Climate change is a big problem and we need to find better ways of talking about it

A team of researchers representing a range of academic departments across most of the schools in the University of California (UC) system recently published a chapter summarizing what we know about efforts to communicate climate disruption and how we can improve on them. It’s full of useful information (especially in the tables, which include things like common climate myths vs. facts and existing communication programs in the UC system). An overarching theme that I’ll focus on is that framing matters.

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Pretty as a picture by Silvia Sala, CC

What’s a frame?

Picture frames often enhance the image inside. Frames can draw attention to the parts of the image that lie inside them and obscure or detract from the parts that lie outside. Linguistic frames do the same thing. The chapter refers to framing as “an effective communication tool for drawing attention to, legitimizing, and providing an interpretive context for abstract, complex, or unfamiliar information” (p. 9). For example, one person might frame a medical procedure by saying that it has a 70% success rate, while another might frame that same procedure as having a 30% failure rate. Although they both reflect the same information, each highlights something different — either success or failure — and psychology research has shown that in many instances, people reason differently when they encounter different frames for the same idea. Truly complex concepts like climate change can’t be communicated without framing, because it’s impossible for a communication to portray everything imaginable that’s known about a topic without highlighting some information and downplaying others.

The power and ubiquity of framing show us that facts alone are not enough. Frames used to communicate about climate disruption need to be selected conscientiously in order to give people a sense of why they should care about the issue and what they personally can do about it. Climate change can be framed by highlighting the human health issues it creates, the economic gains that can be realized by addressing it, or effects on local versus global levels. Climate change can also be framed using images.

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Atlas, it’s time for your bath by woodleywonderworks CC

This image makes me think, damn, we need to save the Earth. If that one didn’t work for you, maybe this one will:

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Polar bear by Arctic Wolf CC

Considerations for Frames

There is no one-size-fits all frame for motivating people to care about and act on climate change. Instead, communicators need to know their audience and anticipate the audience’s reaction to different messages. Tailoring frames for specific audiences becomes even more challenging when audiences are culturally diverse (a very notable point, since the authors are all from California, the most populous and diverse state). But it’s a challenge worth taking up. In the state of CA, for example, a message about rising sea levels may impact someone living on the coast more than someone living inland in an area affected by drought. Anticipating what matters to an audience can help communicators choose the most appropriate frames.

Religion provides an additional opportunity for framing. The major world religions emphasize humans’ responsibility to care for their natural world, and religious leaders have begun explicitly urging their followers to take this message seriously in the context of climate change. Unlike religion, climate change is often associated with political beliefs (almost half of Republicans are skeptical of climate change while just over 10% of Democrats are). In order to get more people to acknowledge the gravity of climate change and the actions we need to take to prevent disaster, communicators should focus on reducing the political divide on the issue, for example having prominent Republican groups and “opinion leaders,” people who have clout in their communities (such as Bible study or PTA leaders), speak about the urgency of addressing global warming.

Economics and business frames are also important to hone. Many people currently see addressing climate change as bringing about job losses, but in reality job prospects in the renewable energy sector are greater than those for traditional energy sources. Communicators need to emphasize these facts as well as highlighting the major companies that are already committed to improving energy practices.

Climate change is one of the most contentious issues nationally (and globally, at least in places where people have even heard of it), and communicating any controversial issue presents challenges (the subject of a chapter in the National Academy of Science’s guide for effective science communication, which I summarized previously). Adequately addressing climate change may involve more scientific innovations, legislation, and a lot of behavior changes… but we won’t get there if we don’t also focus on communicating the gravity of the issue and what can be done about it.

TLDR Guide to Ch 5 of Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda

Each day so far this week, I’ve shared my highlights of the National Academy of Science’s guide and research agenda for communicating science effectively (ch1, ch2, ch3, ch4). Today I’ll cover the final chapter.


Chapter 5: Building the knowledge base for effective science communication

This chapter brings back a number of issues discussed in earlier chapters with a focus on how the science of science communication can continue to be more informative.

Scientific communications often have an underlying assumption that when communication is done well, the public’s understanding of and attitudes about societal issues will be affected. It seems like a reasonable assumption, but it has not been extensively tested, and there are likely many conditions under which the assumption is false. “Good” communication alone won’t suffice for many of science communicators’ goals.

