Communicating In The Post-Truth Era: Bridging Cultural Divides
As a scientist, the idea of a ‘post-truth’ world is hard to comprehend. The scientific method is designed to weed out biases (ideally), and move us all towards greater understanding through hypothesis testing, replication, and refinement. A so-called post-truth era, when facts don’t seem to matter in the public discourse, can leave you feeling unmoored.
But scientists are explorers by nature, and many are diving into previously uncharted waters of public engagement for the first time. In a two-part blog series, I’ll share advice from some of the leading thinkers in science communication to help scientists navigate through the current landscape and communicate their work effectively to a broad audience. Science still matters As a first step, let’s dispel the notion that scientific facts suddenly don’t matter to most Americans. As recently as October 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 76% of Americans have confidence that scientists work in the public interest (interestingly, only 27% trusted elected officials). Moreover, public support for scientific research funding is higher now than it was four years ago, according to Pew. What about climate change, arguably America’s most divided environmental issue? Pew reported in 2013 that 69% of Americans say the earth is warming. Researchers from Yale and George Mason Universities found in a November 2016 poll that, by a margin of 5 to 1, Americans wanted the United States to stay in the international Paris Agreement to address climate change. And a May 2017 study from the Yale Program for Climate Communication revealed that 68% of American voters think the U.S. should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
None of this surprises political psychologist Jon Krosnick of Stanford University. Krosnick has been studying survey design and the formation and change of political attitudes—including American’s views on climate change—for decades. His research shows that the majority of Americans have long accepted the scientific consensus on this issue. “Climate change was accepted overwhelmingly even back in 1997 when I first started studying this,” he told me. But he noted that natural scientists often feel they’ve failed to convince lay audiences. The real question according to Krosnick, is why there isn’t greater pressure from the public on government to take action. The answer, he said, is that with any controversial issue—whether climate change, gun control, or capital punishment—only about 10 to 15% of the population is passionate enough to vote based on that issue. It simply isn’t a priority for everyone else. Values and identity trump science Partisan differences do emerge in the polls, particularly when it comes to climate change. Regardless, science communication experts have the same advice for scientists no matter who they’re talking to: Build trust. Recognize that everyone filters scientific information through their own cultural lens and identity. And above all, don’t assume the facts speak for themselves. “Facts matter, but they’re not enough,” according to Dr. William Hallman, Professor of Human Ecology at Rutgers University. Hallman served on a National Academy of Sciences committee that completed a meta-analysis of the literature on science communication in 2016. That report concluded that scientific illiteracy isn’t the primary driver of public misunderstandings of scientific issues. Rather, work by researchers such as Dan Kahan at Yale University shows that cultural identity and group values dictate what data people choose to believe, not scientific literacy. In short, people believe information that confirms their group’s values and disregard information that challenges those values. In fact, the more information people get, the more polarized their views can become. People who are more educated and scientifically literate actually are better equipped to create counterarguments to scientific evidence and resist unwelcome information despite their education. Equally frustrating, research suggests that people are more likely to consider a scientist an expert if that scientist reports results that are consistent with the values of their social group. (The converse is also true: people are less likely to acknowledge expertise if the scientists’ results appear counter to their group values.) Other research suggests that even getting people to hear you out can be difficult. One study found that people found listening to opposing views almost as bad as having a tooth pulled. The good news is that such polarization isn’t true for all scientific information, according to Kahan, just those topics that challenge people’s cultural or group identity. Yet he believes that the number of issues that fall into that category is growing, leading to what he calls a ‘polluted science communication environment.’ I asked Kahan to explain what he means by this. “People rely on cues as to who to believe and who not,” he told me. “But things have become so polarized that the tendency to cling to a cultural identity is stronger than in the past. Now, even those (scientific) abilities such as numeracy that people may have (to help them understand scientific facts), tend to get pushed aside.” Moving beyond identity science So what’s an earnest scientist to do? To minimize polarization, Kahan advises scientists to frame and discuss scientific topics in ways that avoid issues of cultural identity. “For example, the people in Southeast Florida are polarized on the issue of climate change,” he said. “But they still are engaged in a lot of activities involving collective decision making that accepts that climate change is happening and even that it’s human caused.“ Southeast Florida is grappling with the flooding effects of rising seas, and has created a Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact composed of elected officials from both political parties and multiple government agencies, jurisdictions, universities, and citizen groups to figure out how address those real life problems. “So there are two climate changes,” Kahan noted. “The one with respect to their identity where the question is essentially who are you and whose side are you on. And then the other climate change which is just something that they have to deal with.” If you can keep the conversation on the second climate change, he said, things go a lot better. One way to do that is to avoid language that is associated with the first kind of climate change—language that forces people to choose who they are and whose side they support. He thinks it’s also helpful to “have lots of people who others would recognize— people from diverse kinds of groups, or people who know what they’re talking about, and showing through their conduct and words that they think a project is a good one and based on the right kind of science.” The diverse participation in the Southeast Florida Compact reflects that. And finally, humility helps. “People talk about the issues as if the evidence supports only one conclusion about what sort of policies to have,” Kahan told me. “ ‘What to do?’ is a separate question from ‘What are the facts?’. If [scientists] try to include their understanding of a wider range of potential options, I think they’re going to be trusted more.” Trust is a huge part of effective communication—becoming that person that others choose to believe. I’ll talk more about building that trust in the next blog post.
Image by Sarah Sunu.