Science communication

I listened to one of Andy Revkin’s Twitter broadcasts with Randy Olson which discussed if science communication was worse now than it was 100 years ago. I’ve actually read most of Randy Olson’s book, where he introduces his 3-step model for science communication.

I found the discussion quite interesting, and I think he makes some good points about the importance of narrative. The argument seems to be that there is a huge problem with misinformation and that scientists missed a great opportunity, in the past, to engage with those who had expertise is creating appealing narratives.

His prime example was Michael Crichton, a very successful author and filmmaker, who had a scientific background. He acknowledged that Crichton later started promoting science denial, which he suggested was partly a response to being ignored by the scientific community. What he doesn’t seem to consider is that this is a classic example of the power of motivated reasoning and illustrates why it is so challenging to effectively communicate contentious scientific topics.

My issue with this whole kind of narrative is the idea that if only scientists had done something different, we wouldn’t be in this current mess. I have no doubt that there are many things that scientists could have done better, but that’s true for almost anything. What I’m yet to be convinced of is that there was some relatively simple thing that could have been done that would have substantively changed where we are today. I don’t really think that there was.

It’s not even clear that scholars in relevant disciplines even agree about what misinformation is being spread and who is doing it. There are prominent, and well-regarded, scholars in some disciplines who are regarded, in other disciplines, as associating positively with those who promote misinformation and potentially even spreading it themselves. How are we meant to counter this when there is this kind of disconnect between disciplines?

I highlighted this disconnect on Twitter and was basically told by another scholar that I was in a Twitter echo chamber and that most of the vocal people in my circle are not engaged with or trusted by governments (which was a bit odd, given who I would regard this as including). Even if this was a valid criticism, it still seems to highlight the problem with trying to counter misinformation.

To be clear, I don’t really have some simple solution to this conundrum. I think effectively countering misinformation is very challenging, and I do agree that scientists who engage publically could learn from those with expertise in creating appealing narratives. I don’t, though, think that there is some simple way for scientists to engage that would somehow solve this problem, especially given that it seems that those who try, can end up in conflict with scholars from other relevant disciplines.

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37 Responses to Science communication

  1. I hear you. I agree that it is unfortunate the scientists get blamed for the resistance to scientific facts that is so powerful and strongly held. A similiar thing happens with blaming “alarmists” for creating pushback from the science-deniers. The notion there is that if alarmed folks were more exact and unemotional in their communications, then the facts would have been accepted by the denier community and things would be very different from what we see around us in the world today. In both instances, there may be some truth to the blame game being played, but I think the science-deniers are fundamentally motivated by different issues and this blame the scientists or alarmed laypersons argument does not explain the anti-science crowd. Not even close in my opinion.

    It’s like blaming theologians/ethicist philosoophers and abolititionists for the intransigence of slave owners in the 19th century. In both instances, slavery and fossil fuels, there are vested interests that probably account for the bulk of the motivated resistance. Follow the money.

  2. Some of us were scared (or scarred) for life by a certain Crichton screenplay from the 1970’s. This was the lead sentence by a recently retired CDC virologist in March of last year:

    “The public health challenge of our generation is right in front of us. SARS-CoV-2 appears to be the Andromeda strain that public health workers fear to see emerging.”

    Wonder what Crichton’s stance would be if he were alive today?

  3. Eli Rabett says:

    Sometimes you wonder why Eli has given up (pretty much) the blogging, but let the Bunny whiz you back to 2011 https://rabett.blogspot.com/2011/03/blaming-other-guy-copying-from-guy-who.html

    “Kloor, Randy Olson and to an extent Andy Revkin, but a whole lot of other people appear to think that scientists are lousy communicators, and indeed, a whole lot of scientists agree and there are workshops, meetings and even, shudder, blogs, devoted to self improvement, or not. This goes into the file under missing the point.