Future steps for science communicators

The report calls for more partnerships between researchers and science communicators to put into practice the lessons revealed by research on science communication. These partnerships will also be important for furthering research on science communication and testing hypotheses about ideal communication practices.

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I had never considered the possibility that science communication could be irrelevant for the achieving end goals. I think science communicators generally believe that it’s important for their messages to be communicated, and in many cases this is probably true, but I think it is worth considering the relative importance of science communication in creating changes compared to all the other things that also matter.

Using a systems approach to guide research on science communication

In cognitive science, we’re often drawn to look at the cognition of a system. For example, we might not just look at neural activity in order to try to understand some cognitive process, but instead will consider the whole body, environment, and culture in which the cognitive act is situated. This report calls us to think about science communication similarly: every communicative effort is part of a larger system, encompassing the content being communicated, its format, the diverse organizations and individuals who make up the communicators and audiences, the channels of communication, and the political and social contexts that the communication takes place in. This kind of holistic perspective takes into account the system-wide complexity instead of focusing on isolated elements, since findings about elements in isolation may not hold in complex and realistic situations. Since research does often need to be specific to be productive, the report suggests that researchers who are focusing on a single level or element in the system should at least be “acutely aware” of the broader context.

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communicate by johnny goldstein, CC

More research

We need more research that will inform best practices for communicating science. Some of this research should come in the form of randomized controlled field experiments, which will involve comparison conditions (for example, strategy A was more successful than strategy B) that take place in identical groups (participants were randomly assigned so that people who received strategy A didn’t differ in any way from those who received strategy B except in the strategy they received).

The report also calls for more training for researchers at all career levels, both so that the science of science communication can continue to become more rigorous, and also so that all other scientists can improve the way they communicate about their own work.


Seriously, we can all get better. This report is long, but it has a lot of important points for science communicators, which I’ve tried to distill into this series of blog posts. For me, the report provides encouragement: there’s a lot we already know about ways to most effectively communicate science, and there’s a comprehensive agenda for continuing to improve.

TLDR Guide to Ch 4 of Communicating Science: A Research Agenda

Each day so far this week, I’ve shared my highlights of the National Academy of Science’s guide and research agenda for communicating science effectively (ch1, ch2, ch3). Today I’m posting my highlights from Chapter 4.


Chapter 4: Communicating science in a complex, competitive communication environment

Trends in the communication of science news

Not surprisingly, the report notes that people have shifted from traditional media like newspapers and TV to more online news, and that this is true especially for young and more scientifically literate people.

Many websites encourage and depend on content created by their visitors (Reddit is my favorite example), which can have great benefits: people can debate, comment on, share, and repurpose information. At the same time, newspapers and TV are devoting less time and space to science news, which means that there are fewer science journalists than there have been in the past. As a result, many communicators (including scientists) have turned to new outlets, like blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos. Today’s media landscape is larger than it has been in the past, but it doesn’t offer clear ways for filtering out false or misleading information.

Coverage of science affects public perceptions

Issues that receive more media attention are perceived as more important and pressing. The leaders, organizations, or corporations associated with those issues are seen as more credible.

More research is needed to understand how media attention shapes perception of scientific information in rapidly changing online environments.

A further complication is that online information is often encountered in echo chambers or filter bubbles. Because people can use information-filtering tools to block information they disagree with and tend to create online social networks that are similar in ideology, preexisting beliefs can quickly become a filter for further information that a person encounters. Search algorithms also work by showing people the information they find agreeable and information that’s popular, adding to the concern that we can easily become stuck in feedback loops on the Internet, in which we’re exposed less and less to the contradictory information that may actually be important for us to encounter.

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This image (and other poignant ones on the same topic) from Beta Minds: Echo chambers of social networks

Even when we are exposed to varied information, online environments have features that are likely to affect how people receive that information. For example, number of views or likes on an article or video suggest how popular it is, which in turn is likely to affect how seriously a person considers it. Research on the nasty effect shows that reading rude reader comments on objective science reporting (which is completely commonplace on the Internet) increases readers’ perceptions that the story was biased and can push them to agree less with the story.

