What to do with the climate denial zombies

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?


More like this

Something that occurred to me recently: in over a decade of arguing with people about GW on the internet, I can't recall even one single occasion when anybody (on either side) was ever persuaded to actually change their position. Change their talking points, yes, but not their position.

Anybody else?

The position of commenters may not have (publically) changed since lots of people have a problem saying they were wrong, but the vast majority of people reading a blog do not comment and may not have an entrenched position that they need to maintain against all data and arguement.

Yes, at least once.

1) A PhD biochemist was expressing doubts at RealClimate about climate modeling, of which he was very skeptical. After a lot of back-and-forth, it occurred to me that he was over-generalizing from software like protein-folding, a multi-stage process in which an error at one step can cause radically-different outcomes, and that was very different from climate modeling.

Once I explained that, light dawned on him.
See comment at RC that explains the specific ways people from different technical domains often overgeneralize.

2) In retrospect, this was a simple *communication* issue. The problem is that the number of people in the world who have any familiarity with both protein-folding-style computations and climate modeling is ... very limited. I my have been the only one in that particular discussion thread.
In general, the key requirement is to translate knowledge into terminology that makes sense to the listener.

3) For many people, +3C (for example) or "go read the IPCC" really don't mean anything. That's why I always recommend the USGCRP 2009 report, as it is well-written for a general audience, and especially because it has ~5 pages per region of the USA. That is *much* more impactful for most people, especially those who have children. Someone living in Arizona doesn't relate well to their area and that may get their attention. Likewise, +3C might sound good to Minnesota, but maybe more and bigger floods doesn't. +3C might sound good to Vermont, but the end of ski resorts, maple sugar, and foliage tourism probably doesn't.

4) But, all this begs the question. Should we blame medical researchers that 46 years after "The Surgeon General...", smoking is still widely prevalent?How do we apportion the responsibility:
X%: bad communication from scientists
100-X%: brilliant marketing and lobbying by tobacco companies

Of course, the climate anti=-science folks are some of the same people and organizations as learned the trade in the tobacco wars. The only way tobacco companies stay in business is to get kids addicted in ages 12-18, and they still manage to do this quiet effectively, even if they aren't allowed to make nice packages for candy-flavored tobacco like Twista Lime.

Compared to addicting kids to something often lethal, confusing people about climate is child's play by comparison. If I had a real wish, it's that we had a "tobacco archives" equivalent for the climate anti-science efforts.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 01 Jul 2010 #permalink

Let us not forget the expenditures of the fossil fuels industry. They are spending millions of dollars to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Scientists don't have a marketing budget. Mark Twain supposedly said "A lie can run around the world before the truth can tie its shoelaces." It appears that the lie is now using private jets.

By Chris Crawford (not verified) on 01 Jul 2010 #permalink

I'm surprised at the amount of fuss Mooneys' article has caused. Yes, the denial industry is highly effective, and yes, the media is dreadful at covering the subject (Ros Gelspan has an excellent article on his site about this).

But the fact remains, climate scientists in general (and here in the UK in particular) totally suck at getting their point across to either the media or the general public.

The BBC has pretty good science coverage, with various Professors popping up all over the place to explain their particular subject. Prof. Brian Cox does both a radio programme and has just finished a highly acclaimed TV series on the solar system (and he used to be a pop star). There are also academics fronting programmes about chemistry, physics, medicine, archaeology, biology, etc.
Climate change? Nothing. Nothing. Nobody. Zilch.

When they do have someone on to talk about the subject, they get people like Mike Hulme (whose misquoting the other week was bascially an accident waiting to happen, considering his complete ineptitude to give a simple straight answer). In short, climate change scientists don't bother to communicate at all, or if they do, so badly that it does them no good. Don't expect the better part of the media to do your heavy lifting for you - you have to give them a hand.

Denalists love a vacuum. Or failing that, they love an 'expert' who doesn't call them out on their misquotes and falsifications. The media will continue to give credence to these people while climate scientists hide in the shadows.

Bring some personality and some straight talk to the screen, and even the media might listen. Don't blame the messenger (Mooney) - he has a point, and someone had better start listening.

@Chris C:
Cute quote. I found two versions:

Mark Twain: "A lie can run around the world six times while the truth is still trying to put on its pants"

James Watt: "A lie can run around the world before the truth can get it's boots on"

Watt's is much earlier.

Policy makers are exactly the level to aim at, and on this the scientists have had spectacular success. The anti-science stuff is to a large extent just a side-show and has little practical effect. Recently the NAS and other bodies have made efforts to make public statements on climate change, but again these are likely to have their greatest effect by reinvigorating the policy makers.

By Tony Sidaway (not verified) on 03 Jul 2010 #permalink

Late to the party here, but...

> "the most-educated Republicans are less likely to accept the science of climate change"

Question - what happens (and why didn't I think of this last month) when you hang out at a college graduation and survey the young Dems&Repubs then - which'd minimize Fox-news-type influences, and maximize college-education-type influences.

IMO we have to accept that there's a half-life to formal education, esp. where disinformation runs rampant; but it'd still be interesting to know if formal education was in fact doing its job, in educating its students while it had them.