Today in Washington, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are convening a public discussion of their December report on communicating science effectively. It could not come at a more relevant moment, the day confirmation hearings begin for the President-Elect’s cabinet choices. Arguably it should have happened long before, as we find astonishing disdain for evidence-based thinking among many of the leaders and their advisors who are now taking the reins of government.
The report identifies “cross-cutting themes” common to the range of issues that were addressed, from climate change to genetically modified organisms. One major finding is about the “deficit model”—the idea that non-scientists, if only informed of the facts of science, will think and act more in line with scientific evidence—which the authors say is widespread among scientists and science communicators. As those of us whose mission is to reach wide and diverse audiences know, and the Academies state unequivocally, this deficit model is wrong. Not always wrong, but mostly wrong, especially where the science communication bears on issues that are contentious like climate change. In such a context, people rely on their own values and beliefs, knowledge and skills, goals and needs—and on those in their communities and peer groups--more than on expert opinion. Not surprising, really, but quite clear and useful.
In climate change, that finding translates to this: there is no use in just beating those who doubt climate change—the vast majority of whom are conservative in politics—over the head with the facts.
But it does not translate, either, to the scientific community doing nothing to convey those facts and what they imply for action to address the climate problem. On the contrary, confronting falsehoods and lies about climate change is critically important in this moment when misrepresentations threaten to recur like cancer after years of remission. As more than one leading climate scientist has noted in the wake of the election, it falls to the expert scientific community—with virtual unanimity in accepting the reality, human cause, and urgency of addressing the climate problem—to communicate these facts to the people about to take power and to the public who are their constituency.
The question is, how do we do that in the face of disdain for evidence and attacks on evidence-based thinking that have permeated so much of recent politics? The report contains gems for scientists—indeed for anyone—practicing science communication, and a call for better and more work to understand the huge amount we still don’t know about how to do this. And we need to do this right now, with real threats, based on falsehoods already evident, to potentially dismantle and discard the edifice of Federal science funding at such agencies as NASA, NOAA, DOE, and the NSF, which has been a foundation of U.S. greatness in science.
One of these gems is the Academy’s reiteration (in this newly charged context) of the conclusion of many researchers that “science as an institution possesses norms and practices that restrain scientists and offer means for policing and sanctioning those who violate its standards,” while “those who are not bound by scientific norms have at times intentionally mischaracterized scientific information to serve their financial or political interests.” It’s an asymmetrical game we must play. Science in contention needs social and behavioral science to help it determine how authoritative voices from science can be heard when authority is important and in question.
Not everyone is qualified to judge scientific truth, but everyone must know how to grasp what’s needed to make informed judgments about science that affects their lives in issues like climate change. Alas, explaining how exactly to make that happen is not in the purview of the report because it is a research agenda, and no doubt also aims to stay above the fray of politics. This would be too bad, if it weren’t for the commitment of researchers and organizations that communicate about climate to undertake the research that the report recommends. The Academy calls for a pragmatic, systems approach, developing explanatory models with predictive value at the outset—with practitioners and researchers working in partnership across multiple disciplines.
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Science communicators need to act now and learn quickly, with proper deliberation but real urgency. One idea is to do practical research about what works in science communication with different audiences, building on the existing body of knowledge, in real time. There are at least three strong reasons to take this “build the airplane while flying” approach. First, as President Kennedy said, because it is hard. In this case, because it lends real-world tempering that is measurable in effectiveness.
Second, a key measure of the robustness of a scientific explanation is its capacity to predict—essentially the same requirement as that which guides practice, and which bears fruit as soon as it is recognized. With no lag time required to translate an academic insight into a point of practice, we will benefit immediately from research on communication while communicating the scientific truth. Third, and most important, science communicators must use these tools as soon as possible in the face of what appears to be an historic turn against science in key places. Apparently, we have failed to impress a massive swath of the American public, and this failure threatens the very foundations of science through denial of facts, falsehoods, and elevation of ideological thinking above facts. This is the wolf at the door…and if science doesn’t figure out how to counter it quickly, we might just as well throw the door open.