Opportunities for Communicating Science

  • Social media
  • Social networks

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  • Blogs
    It’s important to note that studies so far suggest that only a small portion of the public reads science blogs. Many science blog readers are actually scientists themselves, which is not necessarily bad, but definitely noteworthy for communicators blogging.

The chapter closes with a discussion of widening knowledge gaps. While it may be easiest to target science communication to people who often go to museums, watch science documentaries, and keep up with science blogs, those people do not reflect the majority of Americans. It’s great that there are high-quality science communications for interested (educated) people to consume, but as they consume more and more, if the rest of the country remains at status quo (consuming little to no scientific information), knowledge gaps will keep widening. This is an important consideration for communicators (pointing at myself here as well).


Tomorrow I’ll post a synopsis of the report’s final chapter: Building the Knowledge Base for Effective Science Communication.

TLDR Guide to Communicating Science Effectively: CHAPTER 3

For the past two days, I’ve posted my highlights of the 127-page guide for communicating science and research agenda published by the National Academies of Science (ch1, ch2). Today I’m sharing my highlights from Chapter 3.


Chapter 3: Nature of science-related public controversies

There’s no shortage of controversial science issues to communicate about:

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The report points out three features that controversial science issues often share:

  1. Conflicting beliefs, values, and interests of individuals and organizations are central
  2. The public perceives that the science itself or its implications are uncertain
  3. Influential groups and people succeed in having their voices heard above many others, making it hard for scientific evidence to come through

Religious views in particular can play a more central role in beliefs about controversial science issues than political ideology:

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There are some strategies for reducing the effects of competing beliefs, values, and interests (1 above):

  • Tailoring messages from science for understanding and persuasion
    • When information is presented in a way that’s consistent with people’s values, they tend to be more open-minded about the message than when the same information is presented inconsistently.
    • Audience Segmentation: the practice of dividing a large potential audience into subgroups and tailoring messages differently for each subgroup. Research on this area is very new, but it has the potential to help researchers understand how much of an effect science communication can have, for whom, and in what contexts
  • Engaging the public
    • The most effective public engagement happens as early as possible in a public debate, and stakeholders should be engaged over many rounds of discussion. “Repeated deliberation over time builds trust.” (p. 58)
    • We need more research to understand the structures and processes that encourage effective science communication in public forums across a range of issues and controversies.

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Research also suggests some ways to deal with public perceptions of uncertainty (issue 2 above):

  • When there are inaccurate claims of uncertainty (for example, claims that not all scientists believe climate change is a result of human activity), it can be useful to use repeated communications to convey the extent of expert agreement. These communications should occur in a variety of places, involve diverse people, and take many forms, like conversations, social media, presentations, advertising, communication campaigns, and media interviews.
  • It also seems beneficial to be explicit about the uncertainty that’s present in scientific understanding, and particularly depicting how uncertainty decreases over time. This tactic might build credibility and also garner public interest in a scientific story that unfolds over time.
  • But more research is needed on the most effective ways of presenting risks of varying degrees of uncertainty

Finally, the report discusses strategies for ensuring that science is heard among amplified voices of organized interests and influential individuals (issue 3 above):

  • Debunking misinformation
    This can be especially difficult when the false belief is consistent with how people already think about an issue. Communicators should be aware that repeating false information, even if doing so in order to correct it, may reinforce the belief. Corrections may be ineffective if inaccurate information as been repeated enough already. One strategy is to “prebunk” the information when possible by warning people that they might encounter misinformation and explaining why that information is being promoted. But more research is needed to reveal when and for whom this is an optimal strategy.
  • Work with opinion leaders to inform and persuade

This chapter confronts a major hair-pulling issue for science communicators. While communicating science might be hard to begin with, communicating about controversial issues seems at times impossible. The chapter shines light on what prior research can show us about effective communication despite an issue’s controversial nature and articulates areas for future research to continue improving in this direction.

Tomorrow I’ll break down chapter 4: Communicating science in a complex, competitive communication environment.

Chapter 2 TLDR Guide to Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda

The National Academy of Science published a thorough (127-page) guide for communicating science effectively, with a detailed description of what the science of science communication has already revealed, but more importantly, with an agenda for the future of research on this topic. It’s long but useful, so I’ve broken it down into an abridged guide. Yesterday I posted my distillation of chapter 1, and today’s focus is chapter 2.


