Somewhat to my surprise, on Tuesday night I found myself in front of a packed audience at the Royal Institution, pointing wildly at comedian Marcus Brigstocke and crying “hypocrite!” like some deranged fundamentalist. I was trying to make the point that understanding the truth of a scientific position doesn’t necessarily lead to behaviour change. We were both part of a panel, chaired by physicist Helen Czerski, debating ‘Science and the Dark Arts of Persuasion’ – there’s a good summary of the event here. Also on the panel were psychologist Bruce Hood, who explained how easy it is persuade people because we like to agree with each other and how marketers exploit this instinct, and philosopher Barry Smith, who had some amazing facts about how the senses deceive (e.g., crisps taste crispier if the packet crackles!)
As part of my brief presentation on rhetoric, I’d asked the audience how many of them believed we need to take action to limit carbon emissions. All hands went up. I then asked how many of them drove a car. Lots of hands stayed up, including Marcus’s.
There are lots of reasons why people continue to drive – among them the convenience of driving in a society largely structured around an assumption of car use, and the futility of individual action if most other people just carry on as before – but a lack of understanding about the connection between car exhausts and climate change is not necessarily one of them. Denouncing Marcus as a hypocrite was a rhetorical flourish (I was talking about rhetoric, so why not?!) but in truth, deciding to drive is perfectly rational. More and more information about the science of climate change won’t alone change behaviours that are determined by complex social and cultural considerations.
Another example I gave came up several times in the ensuing discussion, so I thought it would be worth saying a bit more about it here. Each year, we ask our students on the MSc in Science Communication to go off and make something (and yes, we really are that vague). A couple of years ago, one group (Thea Cunningham, Charlie Harvey and Rachel Jones) decided to design some posters encouraging people to take more exercise. They made two large posters, which they displayed on consecutive days beside the lifts at the two-storey offices of Barnet Council.
The first poster explained why taking the stairs was good for you. The students hung around long enough to count the stair-or-lift decisions of about 400 people and compared it to the previous day when there was no poster. They found a slightly higher proportion took the stairs when the information poster was there – 60% compared with 55% the day before.
The next day, they displayed a different poster. This one showed a monster peeking out from behind the doors of the lift. That day, 64% took the stairs.
This wasn’t a rigorous scientific experiment (the point of the exercise was to get the students to do something creative, not test a hypothesis). The changes were small on both days, and it’s possible that the information poster had primed people for the monster poster the next day. But still. More people took the stairs on the day there was a monster in the lift.
At the Royal Institution debate, Helen Czerski recalled a similar, but far more serious, example. Scientists were concerned that residents in some US states were not making adequate preparations for the possibility of a hurricane strike. Someone had the idea of a publicity campaign warning that the ‘zombies’ were coming. It worked. People made sure they had hurricane kits at the ready.
Perhaps they really thought the zombies were on their way – you never know with Americans. But I’m pretty sure the good workers at Barnet Council didn’t really think there was a monster in the lift. Rather, that little bit of humour was enough to nudge a few extra people towards the stairs – people who already knew perfectly well that a bit of exercise would be good for them but needed an extra prod to make the effort.
And that’s why I’ll try not to get too cross about Marcus Brigstocke driving a car. He’s a comedian who feels passionately about taking action on climate change. By using comedy to get that message across, he is able to engage audiences who otherwise just won’t feel moved by earnest explanations of the science.
Dr Felicity Mellor is Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Imperial College London.