Engagement with climate science

liable to flooding

I was a speaker at yesterday’s Royal Meteorological Society’s meeting on Communicating Climate Science. I was asked to talk about models of science communication in the light of their new report on climate science , the public and the media, in particular the shift from top-down to more discursive approaches. I also took the opportunity to question the applicability of these models a little. What follows is roughly a script of my talk, but with links.

I’ll start with a potted history of science communication, it’s the sort of history professionals tell themselves about themselves, so read with some caution, even though it’s pretty illustrative. Once upon a time, around the end of the mid 1980s, scientists in the UK and America (and a few other places, science is an international business after all) decided the public had stopped listening to science, and that this was dangerous. Science had grown immensely over the middle of the 20th century,  developing multiple strands and a mass of complex, specialist knowledge, but in doing so it had left many behind. There was a gap between what scientists knew and what the rest of the world understood. If only the public knew more science! And the media were better at delivering this information! Something. Must. Be. Done.

They kicked up all sorts of fuss and, in the UK, forming a sort of movement for the Public Understanding of Science (PUS), with a Royal Society report (“the Bodmer report”), a multi-institution committee (CoPUS), a journal, a set of courses, a load of general fuss and worry, etc etc. Soon after, however, a load of educationalists, historians and sociologists (many of whom had been working on this stuff for years) started pick holes in the more simplistic end of this argument, complaining that the PUS approach was not only ineffectual, but might be considered anti-democratic, even morally repugnant and non-scientific even too. They set up their own ‘critical PUS’ camp in opposition and pointed fingers at Bodmer et al for being a bit “deficit model” (i.e. seeing the problem as being a matter of a deficiency on the part of the public). The book “Misunderstanding Science” is the classic text of this sort of approach, but maybe not the easiest of reads.

There are three main problems with the deficit model:

  1. It’s unrealistic. You can’t black-box science, media and public. I mean, what does “the public” even mean? Moreover, we cannot imagine that the media will take this science and happily and simply pass it on to their readers who, in turn, will happily swallow it all. Such an idea is based on a really naïve ‘transmitter-receiver’ view of media effects (if you’ve never read David Gauntlett’s essay on what’s wrong with the media effects model, do).
  2. It’s patronising. It assumes the public are stupid and journalists are just information carriers, both of which is likely to alienate both groups.
  3. It’s limiting. Science policy issues aren’t just about the science. That doesn’t mean science shouldn’t have a role. A large one. But there are other things to be woven in too, and there are times when criticism of the scientific community is both entirely justified and highly productive (even if there are times where criticism is not only misplaced but dangerously over-emphasised). Journalists should ask questions and contextualize what scientists say. As should the public at large (and they should be asking questions and contextualising what the journalists say too).

These criticisms, along with the experience of GMOs and BSE, had a lot of impact in the UK. By 2000, the House of Lords report on Science and Society formally stated there was a “new mood for dialogue” replacing the older, slightly naive, top-down approach.

And that’s what the term “engagement” is meant to symbolise, for a lot of people: A shift from simplistic top-down approaches to a more nuanced one that appreciates not only that sharing science with the general public is a hard thing to do, but that public debate on science and technology is just that, a debate. The problem of science communication was now understood as not merely a matter of how to clearly transmit information, but how to have good, clever conversations about expertise in society. Changing scientific discourse as it travels into the public realm was not necessary seen as a distortion, but a matter of course. Scientists should listen as well as talk; communication is something you take part in, not simply deliver.

PUS and the deficit model became the bogeymen of UK sci com, with people actively booing references to it at conferences and snidely whispering criticism of unpopular colleagues as “a bit deficit”. Arguably, some people just took the language of this shift without actually understanding the ideas behind them though. There is a lot of science communication that talks as if it moved on from the deficit model but is really quite simply about shouting “but science is awesome” at the general public. Moreover, it sometimes looks like we’ve simply replaced the presumed deficit of knowledge with one of trust (i.e. the public don’t trust scientists enough, see Alan Irwin’s essay for this OU reader). Such a view often argues that scientists need to earn public trust, and might suggest discussion as a way to go about it, but it still based in a rather technocratic attitude that the world will be saved if only everyone just listened to the scientists.

Which brings me to this new report on the public, media and climate science. Because in places it seems, well, a bit deficit model, a bit preoccupied by getting the message across. It looks at context, and is meant to be rooted in what the public think and want, and many of its results are useful and interesting. But its central notion of communication, for me, seemed to be pretty linear and just a bit naive about how the media works. It’s all still about how we can give science to people, not how we might have conversations which connect science with a range of other topics. It says we need more “engagement”, but it’s not really what I’d call engagement.