Chapter 2: The complexities of communicating science

Public engagement: seeking and facilitating the sharing and exchange of knowledge, perspectives, and preferences between or among groups who often have differences in expertise, power, and values

  • Public engagement is important for goals of generating excitement, sharing info needed for a decision, and finding common ground on an issue among diverse stakeholders.

Challenges posed by scientific content

Uncertainty. People generally dislike uncertainty and avoid ambiguity. As a result, it might seem like avoiding talking about the uncertainty inherent in science will be a productive way to communicate. However, avoiding discussion of uncertainty is a problem too, since it creates a false sense of certainty among people, and if (or when) new findings arise that require original information to be revised, people are likely to lose trust in the communicators. So far, presenting relevant narratives seems to be an effective way to engage audience with scientific issues, helping them to remember and process the information, but we need more research on the role of narratives for communicating science and on broader best practices for communicating scientific uncertainty.

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Lifescape series. Ambiguity or Opportunity? by ArtistIvanChew CC

Different audiences, different needs

Aspects of audiences that affect science communication help explain why the same information can be understood very differently by different people:

  • Prior knowledge of scienceScreen Shot 2016-12-18 at 3.22.01 PM.png
    Plus, scientific knowledge alone doesn’t necessarily lead to holding positive attitudes toward science. Instead, someone’s characteristics, background, values and beliefs, and the information they receive from the media all influence the role their scientific knowledge has on their attitudes.
  • Ability to understand numeric information
    When communication strategies rely on quantities, rates, or probabilities and they take into account that people (including scientists, particularly when the issue is outside their area of expertise) struggle to make sense of numeric information, they are often more successful than just presenting the numbers. In health communications, at least, the following strategies have proven helpful:

    • Don’t avoid the numbers – provide them.
    • Reduce the cognitive effort required by the consumer
    • Explain what the numbers mean
    • Draw attention to important information
  • Ways of interpreting new information
    Everyone has their own beliefs about that way the world works, and these beliefs play prominent roles in making sense of new information. We also rely heavily on mental shortcuts when we encounter new information:

    • Heuristics: We often believe information that is consistent with our preexisting beliefs and information that we encounter more often than inconsistent and less frequently encountered info.
    • Emotion: Our initial emotional reactions to new information can shape the way we continue to think about that information, and some research suggests that we tend to pay more attention to negative than positive information.
    • Motivated reasoning: We’re biased to make sense of information in a way that is consistent with our immediately accessible beliefs and feelings.
    • Cognitive dissonance: we’re able to hold two conflicting thoughts, but that often makes us feel uncomfortable, and we try to resolve that conflict for ourselves. If you really love Big Macs, for example, and you also know that health professionals say Big Macs are not good for you, you might feel some dissonance. You can either change your behavior (stop eating Big Macs) or justify your behavior by tweaking your belief (well, I walked into the restaurant instead of using the drive thru, so I got my exercise and can probably have the Big Mac OR well, those scientists are studying mice so really, does that apply to me? OR well, I’m poor and a Big Mac is cheap OR, or, or…).

Presenting information in different forms

The way we present information affects the way it’s received.

Framing is used when information is presented in one way to influence how people interpret it. When issues are communicated about in terms of being a priority or a problem, or when specific causes and solutions are focused on, the issue is being framed. Framing is an inherent part of persuasion and communication about complex topics: You can’t possibly present an issue in its entirety, so a communicator must decide what to highlight and what to downplay. When frames are relevant to the way a person already thinks about the world, they’re most likely to be influential.

  • Gain/loss framing: A 70% success rate and a 30% failure rate are mathematically the same, but depending on the context, may actually influence people in different ways. However, whether framing an issue in terms of potential gains or potential losses influences people more seems to vary based on the issue at hand, so we need more research to understand when each framing is most beneficial.
  • Emphasis framing: Complex issues are often presented as story lines that suggest different trains of thought, which in turn emphasize some features of an issue over others. In particular, scientific information is often presented in terms of personalized stories (episodes) or more generally (themes). Again, the issue at hand determines how productive emphasizing episodes vs. themes will be, so we need more research.