    It’s not that scientists are or are not lousy communicators (say that and Eli will lock you in a room with Richard Alley for example), but that journalists are lousy communicators. It’s their fecking (emphasis added) job and they are screwing it up to a fare-thee-well. It ain’t just climate either. What journalists produce often makes the average cut and paste student paper blush with modesty”

    Several journalists left the Eli Rabett fan club immediately after that one

  4. Eli,
    Yes, now that you mention it, I do remember that post. I agree, I think this was what journalists should have been doing, not scientists. Science communication is important, but it’s done by scientists who are aiming to communicate information. It’s not only their job to highlight the significance of this information. I recall mentioning this in a discussion with Ted Nordhaus, and he got somewhat annoyed by the suggestion. Makes me think it’s probably about right 🙂

  5. Something that also struck me is that there is an element of irony to this. Someone who professes expertise in how to develop convincing narratives is irritated that, despite trying to explain this for many years to scientists, they still haven’t taken their suggestions on board. 🤔

  6. There’s plenty of blame to get tossed around if that is your interest. Here’s an article about journalistic failure on climate change:

    WHAT REPORTERS GET WRONG: They focus on gloom and doom, desensitizing readers to the subject.

    “From my research, I’ve learned that there’s a huge body of research that shows that this gloom-and-doom narrative in climate change reporting leads people to tune out. This sort of daily drip of stories — the warmest year on record; the least amount of ice in the Bering sea; a month ago it was the decline of outdoor ice skating rinks in Canada — it just reaches this point where people feel hopeless and overwhelmed. And when we feel that way, psychologists say, we tend to just avoid and deny, and tune out.”

    Journalism is hampered by the “if it bleeds, it leads” model, but hey, somebody is selling something in journalism, right? That model is about sales, revenue, what have you.

    https://journalistsresource.org/environment/climate-change-reporting-tipsheet-elizabeth-arnold/

    I think folks are having trouble avoiding, tuning out and denying these days. Do we need to move on to the “who do we blame?” game as our predicament becomes more apparent every year? It’s time to talk about the changes we need to make. All of them. All at once. Methane emissions? they have to be reduced dramatically. CO2 emissions? we have to reduce them dramatically. What do we want? emission reductions! when do we want them? How about now?

    Which one is more important? Wrong question. Emission reductions now. If that is the answer you are coming up with, you are asking the right question.

    Cheers

    Mike

  7. William Connolley says:

    The idea of engaging with Crichton seems weird: from my memory, he had no context in GW until he published SoF, by which time he was a nutter. Prior to that he was just a pop author, who was unsurprisingly ignored because he was of no interest.

    I’m with you on the irony of journos complaining about scientists lack of comms skilz. Where I would fault science types, quite possibly including myself but not any more, would be on the “follow the science” type stuff, and forgetting about the econ. Or, put another way, failing to realise how much the public is attached to their CO2-emitting lifestyle and how much resistance, up to and exceeding not believing things that are inconvenient, they’d put up. Perhaps that should also include failing to realise that the public can’t check the science for themselves, in any meaningful way, and would simply have to rely on authority, and that the public wouldn’t automatically select The Scientists as their authority.

  8. Jon Kirwan says:

    “What I’m yet to be convinced of is that there was some relatively simple thing that could have been done that would have substantively changed where we are today. I don’t really think that there was.”

    Agreed.

    And reading through the posts so far, William Connolley expresses my mental state on this topic with surprising accuracy. His second paragraph isn’t my words, but the gestalt formed from them matches my own almost perfectly. I don’t have anything to add to it.

  9. Chubbs says:

    Yes WC strikes a chord. The economy/energy system message is important. The fossil resource base is depleting, technology stagnating, and climate impacts increasing. When it comes to messaging on climate-related economic issues, I’d switch from defense to offense.

  10. angech says:

    CO2 is increasing.
    CO2 produced by humans is increasing.
    CO2 is one of the GHG
    Temperatures increase with GHG increase.
    If the temperature increases too much some of the consequences may be bad.
    Now there is a framework to build a discussion on.

  11. WMC,

    Where I would fault science types, quite possibly including myself but not any more, would be on the “follow the science” type stuff, and forgetting about the econ. Or, put another way, failing to realise how much the public is attached to their CO2-emitting lifestyle and how much resistance, up to and exceeding not believing things that are inconvenient, they’d put up.

    In a simple sense, a scientists doesn’t need to realise this if they simply want to discuss science in public. However, you are right that if their intent is to potentially influence how people perceive some issue and to then act on that, then they should realise that there are lots of other factors that influence how they might respond and that it’s likely to be very challenging to get people to make substantive changes to their lifestyles.

