Science communication or psychological warfare?

Image Credit – jinterwas (via Flickr)

Those fighting the battle to make the general public take climate change seriously may well have a new weapon in their arsenal: psychological warfare.  Research published recently has shed light on just why polarisation of opinion about the risks of mankind’s contribution to global warming is so common.  A team of researchers from Yale University Law School, Connecticut, tested the commonly-held view that more scientifically literate individuals are more likely to agree with the dangers of climate change and found the reverse to be true: the more versed a person is in science, the less likely they are to perceive climate change as a risk (Nature, DOI:10.1038/nclimate1547).  The research also shows that psychological factors, specifically ‘cultural cognition’ – the tendency to form perception of risk that reflect groups one identifies with – is a far more significant factor in how people form attitudes to the dangers of climate change.

Researcher Donald Braman and colleagues tested the knowledge of, and ability to reason about, science of over 1,500 members of the public as well as gathering information about their political leanings. “We found that there isn’t a straightforward relationship between science comprehension and climate change risk perceptions,” says Braman.  “Instead, greater science comprehension either increased or decreased risk perception depending on the group values people held.”  The more an individual favoured traditional conservative views, the less likely they were to be concerned by climate change risks.  Although this may not come as a surprise to some, the study may have implications for those in the position of communicating risks of climate change and other technologies to a variety of publics.  “We tend to search out information from people like us,” says Braman, “and find the arguments they make more persuasive than the ones that people unlike us make.  Climate change is not unique but it is representative of a special class of issues.  It is important to figure out why some reflect cultural division while so many don’t.”

In order to try and counter the polarising nature of cultural cognition the researchers recommend two strategies: employ science communicators from a variety of cultures, and utilise ‘information-framing’ techniques that invest policy solutions with resonance congenial to diverse groups.  Framing science in such a way has divided opinion for decades, but Ian Short, Chief Executive of the Institute for Sustainability, London, is one proponent of the method.  “A big part of getting people to understand climate risks is about empowering people, to give them the opportunity to have a say and engage.  Let’s shape the messages and activities around what’s important to the public, that way people will start to get engaged, and the more engaged they are, the more open they are to having conversations about what is actually happening to the climate.”

According to Short, looking at climate issues the right way is of key importance.  “There’s a huge range of things which I think can have a huge impact.  Quality of environment is a big thing, and the jobs agenda, or fuel poverty: we shape our messages around how the climate is having an impact in terms of people’s ability to warm their homes.”

These tactics extend beyond the need to communicate to the public the risk of just climate change.  According to Braman and his team, the relative risks of other technologies that people tend to underestimate, because the dangers appear remote and less emotionally charged than, say,  nuclear power, could also benefit from the careful adoption of framing.  Not all scientists, however, agree that this is a good tactic.

“In my opinion the facts should be reported unadulterated and not dressed up in any other way,” says Paul Fennell, a carbon capture expert at Imperial College, London.  “You can do all you like to dress things up in ways that you think that people will understand, but it’s highly dangerous.  Climate sceptics will jump on you and accuse you of blurring the facts, even though in reality it is those individuals it who are trying to muddy the waters.”

For Fennell, the solution to apathy to the dangers of climate change lies in a different form of communication: educative training.  “More money should be spent on improving scientific literacy,” he maintains.  “Journalists need to be improving their understanding of science and their understanding of whether to frame something as a debate and whether or not to give air time to fringe groups.  They frequently misinterpret or misrepresent what the science says, whether by accident or occasionally by design.”

Whether the war against apathy to climate change will be won by education, information-framing or a mixture of the two will remains to be seen.  What is clear, however, is that the more we understand about just how sensitive, highly-politicised issues such as climate change become so polarised, the more ammunition scientists will have at their disposal to combat the army of naysayers.

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Rayner Simpson is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, London. He is also a former editor of Refractive Index. 


One comment

  1. There was a long article on BBC News at 10 last night all about the freakish weather we’ve had this year – drought followed by floods, etc., with lots of footage of weather and people talking about how they had been affected by it. Unbelievably, the question of WHY the weather is all over the place was never asked once; the possibility that it might be a result of climate change was never mentioned. It was just presented as “here’s some crazy weather – shit happens, eh?”.

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