Trust and credibility of science communication

People primarily rely on different social information to figure out what and whom they believe about scientific issues:

  • Having common interests, in that the communicator and the audience both want the same outcome from the communication
    • This point relates to the earlier points on the ways we encounter new information. When scientific information conflicts with someone’s political ideology, they might not only reject the information, but their trust in the communicator might also decline.
  • Perceived expertise which is not equivalent to a communicator’s actual expertise.

Applying the lessons of large-scale science communication efforts

  • It’s important for audiences to receive sufficient exposure (aka, a lot) to information so that it can reach enough of the target audience and bring about change.
  • Communication that’s provided before people form strong opinions on a topic is likely to be more educational than communication after, so timing matters. It can be helpful to expose people early to counterarguments for the misinformation they may eventually receive, as a way of “inoculating” them from misinformation.
  • Duration is also crucial: “long-term and comprehensive approaches” will likely be successful and necessary for communication goals. Isolated attempts are not enough.

An overall theme of this chapter is that because of the many complexities of communicating science, “…an effective science communication strategy will be iterative and adaptable… it will evolve over time based on lessons learned about what is and is not working, as well as shifting needs and opportunities.” (p. 35)


Tomorrow I’ll post a condensed guide to Chapter 3: The Nature of Science-Related Public Controversies.

Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda (Chapter 1 TLDR Guide)

Happy New Year! If one of your resolutions is to do better science communication this year, you might be interested in this 127-page guide for communicating science effectively published by the National Academy of Sciences. It’s thorough, filled with references to empirical work on science communication, especially about controversial topics (like climate change, energy, vaccines, obesity, and food safety). But it’s 127 pages. I’ve broken it down to share my greatest takeaways, and will post my TLDR guide to one chapter each day this week.


Chapter 1: Using science to improve science communication

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“What is this ‘science communication’ you speak of?” written by Sarah Boon

Most science communication rests on the assumption that when science is communicated well, the public has a better understanding of an issue and more science-backed attitudes toward the issue. But actually we don’t know this assumption is true.

Science communication can be broken down into different goals, and the particular goal at hand should be considered for communication efforts. The report listed:

  • Share findings and excitement for science
  • Increase appreciation for science as a useful way of understanding and acting in the world
  • Increase knowledge and understanding of science related to a specific issue that requires a decision
  • Influence opinions, behavior, and policy preferences to accord with scientific evidence
    • Related debate: Where should scientists draw the line for using science to persuade? Sometimes what may start out as science communication can become communication about policy or behaviors that lie outside the strict domain of science…
  • Learn about diverse groups’ perspectives about science for consideration in seeking solutions to societal problems

A common but misleading model of science communication is the deficit model.
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The deficit model is inaccurate for most science communication concepts since scientific “facts” are complex and can often be interpreted in different ways. Plus, there are often many mediators in science communication. Information doesn’t simply go from scientists to audience (often), but instead is first disseminated to different organizations, media, and others, who in turn add their own voice to the issue when communicating it. Plus, as mentioned earlier, communication of knowledge does not necessarily mean the communication goals will be achieved. And of course there are layers of complexity, for example that different messages will achieve different successes with different audiences.


I’ll blog about the next chapter tomorrow. It focuses on the complexity of communicating scientific information to provide scientists and communicators with explicit awareness of the challenges they face and begin to overcome them.

Psychology with Third Graders

One of my sisters teaches third grade, and just before the holiday break I had the opportunity to spend some time with her class. Despite their pre-vacation excitement, they were attentive and interested in learning about psychology and language, especially since their curriculum is Spanish immersion, so they’re used to learning in their second language.

First, they experienced the Stroop effect. As a group, they scanned the array of words, saying the color of the font (not the word). They were pretty quick to recite the colors of the words in the first set.

They were quick to tell me: reading comes naturally to them, so they always want to read the word that’s written. When they’re supposed to pay attention to the color of the word, not the word itself, their brains are trying to do two things at once. They made their own Stroop materials to take home and test their friends and families, and some kids even invented variations on the original materials to see if those variations would have different effects.


For the second half of the class, we focused on metaphors. We talked about metaphors for their teacher (encyclopedia was a favorite), the cafeteria (circus and zoo were popular), and our beds (we all felt cocoon was apt).