  12. Chubbs says:

    Climate scientists don’t seem like the best option to present a story about “lifestyle” or “economic future”. Perhaps the failure is not networking more effectively with those that could. Of course networking needs to work both ways. The RCP85 discsussion is a sad example – would think at least some of the silo’d participants could be allies in improving communication about the future.

  13. Chubbs,

    The RCP85 discsussion is a sad example – would think at least some of the silo’d participants could be allies in improving communication about the future.

    Indeed, a very frustrating discussion. It really tainted my view of some people who I had thought quite well of before that.

    This may illustrate a lack of self-reflection on my part, but I really felt as though I was part of a group who were agreeing with a lot of the criticism while trying to point out that it maybe wasn’t quite as simple as some people were claiming. This, however, just didn’t seem good enough for those who seemed to be simply trying to promote a definitive narrative.

    Also, it is an example where people who mostly seem quite sensible suddenly align with those who are regarded as promoting misinformation just because they suddenly agree on one thing. So, how are you meant to counter misinformation when mostly sensible people start promoting a narrative that appears to validate the views of those who mostly promote misinformation?

  14. mdenison says:

    Scientists are excellent communicators. You don’t get to convince the UN to create the IPCC if you cannot communicate well. Since then the press has been awash with the data and explanations provided by climate scientists. Not exactly a failure to communicate.

    Here is a CarbonBrief article on a 1981 ITV documentary. Anyone think the scientists speaking in this documentary failed to communicate?

    https://www.carbonbrief.org/warming-warning-1981-tv-documentary-warned-climate-change

  15. mdenison,
    Indeed, you’re pointing out something I’ve highlighted before. If climate scientists are such lousy communicators how did get the world’s agreement agree to act on climate change? That they haven’t really done so, isn’t really an indication of some kind of communication failure. The message has clearly been communicated, it’s policy makers who’ve failed to take the next steps.

  16. Ben McMillan says:

    I think part of the success of science communication over the last couple of decades is that various economists and NGOs and government bodies are now planning for net-zero, so if climate scientists get asked about how to achieve it, they can just defer to someone else.

    For example, you can point at the reports of IEA or BEIS or the EU.

    It is a pity some of the energy-analysts/tech-bros (especially the supply-siders) have been less helpful: I recall an RCP85-related twitter conversation where one seemed completely unable to see the point of considering what-if scenarios. It must be something, to be so certain of the future that you only need look down the “one true path”. Must make playing chess a lot quicker, too…

  17. Ben,
    One of the ironies of the RCP8.5 debate is that some of those who are telling scientists what they should, or should not, do are the same people who’ve complained about the way in which they’ve been criticised for what they’re promoted.

  18. Mal Adapted says:

    If the temperature increases too much some of the consequences may be bad.
    Now there is a framework to build a discussion on.

    I suppose that’s as close to explicit acceptance of the climate-science consensus as we’ll get from you, Doc. It sounds like you’re still overlooking the already-bad consequences of global warming to date, however. IOW, your accustomed lukewarmism. If you’re willing to deprecate the money and tragedy already paid for the economically-driven transfer of fossil carbon to the atmosphere by the gigatons annually, you may not fully apprehend the concept of a socialized cost. Let’s add it to your framework to build a discussion on.

  19. Willard says:

    Nice find, mdenison!

    Added it to my But Advocacy page:

    “But Advocacy”

    Not sure it goes there, but for now that’s where it’ll go.

  20. Thomas Fuller says:

    You’re probably correct in writing that scientists could not have changed the trajectory of the climate conversation. But I think they (you) could have done a better job of protecting science.

  21. Tom,
    Thanks, good to see you’re still comfortable pointing the finger at others (I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “protecting science” or what people should have been doing to achieve this).

  22. russellseitz says:

    in the wake of his “Do Aliens Cause Global Warming? ” speech at CalTech, Mike Crichton and the Usual Suspects debated Gavin et.al. in New York, and, by virtue of knowing a lot more about method acting than the average climatologist, prevailed in the audience vote.

