At ClimateWire today [subscription], Julia Pyper has an article on an important topic: How can scientists and journalists work together to improve public understanding of climate change? What are the major reasons for past communication failures and what are the best paths forward?

I spoke with Pyper on the phone about this very complex topic for about 45 minutes last week.  This is a difficult topic to report on, much less produce on short deadline, with limited space, multiple perspectives, and with input from editors.  Unfortunately, in several of my arguments quoted, more context is necessary.  The article therefore provides an opportunity to usefully elaborate on several themes or to revisit arguments made in past posts, reports, or white papers.

Here’s the first quote that Pyper provides from me:

Matthew Nisbet, an associate professor at American University specializing in science communication, says there are two ways to improve the way scientists engage with journalists. Ni[s]bet says that scientists need to move beyond tactics that help explain the science better, and start thinking about strategic ways of communicating through new information channels. Many scientists are already doing this, Nisbet noted. They’re blogging, taking media training and working with journalists within their own institutions in order to better relay their message.

In this case, I distinguished during our conversation between communication tactics — which include better ways to describe or talk about specifics of climate science — and strategy which is much more than communicating through new information channels.  It instead involves a shift in how scientists and their institutions view their roles, requiring them to shift from that of information disseminator to that of institutional convenor and enabler of public participation.

This civic education approach would include, notably, investing systematically in regional public meetings where citizens could come together to plan, discuss, and connect on community-based and national policy actions. It would also include new models of news provision such as foundation and government agency supported digital news communities which would provide the localized information that regions currently now lack due to the historic distress to regional newspapers.  For more on this approach, see this white paper I contributed to the National Academies Committee on Climate Change Education and this post I authored the day after the 2010 midterm elections.

Here’s the next quote that deserves clarification and context:

Another important step, says Nisbet, is for scientists to discuss how their own political motives shape how they define the climate issue.”Helping scientists recognize how they view the world politically shapes how they communicate about the issue of climate change in assessing blame,” he said. “The scientific community is straitjacketed. They don’t want to appear as advocates or political, and yet all of their motivation is political and their definition of the problem is based on their own political leanings.” Many scientists, in talking about climate change, are trying to have the wider public come to see the issue and what should be done as they do, said Nisbet. And without acknowledging their biases, he said, some outspoken scientists can further cement the division on climate issues.

In this case, I think Pyper patched together multiple lines of reasoning that do not come out very clearly or reflect what I discussed with her.  The first argument is one I emphasized in the Climate Shift report.  As a natural human tendency, given scientists’ strong commitment to action on climate change and a left-leaning political identity, when assigning blame for societal inaction, scientists tend to focus on the efforts of conservatives and the faults of the media rather than reflecting critically on their own communication strategies or the impact of admired political leaders such as Al Gore.

To be clear, on the reality and causes of climate change, there is no debate among climate scientists and political identity plays little role.  For example, a 2009 survey of 3,100 earth scientists found that among the most productive climate change researchers, 96 percent thought temperatures had risen over the past century and 97 percent thought humans were a cause.

But on how climate scientists and the broader science community views the nature of the political debate over climate change — who or what is to blame — and what should be done, ideology likely plays a strong role.

This argument of mine was more effectively reflected in a past story that Emily Badger did for Miller-McCune.

Nisbet contends that all of us — scientists, even — are affected by our own biases and perspectives, and that cap-and-trade supporters have brought this lens to their understanding of the conundrum of climate change politics.

“Part of our own efforts in making sense of this complexity is very similar to how the general public tries to make sense of the complexity of climate science itself,” Nisbet said in an interview. “There’s a great deal of uncertainty, a great deal of information, and in order to make sense of that complexity, we rely on our own commitment to the issue, on our own political identity, also on our own selective information sources.”

In doing so, Nisbet says, advocates have relied too much on a pair of popular narratives — one that blames the media and climate deniers for distorting the public debate, and the other that blames deep-pocketed polluting corporations for wresting control of the climate bill.

“All of those other narratives are true,” Nisbet said. “But the question is: What else do we overlook by focusing on those narratives?”

Second, the focus on improving science literacy does tend to have a tacit and indirect political purpose.  The call to improve science literacy has always been the dominant model of social change among scientists.  This model asserts that if scientists could only improve media coverage of climate change — and therefore improve public understanding — then the public is much more likely to view the urgency of the issue as scientists do, and consensus on policy action will follow.  Science literacy therefore is assumed to be an indirect route towards persuasion or at least consensus building around the need for a policy like cap and trade.

This in essence is the proverbial “straightjacket” that I mention in the Climate Wire article.  Scientists are afraid of appearing as advocates so they focus on “boosting science literacy” as a way to achieve social change.  Yet research shows that this focus on science literacy  has only limited effects on attitudes and when it also taken up by climate campaigners and political figures like Al Gore, scientists are easily grouped in the same box as these advocates.

Instead of a tactical focus on boosting science literacy, scientists and their institutions instead as discussed earlier should focus on a broader role as societal conveners and enablers of public involvement.  I discuss this in the National Academies white paper but also in remarks I gave in 2010 at the AAAS workshop on climate literacy, excerpted below.  Research universities — especially land grant universities — are natural hubs for these types of broader engagement strategies that focus on dialogue and public participation.

…Importantly, when science organizations, science centers, and universities apply [tactics to better explain or frame scientific explanations], the goal should not be to “sell” the public on climate change or to advocate for a particular policy such as cap and trade or an international treaty. If the public feels like they are being marketed to, it will only continue to fuel additional polarization and perceptual gridlock. Moreover, this type of advocacy work threatens public trust in scientists and their institutions.

The goal should also not be simply to “improve science literacy,” a term I would argue respectfully is too often used as a slogan or a brand device rather than as a carefully defined concept that is translated and evaluated relative to specific outcomes. I would argue instead, that on climate change, a more relevant concept to emphasize than literacy is civic education and engagement which means empowering, enabling, motivating, informing, and educating the public around the technical, political, and social dimensions of climate change….but remembering what the public does with the acquired knowledge, motivation, skills, and resources and how they participation on the issue, is up to them.

In addition, unlike literacy which has a uni-directional connotation that problematizes and blames a “knowledge deficient” public, engagement is as much about informing the public as it is about also informing experts and decision-makers. Communication should be viewed as a two-way process–with frames providing the context for dialogue– where experts and decision-makers seek input and learn from the public about preferences, needs, insights, and ideas relative to climate change solutions and policy options.

I am glad that Climate Wire and Pyper took on the important topic of next directions in climate change communication and engagement.  It’s a complex challenge, featuring competing arguments about the nature of the problem and competing proposals from researchers and practitioners.  More stories like Pyper’s should be encouraged as this community sorts out next steps.

It’s important to remember, however, that many of the same processes that shape how the public views the complexities of climate science, also shape how scientists and other elites interpret the complexities of the communication challenge, who or what is blamed for communication failures, and what should be done.  Political identify is one of those factors, as I discuss in the Climate Shift report.  Also see this recently published book chapter on how these same factors shape attributions of blame directed towards the mainstream media.

See Also:

Nisbet, M.C. (2010). Civic Education about Climate Change. White Paper for National Academies Committee on Climate Change Education. Washington, DC. [PDF]

Nisbet, M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. (2009). What’s Next for Science Communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions. American Journal of Botany, 96 (10), 1767-1778. (PDF).

Nisbet, M.C. (2011). Climate Shift: Clear Vision for the Next Decade of Public Debate. Washington, DC: American University, School of Communication. [Chapter 4].

Nisbet, M.C. (2010, March 18). Chill out: Climate scientists are getting a little too angry for their owngood. Slate magazine.