Then they all brainstormed metaphors for their own minds, and they came up with great ones:

  • dolphin (energetic and smart)
  • dictionary (“dicshenary”: full of knowledge)
  • Christmas tree (bright, unique, source of joy)
  • bouncy ball (all over the place)
  • mountain (strong and resilient)

I hope they enjoyed thinking about their minds, because I certainly did!

Why is The Office funny? An academic perspective

Academic research sometimes requires a researcher to do something fun. A new paper focusing on how humor is made and received in the sitcom The Office (UK) provides an example of a research process that probably included some fun.

The research focuses on the idea that when people make sense of information, they create mental models, an internal mental representation of the external world. One way of looking at a conversation is thinking of it as people exchanging their mental models with each other. Things get funny when a speaker shares an intentionally manipulated mental model, as long as the listener can detect that it’s been manipulated, making it incongruous with the speaker’s actual mental model.

If this account describes how humor comes about, sitcom viewers actually have a pretty tough task: they often need to infer what a speaker actually experienced (his private mental model) based on what he says (his public mental model), recognizing when his speech shares a manipulated model, and what about it has been manipulated, revealing the incongruencies between the private and public mental models. Then they laugh. Viewers often use the characters’ behaviors in their situational context to do some of their inferences.

For example, when the manager (Brent) says to someone on the phone that the man he’s suggesting be hired to be the forklift driver has first aid training, the audience doesn’t actually know whether this is true. But as the manager makes his statement, his free hand comes up to his nose, and he gestures his nose growing outwards, Pinocchio-style. Now the viewers know: Brent’s private mental model is that the applicant does not have the training. His public mental model is that the guy does. His Pinocchio gesture demonstrates that he knows these mental models are incongruous, and viewers will probably chuckle over the incongruity.

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The author of the paper dissects the first 5 scenes of the first episode, pointing out the mental model incongruities and the ways that viewers infer the incongruities, resulting in humor. This is just one of the examples of how the paper uses The Office to demonstrate that academic theories of communication can be applied to the sitcom to shed light on why people find things funny. This strikes me as a fun project.

I don’t want to sell the paper short, to suggest that the author Henri de Jogste just sat on his couch, watched the beginning of a funny show a few times, wrote about it, and slapped it on his academic CV as an example of his productivity. The paper is theoretically deep, bringing in theories from many scholars. His analysis is detailed and thorough. And after watching the Pinocchio scene 50 times, it probably wasn’t very funny anymore. This project wasn’t a frivolous way to get credit for watching a sitcom; instead, it was a demonstration that academic theories and ideas about communication aren’t confined to the Ivory Tower. They describe practices and phenomena we’re all familiar with, though often not explicitly, and they show the relevance of academic work to mainstream cultural elements.

A lingustically-inclined cognitive scientist’s take on Arrival

Note: This post doesn’t just contain spoilers. The whole thing is pretty much a spoiler. Read it now only if you have seen the movie, don’t plan to see the movie, or don’t mind knowing the end of the movie. Read it later if none of those previous conditions apply to you. Either way, read it at some point. 

This weekend I saw Arrival. The movie finished around 9:30pm, which is about bedtime for me, but I was wired. A few times during the movie, I squeezed my husband’s hand. He passed over his sweatshirt for me to rest on my lap, assuming the squeezes were my way of telling him I was cold (they often are). I clarified, I’m just excited.

Why was I so excited? Because Arrival nailed some of the intellectual issues that make me tick.

Wikipedia has a solid overview of the plot, so mine will be brief. In the movie, aliens land in 12 different locations across the Earth. One of those locations is in the U.S., and Louise, a linguistics professor, is called to help make sense of their language so humans can communicate with the aliens (referred to as heptapods) and ask them why they’re here.

Lessons Learned

Early on, the colonel asks Louise why she has such a lengthy list of terms she needs to learn to communicate with the heptapods. The military only wants the answer to the question: “What is your purpose here?” Louise briefly points out the layers of complexities underlying such a seemingly simple question. First, it’s a question, so you have to make sure the heptapods know what a question is; that it’s a request for information. Then there’s the pronoun your, which is ambiguous in English in a way it’s not in other human languages. Your can refer to Joe alien or it can refer to the aliens collectively, an important specification that needs to be clear to effectively ask the heptapods why they’re here. Understanding the word purpose assumes an agreed-upon sense of intentionality. These are just a few of the reasons that Louise needs to be able to communicate human and Louise and many other seemingly-unrelated words before diving into the meaty why are you here? question. Lesson #1: Communication is not simple.