    Another author directed him to me before his Cal Tech gig , and though I tried to explain the difference, he persisted, quite deliberately, in applying my critique of iteration in 1-D model parametrization to unrelated GCM projections.

    Mike was an MD who never practiced, because he wrote a hit Hollywood script while stll an intern,

    Becauseof his stature- he was closer to seven than six feet tall, he realized his life expectancy was limited , and his climate polemics may have reflected a desire to be remembered as a public intellectual rather than the great entertainer that he was.

  23. Willard says:

    If only investors had a clear headed explanation of the risks that AGW brings:

  24. russellseitz says:

    If Pastor is correct in viewing financial markets as the best extant information processing machine , Murdoch should fire the Wall Street Journal Ed Board for endangering its readers- and Murdoch’s net worth by getting in the way of risk evaluation by its science journalists.

  25. Joshua says:

    > It’s not that scientists are or are not lousy communicators (say that and Eli will lock you in a room with Richard Alley for example), but that journalists are lousy communicators. It’s their fecking (emphasis added) job and they are screwing it up to a fare-thee-well. It ain’t just climate either. What journalists produce often makes the average cut and paste student paper blush with modesty

    Imo, this is as facile as blaming scientists.

    Journalists don’t create motivated reasoning in their readers.

    Underlying identity-aggressive and identity-defensive cognition is in play, along with a good mix of basic human psychology and basic patterns of human cognition (pattern-finding, cognitive biases, etc.)

    It’s nonsense to say that it would have been better had those idi0t journalists only done their job better, just as it is to say it would have been better had those idi0t scientists only done their job better.

    Maybe marginal improvements would have occurred but the underlying mechanics would have been pretty much the same. Fox News, Inhoff, Creighton, etc., wouldn’t have just gone “Oh, now that I see that reporter did better reporting, I feel very differently. Let’s impose a carbon tax asap.”

  26. russellseitz says:

    The scariest thing about feckless science journalism is that some of it appears in what are esteeemed to be the most rigoroulsly peer reviewed journals.

    Joshua notes :
    “It’s nonsense to say that it would have been better had those idi0t journalists only done their job better, just as it is to say it would have been better had those idi0t scientists only done their job better.:

    But the ground state of science journalism is that the distribution of idiocy between science and journalism is not gaussian

    Media catering to, and often satisfying, demand for what the French ( who also gave us deformation professionelle ) style vulgarisation scientifique are often given a pass for running under-fact checked material. It is quite another thing for it appear as news in Science .

  27. Joshua,

    It’s nonsense to say that it would have been better had those idi0t journalists only done their job better, just as it is to say it would have been better had those idi0t scientists only done their job better.

    I don’t think the argument is that it *would* have been better. The suggestion is that the job that people are suggesting that scientists did badly is really the job that journalist should have been doing. They’re criticising the wrong people. You’re right that even if journalists had done a much better job, we may still be in roughly the same place now as we are today, but that doesn’t really change that the responsibility for communicating this to the broader public probably lay more with journalists than with scientists.

  28. Joshua is correct in assigning responsibility to the readers of both scientists and journalists. But they are the readers we have. Of course it doesn’t help when journalists and scientists occasionally utter nonsense, as both groups do (journalists being guiltier than scientists, of course), which has led to the public at large ignoring climate science as something that has not yet been adjudicated.

    My question is what level of education do you really want in the general public? As a fan of nuclear power I really wish people understood it better. But what do you want people to understand about the policies you advocate?

    By and large, the public understands that the climate is changing and that scientists are worried about it. They understand that scientists have communicated that worry to politicians, who are advocating policies to address it.

    That’s about the level of understanding they have towards, for example, trade policy. What more do you want from a public that generally wants just to be left alone?

  29. Tom,

    which has led to the public at large ignoring climate science as something that has not yet been adjudicated.

    Which public are you thinking of? I don’t think this claim is remotely true. I suspect most of the public regard climate change as being something that has largely been adjudicated, even if they don’t entirely appreciate what might need to be done to address it.

  30. Every survey I have seen since 2010 shows that people accept that the climate is changing and that we are contributing to it. Almost every survey I have seen in the same time frame shows that it is not something they think much about. And most surveys show that they are not in favor of expensive policies to address it.

