Message from communications research: Climate change is real. Repeat. Repeat again.

There is an ongoing feud about value in communicating the scientific consensus on climate change to the public. One side argues that we need to talk about the consensus in order to raise public awareness about climate change. A new review article by John Cook and Peter Jacobs (also described in the Guardian) reviews the evidence for “consensus messaging”.  The counterargument, proposed by Dan Kahan and others, is that talking about consensus will increase political polarization about climate change.

A recent paper by Kahan called “Climate Science Communication and the Measurement Problem” suggests the disagreement among communications researchers is related to the “contamination of education and politics with forms of cultural status competition”. It is a fascinating paper with a lot of important findings. But I wonder if, deep in the data, there may be evidence that the drumbeat of climate change news and outreach campaigns has actually been effective.

The core result of the paper is described by the following figure:

Kahan 2014 - Fig 7 - no legendIf people were rationally assessing scientific information, higher science comprehension would translate into higher perceived risk from climate change (left panel). Kahan’s experiments find the opposite for people on the right of the political spectrum (red, right panel). That’s been the headline: for conservatives, better knowledge of climate science might mean less concern about climate change.

In other words, when people go beyond the basics, opinions become polarized. That is not very surprising, given that someone on the right of the political spectrum with greater interest and/or ability in science who looks for information about climate change may head to right-wing media and blogs, which often house an alternate universe of “facts” about climate change.

What is more surprising are the results for people with low “science comprehension”.

Why are people with low science comprehension on both the left and the right of the political spectrum perceiving moderate to high risk from climate change? If people’s views on climate change are defined more by their cultural identity than by the facts of the case, why would people on the right of the spectrum with low science comprehension have even moderate concern about climate change?

This opinion about the risk from climate change must derive from something. It isn’t a detailed knowledge of the science, or the problem. Otherwise, the people would fall elsewhere on the graph. It also isn’t their community. Their community, if defined correctly, generally believes the risk from climate change to be low.

What’s happening? Perhaps there has been enough mention of climate change in the public domain, whether on the news, in private conversations, etc., that even those who pay scant little attention to science have been able to develop some level of concern about climate change.

It may be that, current polarization aside, the much-maligned information deficit model has actually worked, at least with very basic information, and in the way political messaging works. Years of repeating the general facts of the case – climate change is real, caused by humans, and poses a risk to the future – appears to have created a basic public consciousness about climate change.

2 thoughts on “Message from communications research: Climate change is real. Repeat. Repeat again.

  1. David – With respect to your first question – “you don’t cite a source for your assumption that there has been a increase in the perception of risk from climate change over time among those with “very low” “science comprehension” – this was an assumption. Presumably at some point in the past, perception of risk from greenhouse gas driven climate change was zero, simply because no one had ever heard of the idea. Kahan’s data suggests that now that perception of risk is moderate-to-high (~6 on his scale) among people with low science comprehension. Something led those people to that conclusion.

    Otherwise, I’m not defending the methods or definition of science comprehension in this or other work. The post is arguing that if we accept the findings as correct, embedded in them is some support for deficit model.

  2. In your analysis of the chart which you describe as the “core result” of the Kahan paper you don’t cite a source for your assumption that there has been a increase n the perception of risk from climate change over time among those with “very low” “science comprehension”. I’m wondering who has measured this, what criteria they used to define “science comprehension” and over what time period.

    Kahan states the data for “science comprehension” in the chart you display is ultimately based on a subset of the NSF set of questions contained in Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 Chapter 7. According to the NSF, about their own set of questions: “in the light of using a small number of questions… generalization about American’s knowledge of science should be made cautiously”.

    One might think that because Kahan uses a subset of this small number of NSF questions, anyone should be even more cautious about what “science comprehension” in his context might mean. Kahan just wanted to roughly chop up a population into a few groups he could categorize as more or less knowledgeable about “science”, and he used the NSF material because the NSF is an authority, and they have used these questions repeatedly over a long time.

    No one should believe that any particular individual classed as having “very high” “science comprehension” in Kahan’s analysis would actually be capable of reading and understanding a particular scientific paper. I wonder if they would even be able to describe the scientific method in the basic terms I was taught what it was in Grade 8.

    Just saying.

    I’ve found Kahan interesting enough to study him. However, he claims there is no difference between the left and the right parts of the political spectrum in terms of detachment from reality. His claim is that the left shows its bias over nuclear power while the right denies climate science, i.e. both sides get it wrong almost the same number of times. Kahan claims that anyone citing other data is just confusing “lumpiness” apparent in the dataset with a conclusion that can be drawn. It seems to me that the right is very much less in contact with reality than any other classifiable large political group, so it is here I part company with Kahan.

    Right wing consistent and arrogant denial that it is possible that anything human beings can do could possibly undermine the life support capacity of the planet will be seen one day as criminally irresponsible. What in left wing ideology threatens all life on the planet?

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