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Eventually, Louise gets to the point where she can ask the heptapods why they’re on Earth. They write their response, which Louise translates as Offer weapon. Other teams of linguists at the other 11 locations with heptapod shells have also gotten to a similar point in their communication with the heptapods and translate the responses similarly: Use weapon. Not surprisingly, people freak out. China has declared that they’ll open fire on the shell if they don’t leave within 24 hours. Pakistan and Sudan follow suit. Nations start disconnecting from each other. Everyone is afraid that the heptapods are going to attack, and the U.S. military starts evacuating from the site.

Louise is not so ready to accept this message as a warning of attack. Maybe the weapon the heptapods were talking about what English speakers refer to as a tool (which is a really ambiguous term, accounting for so many different objects. Of course a screwdriver is a tool, a knife is a tool, a pen is a tool. But so are cars and iPhones and… language). Lesson #2: Translating is messy (this version of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air translated many times over hillariously reminds us of this fact).

Despite the military’s disapproval, Louise takes it upon herself to clarify the heptapods’ message. Why are they here? They are here to help humanity because in 3,000 years they will need humans’ help. Louise asks how they can possibly know that they’ll need our help in 3,000 years. They know because they have an ability to perceive time in a way we don’t: they can see the future. And, they point out to Louise, so can she. It is at this point that we realize that the visions Louise has been having throughout the movie, which we assumed to have been flashbacks to her daughter’s life and death from a rare form of cancer, are actually flash-forwards. As Louise has learned the heptapods’ language, she has acquired the ability to perceive time as they do.

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The heptapods’ written language is not linear, as every known human language is. It’s written simultaneously from left to right and right to left. It’s cyclical. They have come to help humanity by offering up an incredibly valuable tool — their language. Once someone knows their language, they will be able to perceive time as the heptapods do, in a new way. And that is a gift. Lesson #3: Language is a gift. Lesson #3a: It can shape the way you see the world.

As I left the movie, I looked around at the other people in the theater and tried to imagine the conversations they’d have on the way home. I imagined someone commenting, Imagine if the language you spoke and the way you wrote actually affected the way you perceive time? That would be wild.

You know what would be even more wild? If people spent all day every day thinking about and working on that very topic. If they earned government and university funding, conducted academic research experiments, talked and wrote incessantly about it, and at the end of it, they were granted a PhD. So wild. That’s my life, so I guess I’m wild — there’s a first time for everything.

Language Shapes Thought about Time

As far as we know, there are no human speakers of any language who can see the future as a result of their language’s way of talking about time. But there are other cool connections between the way different groups of people talk about time and the way we think about it. Across many languages, we tend to use features of space to talk about time, and cognitive science research shows that we tend to invoke space when we think about time as well.

In English, for example, we often talk about looking forward to the future and putting the past behind us. Beyond just a way of talking, we’re faster to think about the future when doing so involves some kind of forward component (like moving our arms or bodies forward) and faster to think about the past when it involves backward movement. Speakers of the Aymara language actually reverse this convention: since they know what happened in the past, it’s in front of them, in visible space, while the future, unknown, is behind. Their spontaneous gestures reveal that they also think about the past as ahead and future as behind. And Mandarin Chinese speakers can talk about time using vertical space. The same words that mean above and below can be combined with temporal words like month to produce the phrases last month and next month. Compared to English speakers, who don’t talk about time using vertical metaphors, Mandarin speakers have more robust vertical mental timelines.

