Scientists are pushed to leap the gulf between their findings and public opinion on climate change

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan | 02/17/2015 09:01 AM EST

Most scientists are willing and ready to get involved in public policy debates, finds a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, even as communication experts warned scientists last week of the pitfalls of communicating about political hot potatoes such as climate change.

Most scientists are willing and ready to get involved in public policy debates, finds a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, even as communication experts warned scientists last week of the pitfalls of communicating about political hot potatoes such as climate change.

These messages were presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where scientists packed a room to learn how to better communicate. Another poll earlier this month found that there is a big split between scientists and the public on controversial topics like climate change and genetically modified foods. It prompted the head of one of America’s oldest scientific societies to urge scientists to get more involved in public debates.

"What’s necessary is for the scientific community to go out to the American public and have a genuine dialogue about these issues," said Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS, during a press conference (ClimateWire, Jan. 30).


Scientists are ready to heed Leshner’s call, according to the new poll. Out of 3,748 scientists affiliated with AAAS who were surveyed, 87 percent agreed that scientists should get involved in public policy debates. Their conviction was driven by a belief that current environmental and medical regulations do not reflect the state of the science.

Only 13 percent believed that scientists should stay out of the spotlight.

But confusion clouds within the scientific community about the best ways to engage with the public on controversial topics. Leshner suggested that scientists educate people in small groups. The Pew poll finds that 98 percent of AAAS scientists surveyed already do this, and 51 percent also communicate with journalists. About half are active on blogs and Twitter.

Yet the greater engagement has not altered the minds of the public on climate change and other topics. Gallup’s annual Environment poll shows that just 57 percent of Americans believed climate change is due to human activity in 2014, down from 61 percent in 2007.

Polls have also shown that climate beliefs are defined by ideology, with 79 percent of Democrats, 50 percent of independents and 41 percent of Republicans believing that climate change is human-caused. This has led some social scientists to suggest that the issue is so polarized that it would be difficult to change people’s minds about it. People’s positions on climate change are linked to their self-image, and changing their minds could be difficult.

Kathleen Jamieson, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, challenged this view at the AAAS’s annual meeting last week.

"I don’t think we should assume that just because someone has an ideology of one kind or another, it necessarily means that they are going to misinterpret everything," she said.

Battling variability and Fox News

The reason people may misinterpret science is because of fundamental errors in communication that place scientific results within the zone of partisanship. As an example, Jamieson pointed to Arctic sea ice, which has seen a long-term trend of decline. Back in 2012, sea ice declined to record lows of 1.32 million square miles. The next year, it rebounded somewhat to 1.97 million square miles.

That rebound was difficult to communicate for two reasons. People tend to overvalue the importance of the endpoint in a trend. And people also overvalue recovery when there is a loss, Jamieson said.

"When you have an increase in Arctic sea ice extent, and that coincides with and reinforces a human bias toward overvaluing an endpoint, you have a real problem," she said.

The bias affected moderates and liberals, as well as conservatives who were exposed to the information on Fox News. The news agency did not stress long-term trends.

At this point, scientific agencies should have addressed the "inconvenient" data, Jamieson said, but they did not. Reports issued in 2014 on Arctic sea ice by AAAS, the National Climate Assessment and other organizations glossed over 2013 data and focused narrowly on 2012.

"Now, instead of science coming into the debate, you see science creating potentially ideological reinforcement that makes it more difficult to communicate the trend line is downward," Jamieson said.

She and her colleagues have found that communicating science clearly can help inform the public. She suggests an approach where a credible government agency, like NASA, employs clear visuals and involves the audience in analogies to communicate science. Using this method, she has been able to overcome the impression communicated by Fox News on Arctic sea ice in an experimental setting.

It is important that the organization have credibility, she stressed. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would not be able to educate, since it has already lost its credibility among conservatives, she said.

Stick to the facts, not advocacy?

Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University who communicates on climate change with media regularly, said that he tries to steer clear of policy as much as possible.

"I’m very intent on playing the role of sticking to the facts and not expressing a personal opinion or advocacy about an outcome," he said at AAAS.

He cautioned against getting too involved in advocacy, recalling his experience trying to educate a member of Congress who does not believe in human-caused climate change. The congressman challenged Diffenbaugh using prominent contrarian talking points, to which the scientist responded with scientific evidence.

"After 60 minutes, he was convinced that I didn’t have a political agenda; I didn’t have an advocacy agenda; I really was just trying to communicate what we know and what we don’t know," he said.

That got him further than advocacy would have, he said.