    So leaders have to lead. Of course scientists have to inform and journalists communicate. But mitigation and adaptation are political issues and politicians have to do the bulk of the work persuading a recalcitrant public.

  31. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    > The suggestion is that the job that people are suggesting that scientists did badly is really the job that journalist should have been doing.

    OK. That makes sense. Yes, it’s not uncommon for journalist to misconvey what scientists say.

  32. Joshua says:

    Tom –

    > Joshua is correct in assigning responsibility to the readers of both scientists and journalists.

    […]

    >> Of course it doesn’t help when journalists and scientists occasionally utter nonsense, as both groups do (journalists being guiltier than scientists, of course), which has led to the public at large ignoring climate science…

    Your first statement shows you agree with me while your second statement shows that you disagree with me.

    No, I don’t think that occasional utterance of “nonsense” [be it by journalists or scientists] is a significant determinent of public opinion on climate change. The mechanicism of public opinion on climate change is much more complicated than that – even if it doesn’t fit as neatly with your preferred narritaive.

  33. Chubbs says:

    The knowledge level of the American public on climate science is rather low. Plenty of misinformation circulates and outright science denial is favored by an influential demographic. Plenty of blame to go around, but I wouldn’t put climate scientists at the top of the list.

  34. russellseitz says:

    ATTP:
    “even if journalists had done a much better job… that doesn’t really change that the responsibility for communicating this to the broader public probably lay more with journalists than with scientists.”

    The disturbing reality is that fewer newspapers of record emply science editors today than at the close of the 20h century.

    Weekly science sections , once the norn in major financial papers tle the WSJ, have disappeared in the wake of Murdoch takeovers.

  35. mrkenfabian says:

    To me it doesn’t seem like a mystery – people holding offices of public trust have duties of care that require them (or should) to both get well informed and inform the public honestly. Having requested expert advice – to avoid precipitous and unnecessary actions – they have an obligation to take it seriously. Scientists formally provide the reports and studies requested by policy makers and Officeholders can draw on qualified people to help makes sense of them. If there is any innate right for them to ignore or disparage such reports it isn’t apparent to me except in the broadest sense of “politician must be free to act without fear of lawsuits”. Duty of Care, not Will of an Electorate that has been subjected to deliberate and sustained efforts to undermine trust should prevail.

    I see the framing of this as purely a Will of the Electorate issue – where “leaders” don’t lead and won’t act until and unless the public demands it – as purposeful by organised opposition to climate accountability, to distract from that Duty of Care and for justifications for passing over it.

    Without that direct responsibility being taken up by those in positions of trust on the basis of the science based advice – ie neglegence – it does revert to public opinion as expressed at elections (if you live where there are elections).

    Company directors and ceo’s have duties of care also (or should) and be subject to legal redress for harms their business activities do, especially knowingly. “But it so confusing – maybe the skeptics are right” – whilst assiduously avoiding actually being informed might provide legal defense but I suspect the principle legal defense is the reluctance of courts to make clear rulings.

    Journalists and news editors also have professional standards (or should) that ought to bind them to do their homework and pass on climate science in ways that are consistent with mainstream climate science – but if other kinds of companies find they must bow to the facts large parts of the media industry want to (and successfully) decide what the relevant facts are. They look complicit in the evasions of Duty of Care of politicians and ceo’s and in framing the issue as about will of the electorate – and in providing the justifications to doubt and pass over the science based advice. And courts look even less able to demand accountability with big media than with politicians or ceo’s. Especially earlier on, when the perceived wisdom was that humans impacting climate was not widely accepted making it about the will of the people worked against committing to action. Now it is more about NOT doing the will of the people, which requires “the wedge” – dividing the majority that take it seriously to prevent unanimity of purpose that leads to committing to action.

    Having overwhelming public demand for climate action would be great but I think the principle reasons that we have waited so long to see even a clear majority demand it – let alone an undivided majority – has been the failures of those who have the Duties of Care and the Professional Standards that should have required them to take the science based advice seriously. It has not ever been a failure of communication by scientists.

  36. TYSON MCGUFFIN says:

    Carl Sagan was a more appropriate model to emulate for efectvely communicating scientific topics. Certainly not Michael Crichton.

    Here is Dr Sagan from 30 years ago

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