Linguistic metaphors matter for the way speakers of a language think about time, but so does their writing direction. As left-to-right readers and writers, English speakers think of time as left-to-right. Right-to-left readers and writers, like speakers of Hebrew and Arabic, think of time as flowing from right-to-left. And Mandarin speakers with more experience with top-to-bottom text think of time even more vertically than those who speak the same language but don’t read vertically (whether Mandarin is written vertically varies from one location to another). When you read and write, you are continually experiencing the flow of time in one direction. Your eyes and hand move in a consistent direction as time unfolds, which seems to instill a consistent mental timeline. (See the list of resources at the bottom of this post for more info on all of these studies and more)

Back to Arrival

The movie was a 5/5 in my book because it was captivating. It was a 5/5 because a linguist saved the day, and because the military recognized that they needed someone with a PhD in linguistics for this crucial job. And, to boot, the linguist was a female, which is not at all far-fetched in the real world, but is not to be taken for granted in a Hollywood portrayal of an academic. As a bonus, Arrival spread the concept of my research much farther than my dissertation will, and it proved — even to me — that there are so many reasons for us to continue methodically investigating the world’s languages and their impact on cognition. Because you just never know when the heptapods will arrive.

 

You can also find this post published on moviepilot.com.

More Information

Bergen, B., & Chan Lau, T. (2012). Writing direction affects how people map space onto time. Frontiers in Cultural Psychology, 3(109).

Boroditsky, L., Fuhrman, O., & McCormick, K. (2010). Do English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently? Cognition, 118(1), 123–129. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.010

Casasanto, D. (2008). Who’s afraid of the big bad Whorf? Crosslinguistic differences in temporal language and thought. Language Learning, 58(s1), 63–79.

Casasanto, D., & Jasmin, K. (2012). The hands of time: Temporal gestures in English speakers. Retrieved from http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/cog.2012.23.issue-4/cog-2012-0020/cog-2012-0020.xml

Fuhrman, O., & Boroditsky, L. (2010). Cross-Cultural Differences in Mental Representations of Time: Evidence From an Implicit Nonlinguistic Task. Cognitive Science, 34(8), 1430–1451. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1551-6709.2010.01105.x

Fuhrman, O., McCormick, K., Chen, E., Jiang, H., Shu, D., Mao, S., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). How Linguistic and Cultural Forces Shape Conceptions of Time: English and Mandarin Time in 3D. Cognitive Science, 35(7), 1305–1328. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1551-6709.2011.01193.x

Miles, L. K., Tan, L., Noble, G. D., Lumsden, J., & Macrae, C. N. (2011). Can a mind have two time lines? Exploring space–time mapping in Mandarin and English speakers. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(3), 598–604. http://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-011-0068-y

Núñez, R. E., & Sweetser, E. (2006). With the future behind them: Convergent evidence from Aymara language and gesture in the crosslinguistic comparison of spatial construals of time. Cognitive Science, 30(3), 401–450.

Ouellet, M., Santiago, J., Israeli, Z., & Gabay, S. (2010). Is the future the right time? Experimental Psychology, 57(4), 307-314.

 

Words matter in the Presidential Debate

If there’s one thing this Presidential race and debate have reminded me of, it’s that everything is subjective. A few thoughts on the content of the first 2016 Presidential debate from a linguistically-inclined cognitive scientist:

  • America is a piggy bank

    You look at what China is doing to our country in terms of making our product. They are devaluing their currency and there’s nobody in our government to fight them and we have a very good fight and we have a winning fight because they are using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China and many other countries are doing the same thing. -Donald Trump

    If the US is truly a piggy bank, then China may have to smash us to pieces to get their money out. We should watch out.

  • Trump and Clinton argue over Trump’s statement that: You [Clinton] have regulations on top of regulations and new companies cannot form and old companies are going out of business and you want to increase the regulations and make them even worse.

    Clinton: I kind of assumed there would be a lot of these charges and claims and so –Trump: Facts.

    What you call a thing matters. Both candidates agree on that.

  • There’s been some innovative language use from both Clinton and Trump.

    Clinton defines her phrase “Trumped up trickle down”:

    And the kind of plan that Donald has put forth would be trickle down economics. It would be the most extreme version, the biggest tax cuts for the top percents of the people in this country that we’ve ever had. I call it trumped up trickle down because that’s exactly what it would be.

    Trump’s new word, bragadocious, needs no formal definition:

    I have a great company and I have tremendous income. I say that not in a bragadocious way but it’s time that this country has somebody running the country who has an idea about money.

  • Oh! Hillary just wrote my conclusion for me: “Words matter, my friends, and if you are running to be President or you are President of the United States, words can have tremendous consequences.”