"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Science Communication Cluetrain


David Roberts has an article out on climate communication. It seems to be generating some controversy and will surely generate some rebuttals. I too am frustrated by the academic specialists in "climate communication", and I have a few points to add. 

This is Harsh, But It's Right


David says:
What I take from the social science of climate-change communications is that no one knows much of anything about what kinds of messages and messengers have what kinds of long-term effects on behavior. At the very least, these remain deeply subjective judgments.
The key qualifier here is "long-term". And I think this is exactly right.


Social Science is Hard, But Working Hard Doesn't Guarantee Results.

Social science is hard, but I am not convinced that there are "climate communication experts" who adequately consider what psychologists call "longitudinal" effects. To an oceanographer this is cringeworthy jargon, but it means "over a long time and multiple exposures".

Climate communication doesn't actually occur in the small chunks that are easy to study; yet single-exposure experiments seem to dominate most of the studies I have seen. 

I'm not afraid to change my mind, so I'd welcome any updates or corrections to this observation, which aligns with David's.


It's All About Context

There is a truism in advertising. I am not sure whether there is any research to support it, but most advertising people worth their salt will tell you it's the case. People usually don't take action until they receive a message from three sources that they take to be independent.

It makes sense to me. The rule-of-thumb "three" is not the point. The point is that communication occurs within a communication context. People already have priors. This means that any study that involves how a specific message moves people, absent the long-term context in which the message is received, is rather pointless.  

The Context We're In Is Largely Designed by Evil Advertising Geniuses

It's time to recall the infamous Luntz Memo:
"The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science." What I take from the social science of climate-change communications is that no one knows much of anything about what kinds of messages and messengers have what kinds of long-term effects on behavior. At the very least, these remain deeply subjective judgments.
"Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.
"Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate."
Luntz's campaign was tragically successful. We're now in a condition where the first thing many non-experts in climate think of in any climate context is "uncertainty". Even the most certain things (the greenhouse effect, the basics of the carbon budget, etc.) are tarred with this "excessive certainty"/"arrogance" brush.

Consensus messaging is a part of the answer, but a direct response to the broken communication environment itself has to be part of the response, too. A very tall order for the sane members of the climate and energy policy communities.

As individual scientists conveying our own opinions, it's unfortunately unavoidable, but fortunately not our issue. What we need to convey is expertise and sincerity. By far the best way to do that is to know what you are talking about and be sincere about it.

The "Fear Question"

Does fear motivate? Of course it does. We wouldn't have evolved fear if it didn't motivate. Does a fear-bearing message motivate? Well, sure it does, if you believe it. But first you have to decide if you believe it.

People hearing the climate message are in a communication context where they have been encouraged to doubt the message.

That is, individual messages are not the issue. The context is the issue.

There is, I think, quite a lot to fear in this matter. So an entirely fearless message is either dishonest, crazy, or wrong.

The Scicomm Cluetrain

I wish somebody would write a scicomm version of this: http://cluetrain.com/
Markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, dir ect, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can't be faked.

Most corporations, on theWhat I take from the social science of climate-change communications is that no one knows much of anything about what kinds of messages and messengers have what kinds of long-term effects on behavior. At the very least, these remain deeply subjective judgments. other hand, only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do.
But learning to speak in a human voice is not some trick, nor will corporations convince us they are human with lip service about "listening to customers." They will only sound human when they empower real human beings to speak on their behalf.
The most important thing is to speak with your own voice.

My advice is to know what you're talking about, and talk about it in a way that your audience can absorb.

If you have fears, say so, and don't pretend otherwise. Leave the "communication research" to the politicians. Politics is a necessary evil, but it's not sufficient to the task at hand. We need well-informed people to tell the truth in their own way, in their own voice, honestly.

Train image by "Extra Zebra" is in the Creative Commons under license Attribution 2.0 Generic(CC BY 2.0)

2 comments:

Michael Tobis said...

Tom, thanks for reading. But that's not what I'd consider a constructive comment. I'm not interested in reviving old grudges.

GRLCowan said...

David's message appears to be going viral. There are copies of it -- "What I take from the social science", etc. -- just in mt's post.