Climate scepticism – why information doesn’t work

January 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Two events last week touched on the psychological impact of climate change: the Horizon programmed fronted by Paul Nurse examining why the public increasingly distrusts climate science,  and a debate at Trinity Hall in Cambridge between Professor Sir Brian Hoskins (climate scientist, Royal Society Research Professor and Professor of Meteorology) and Walter Grant Scott, a businessman, benefactor to the college and climate sceptic. How effective were these speakers and why?

On Horizon, Paul Nurse was a genial,  open-minded presenter, skilled at presenting his own passion and curiosity for science. His conclusion at the end of the programme was that scientists need to be more open and become more skilled at presenting information. Brian Hoskins at Trinity Hall was an exemplar of this: clear, open-minded and respectful of his audience. He made a careful, considered presentation of the current state of knowledge. His short talk was well-crafted and beautifully pitched for a lay audience. Both men probably share the view that the best way to counter irrational and prejudiced views is to offer a good dose of rational truth, clearly explained. Sadly, this rarely works. What stays in my mind is not the measured explanations of science but Walter Grant Scott’s soup of random fact and populist story-telling. And despite my trust in climate science, I could feel unpleasant stirrings of doubt that I needed to dismiss. Why should this be so?

The first point is simply that framing the issue as a debate instantly introduces doubt. Debates have two equal sides. They require the audience to weigh arguments and make up their minds, even though the basic facts of climate science are long settled. It goes deeper than this however and it is worth picking out some of the elements of  Scott’s talk and examining how it worked.

At one level, his speech was rubbish. He offered little argument. His facts were mostly wrong or irrelevant. He was incoherent on science and ignorant on policy. However, he offered an immediate emotional connection for his audience. He did this by presenting himself as the common man and the voice of common sense, appealing to stolid, British values such as plain-speaking, no-nonsense, down-to-earth honesty. He connected with some powerful emotions, such as people’s fear of wasting money, and fear of ‘having one put over on you’ by people more powerful than you. He connected, through mockery, to a strand of anti-intellectualism and contempt for clever people who are deemed to create clever theories in lieu of seeing the plain truth in front of their eyes. So, although in reality he is very unlike most of the UK population, (personal wealth of £150 million, home in Monte Carlo) he managed to present himself as a trustworthy ‘honest Joe’, just trying to get to the bottom of something confusing. He offered himself as a figure for the audience to identify with and trust. Scott was also a story-teller. His speech was peppered with anecdote and visual imagery – of the weather, of rowing, of travelling – that hooked the audience’s imagination.

Fundamentally, Scott connected to the desire in everyone that climate change should turn out not to be happening. This is an understandable and human desire. Who would not prefer that the bad news is wrong? He then built on this basic emotional connection by creating an enemy that can be blamed for frightening people (scientists and environmentalists) and provided a story about their motivations (personal profit and political gain) that could explain this. Intellectually his case was risible. Emotionally it was coherent.

What could we learn from this about communicating climate science? Clearly no-one would want scientists to stoop to the populist tricks employed by Scott. But it might be useful to think how to make the case that climate change is happening in a manner that deals with the audience’s emotional needs.

The first issue is to be aware of the conscious or unconscious desire to avoid bad news and to respond to this by providing some kind of safe space. Climate change is inevitably alarming. Whatever benefits a green society or low-carbon economy might bring, the story at best involves a demand for deep change that many people will not welcome. When facing bad news it usually helps if there is a safe space in which to think and find some reassurance. In the public context of a TV programme or public speech this might be conveyed by acknowledgment of the difficulty of hearing the news, or by hearing about the personal journey of the speaker. Reassurance might be offered by the speaker’s conviction that the audience is capable of stepping up to the mark or by telling stories of other people they might identify with as examples.

The second issue is trust. Although scientists are trusted more than politicians they need to communicate that trustworthiness and make a personal connection to the audience. People need to be able to identify with them, to see some possible shared values and concerns.

The third is the power of metaphor, imagery and stories in helping people connect to and remember facts and arguments. Graphs and numbers are not memorable to most people, stories are. Metaphor in particular resonates deeply and as George Lakoff makes clear has a powerful impact on the way people hear a story or argument.

The fourth is making a connection – through metaphors and the way the issue is framed – to deeper values that are likely to help solve the problem. Evoking concern for issues ‘bigger than the self’, for justice, fairness and collective responsibility are more likely to help in the long-term than appeals to self-interest and private solutions.


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