But maybe they’re right to. Maybe we shouldn’t assume the public want to be engaged any more than that they don’t. We might also ask if a shift to debating science is dangerous when applied to climate, considering what is at stake and the keenness of some to ignore, even dismantle quite certain and useful science in this area. Maybe climate science simply doesn’t have the luxury to be so open? As Naomi Oreskes argued in an LA Times op-ed last January, perhaps we need leadership here. Debate just confuses people and delays action. Oreskes has thought about this. She is also coming from thoughtful empirical studies in the history and sociology of science understanding that sharing expertise isn’t simple. Just as Wynne et al said the deficit model is too simple, so can a simplistic call to engage.

As I’ve noted before, in some contrast to Oreskes, much of the discussion post-Rio+20 was that leaders had failed us, but there is hope in the grass roots activism of civil society. E.g. Mary Robinson. I like the rhetoric here, but I worry still. It’s the kind of world I want, but I’m not sure it’s possible, or it’s happening. To fuel my cynicism, in another obit for Rio+20, John Vidal cited “two-catching global bottom-up initiatives” – one the save the Arctic campaign, and another to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies – as having emerged at Rio and “reasons to be cheerful”. I call bollocks, at least about the bottom-up. These were projects that were launched at Rio, not ones that emerged. They are downstream invitations to passive engagement within a pre-set frame – sign a scroll, use a hashtag, follow a celebrity – more about enumerating the actors of PR than diffusing political power. Which isn’t to say there are wrong, but call a spade a spade.

Whenever I see any climate communication I feel an echo of Steve Yearley’s argument that the green movement enjoys the language of mass participation but only when it comes on their own terms (his essay here) and that similar critique can very easily be applied to the scientific community, or politicians, or industry, or anyone involved in the debate. So the question still remains, can we have open public engagement on climate change?

I don’t know.

13 thoughts on “Engagement with climate science

  1. Roddy Campbell

    Excellent. Thank you. Enjoyed it yesterday, and now again today in a different format. Thanks for elucidating that science isn’t policy, and that contextualising is necessary.

    1. alice Post author

      Captain Eco was, I felt, largely a visual aid here. But I have a blogpost drafted for later this month on superheros and climate change.

  2. Barry Woods

    the only truly grass roots type of organisation of any size in the UK, I can think of is the Transitions Towns movement.. and they are not campaigning as such on climate change, but think the world is in ‘denial’ (in the not scared definition) and won’t take action, and are preparing for an energy descent, some of the more hardcore members talk of uncivilisation.
    Or like my local group have raiku, healing, beekeeping, and allotments talks ;-)

    I have friends/relatives in the Green party, and outside the leadership, their doesn’t appear to be much grass root concern.

    it is all NGO led, Greenpeace, WWF, FoE who have all turned into the sort of corporation (ie salaried, directors, pr, marketing, lobbyists) that the grass routes used to react against. I wonder how the members of those organisationwould poll on climate change, if their concerns were put to them in a survey?

    The fact that the internet, let alone blogs was barely mentioned, shows how most of the panel were clueless about communication, let alone what to communicate.

    Those associated with the Tyndall Centre came across more as scared activists than scientists. ie Tyndall being on th emore ‘scared’ side than other UK science groups (some would say having ‘gone off reservatio,’ and a bit embarrasing)

    1. alice Post author

      “The fact that the internet, let alone blogs was barely mentioned, shows how most of the panel were clueless about communication, let alone what to communicate”

      Er… I know a lot about science online, but choose not to mention it for various reasons. I think it’s relevant and important, and think it probably could have been mentioned, but there’s a lot more to sci com than just what people fight about online. Enough “clueless” people get stuck in that bubble too…

  3. Roland Jackson

    Very interesting, if a bit depressing. But all calls for ‘more public engagement’ or even ‘open’ public engagement (what is that?!) prompt the questions ‘for what purpose?’ and ‘on whose agenda?’. The implicit purpose in the recent LWEC report seems to be to better communicate the facts as seen by the scientific consensus, and the conclusions on p41-42 are effectively a mini-handbook for improving communications to this end. A perfectly sensible and pragmatic approach.
    However, what I can’t see this approach doing is developing any sort of social contract or ‘public compact’ that would effect collective change that would make a real difference to combating climate change (for those of us who believe it is a major problem).
    But I’ve no idea how to do that either.

    1. alice Post author

      Well, I think if we are taking a mood for dialogue properly it would address the questions of for what purpose/ adenda as part of it.

