicise it in order to inform. If our research is policy relevant then clearly it could be used by those who have political agendas. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this; informing the public, policy makers, and those who might influence policy is important.
As researchers, our obligation is simply to be open, honest, and transparent about our research, to explain it clearly and thoroughly, and to make it as difficult as possible for it to be mis-used. However, we can’t prevent people from using it to advance their policy preferences and we are not responsible if people misrepresent it in order to do so. So, I think that those who criticise consensus messaging should be careful to distinguish between the research that aims to illustrate the level of consensus and to understand the effectiveness of consensus messaging, and how it is used publicly; especially as they appear to be those whose research is also policy relevant. They might also want to consider that criticising its public use is inherently political, whether they like to admit this or not.
So, yes, I don’t really like consensus messaging either. I wish we could simply focus on communicating the science itself and, as a scientist myself, I do think this is crucial and important and is what we, as scientists, should be prioritising. However, I don’t see how we can do so effectively if people don’t at least understand the level of consensus with respect to the basics. I certainly regard consensus messaging as an attempt to make communicating the science easier, not as something that replaces good science communication; it’s intended to be complementary. I think it’s unfortunate that some seem to object so strongly to its use, especially as some seem comfortable saying things that they would regard as highly insulting if aimed at their research area.