My first reaction to the papier du jour among climate communications activists was “meh.” It’s not that Chris Mooney’s latest ruminations on the gap between what the public thinks about scientific issues and what scientists have to say isn’t worth reading. It’s just that we’ve been down this road so many times now, the standards of what passes for new and remarkable are getting rather high.
That didn’t stop Andy Revkin, Joe Romm, and Evil Monkey from posting lengthy and hard-hitting responses, though. So I gave it a second look, and I’ve now concluded that “Do Scientists Understand the Public?” does give one useful idea some new clothes. That being the suggestion of a kind of equivalency of blame among scientists and the public. In his Washington Post precis of the paper, Mooney asks “what if the fault actually lies with both sides?”
I am reminded of the false equivalency that so many journalists afforded “both sides” in the public conversation about anthropogenic climate change. Somewhat ironically, this is an idea that Mooney successfully criticized in his first book, The Republican War on Science. So could it really be possible that scientists are as much to blame as the denialists for the failure to convince millions of Americans that scientists know what they’re talking about when they warn us that pouring more fossil-fuel emissions into the atmosphere will warm the planet to levels that pose a threat to civilization?
Having just returned from a weekend in Nashville listening to Al Gore make a respectable stab at reinvigorating his PowerPoint troops, the question of how best to get our message across to those who aren’t already on our side is front and center this week. It seems that we’re all just preaching to the choir. The denial zombies, who stagger nonplussed through an environment rife with worrisome climatological projections backed by solid science, seem impervious to both rational and emotional argument.
Indeed, I can think of no better an metaphor for the pseudoskeptics who refuse to accept the science. The one thing that is symptomatic of all zombies — by coincidence, today is Zombie Day here at ScienceBlogs — is a complete lack of concern for their own condition. They are impervious to anything that would give normal people pause.
So Mooney’s thoughts are particularly timely. Are scientists just as guilty as the zombies of the crimes that led us into this polarized impasse? Is it really true that “a more scientifically informed public is not necessarily a public that will more frequently side with scientists”?
Much is made by Mooney and others of the finding that the most-educated Republicans are less likely to accept the science of climate change than their least-educated party colleagues. Indeed, there are few other data points that inform this argument. (Democrats exhibit the more predictable, opposite trend, and most of the other evidence marshaled consists of social science speculation.) He concludes that
… politics comes first on such a contested subject, and better information is no cure-all — people are likely to simply strain it through an ideological sieve. In fact, more education probably makes a global warming skeptic more persuasive, and more adept at collecting information and generating arguments sympathetic to his or her point of view.
But does this mean, as Mooney argues, that zombies’ minds could be susceptible to change, if only the scientists understood zombie psychology better, and took ideology into account? My own take leads me in a different direction. If the zombies consistently disregard the facts of science in favor of the faith of ideology, then there’s really no point in trying to engage them at all. Pollster Anthony Leiserowitz, who seems to be making a living asking people about their thoughts on climate science, tells the journal Nature that there are limits to what even the best science communicators can do.
“Even if climate-change scientists suddenly had the abilities of Carl Sagan to bring complex ideas to the public, there’s only so much they can do,” says Leiserowitz. “It’s hubristic to think that if we could just communicate better, suddenly we would change the world.”
It’s not a very comforting thought, but maybe trying to change a zombie’s mind is a waste of time. Should we instead be focusing exclusively on policy-makers and other members of the “elite” strata that the zombies hold in contempt? That approach makes all this musing over why the zombies think they way they do moot.
[Profile picture of me at upper left by Joseph Hewitt.]
There is also the question of how long each strategy will take to bring about the required change. I suspect that the solutions (as nebulous as they are) advocated by Mooney would take a long time. And it’s time we don’t have. If fossil-fuel emissions need to be on their way down by 2015, as many have convincingly argued, then we don’t have the luxury of chipping away at zombie intransigence with sophisticated and subtle communications tools. We need to effect change now.
I have no idea whether there’s much hope of changing public policy without dragging the public along. But I know of few examples in history where urgent policy shifts waited for public support. That’s why we have representative, rather than direct, democracy. Isn’t it?