      Dunno if we should be trying to communicate facts, discuss it in context, always. I mean, I see where people are coming from with the whole “you need understanding before you can have engagement” thing (to quote Lord Jenkin) but I think it treats these issues as well, a bit linear I guess. Or more straightforward than they are. None of it takes into account specialism of expertise or how tangled in politics and culture science is, in it’s use if not it’s making.

      Maybe monitorial citizenship’s the way (2nd to last para) http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/20/citizen-science-data-sets

    2. Hilary Sutcliffe

      I agree Roland. However, I think we have gone way beyond ‘communication about climate change’ and facts, we need to address involvement in and communication about specific solutions. I think if we looked at solutions on a micro level, particularly on energy saving, waste, etc we see a different picture, it’s just that when it gets called ‘facts about climate change’ it all gets too theoretical and difficult.

      In addition, I worry that by getting ourselves in paroxysms about trying not to be too deficit model we are in danger of forgetting that we all need to actually take individual actions on to change our behaviour which requires bog standard PR as well as all the co-creation stuff. Could it be that perhaps not enough creativity and innovation is going into that aspect either? Not my area, not sure.

  4. Barry Woods

    the best sort of engagement happens with interested parties, and I think the surveys show that the public are only weakly interested. (ie do you believe in god level of survey question, most apathetically, vs a few evangelicals)

    I liked the question from the audience, that the issue is not whether the public ‘believe’ in climate change, but how much they are concerned about it, and how many are concerned about high impact, scenarios, and whether any surveys had been performed on this. whichdrew a weak response, ie yes, but no references (i’m not aware of such a nuanced survey)

    Communication is 2 way, and scientists, but really it is those that are interested in policy need to engage with all those that are interested, and that includes their polar opposites, who in part is why we had the meeting at all. (sceptics/lukewarmers)

    the more sceptically minded (as seen by thepublic videos) are sceptical of alarmist headlines (and alarmist ngo’s) but are more impressed when scientist sound like scientists.

    the public in the videos seemed totally unimpressed with media ‘scarelines’ (climate porn, fatigue) and want to hear the science straight.. But those interested in policy seemed scared of this, talking aboout passion.. Whereas Dr Tim Palmer spoke about honesty.

    I saw Tim at the Spectator debate (and felt saddened he thought confrontation) he was good, I though him better here, with his calls for scientists to be honest (however inconvenient these truths might be for some)

    too be honest, Palmer and Lwason should not be at odds with each other, one concerned with science (his area of expertise) and one concerned with economic policy (his area of expertise..)

    the problem is the left/environmentalist have their own additional hangups, making nuclears, gas off the agenda for many, whereas those that favour technology, just ask themsleve why, if we went to gas and nuclear, we WOULD drastically reduce emissions (ie france is per capita much lower because of nuclear)

    (and/or could be a bridgeing step to more mature renewable technology, and maybe have nuclear, nextgen, as nase load, fast breeders, thorium maybe oneday nuclear)

    but to many climate campaigners these seemingly rational solutions, are completely off the table for discussion. and like Mark Lynas found (& Monbiot/Pearce), political activist rhetoric like ‘chernobyl death denier’ and a ‘nuke shill, and in the pay of’ big nuclear’, get thrown around.

    Those in opposition to those ideas, not seeking to engage, but to dismiss the others right to participate, and the very same people would call me an ‘oil shill’ and ‘climate denier’ for the very same reason.

    1. Roddy Campbell

      Barry we agree on science vs impacts / policy, different issues, eg Lawson/Palmer can discuss amicably. (Giving Lawson oxygen, dear God).

      I asked the question re impacts you refer to, because I do wonder what people think / know / think they know about them. When I’m told ‘you should be worried about climate change’ I sometimes ask ‘why? Tell me what the impacts will be of 2c please’ and they have no idea, or the impacts they quote seem pretty mild compared to what else is going on. I’ve even had someone give me the malaria story.

      It’s easy to say ‘yes I believe CC is happening, man, concern, childrens’ children, planetary trustee’ and much harder to say ‘I think we in London/UK are in trouble in 50 or 75 years for the following reasons’, and of course impossible, as Dieter shows in his Yale360 article today, as Alice Bows showed, to say what we can do about it anyway.

      So I don’t know what the 50% or 66% or whatever who agree we are causing AGW would answer to questions about impacts, let alone timescales and regional impacts. I’d be interested to know how grounded their views are in impacts.

      I think they’d struggle to name a way ACC so far has had net negative effects.

  5. Pingback: All Trials: working with the public to reform science | Alice Bell | ccnew

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