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:
- 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).
- It’s patronising. It assumes the public are stupid and journalists are just information carriers, both of which is likely to alienate both groups.
- 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.