The Pope’s #scicomm: Effects of Laudato si’ on beliefs about climate change

Climate change is an extremely polarized issue: while many people firmly believe scientific evidence that human-caused climate change is ruining the planet and our health, many others adamantly maintain that it is not a problem. Figuring out how to communicate the gravity of climate change has been an urgent puzzle for climate change scientists and communicators (a topic I’ve written quite a bit about).

Collectively, we’re trying many different ways of communicating this issue. I especially love these videos by climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and others by researcher M. Sanjayan with the University of California and Vox. Pope Francis also contributes to the scicomm effort — in 2015 he published an encyclical called Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home, which called for global action toward climate change (he also gave a copy of this encyclical to Donald Trump recently when the two met).

Was Laudato si’ effective?

Did the document influence beliefs about the seriousness of climate change and its effects on the poor? Recent research by Asheley Landrum and colleagues took up this question.

The work is based on survey results from Americans — the same people reported their beliefs about climate change before and after the encyclical came out.

They found that the encyclical did not directly affect people’s beliefs about the seriousness of climate change or its disproportionate effects on the poor.

But… the encyclical did affect people’s views of the pope’s credibility on climate change, encouraging them to see him as more of an authority after the document was published than before. This was especially true for liberals, though, reflecting a sort of echo chamber effect: people who already found climate change to be an issue gave the pope more credit for his stances on climate change after he published the encyclical.

Importantly, these altered views of the pope’s credibility did in turn affect how much people agreed with the pope’s message on climate change. In other words, there wasn’t a direct effect from the publication of the encyclical to agreement with its message; instead, there was first an effect of the document on beliefs about the pope’s credibility, and then an effect of those credibility assessments on agreement with the pope’s message.

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This work reminds us that science communication efforts can’t be considered in isolation. Whether people agree with a message is influenced by factors like their political beliefs and the credibility of the source. This point calls for two directions for future scicomm: for one, communicators should do their best to consider their message and audience holistically — what factors are likely to shape an audience’s receptiveness to a message, and how can those be influenced? This work also reminds us that we need more research on the science of science communication. We need to continue working to understand how people perceive scientific issues and communicators, and how they respond to the scicomm they encounter.


Featured Image: Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han)

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Scientists Agree on Climate Change: A Gateway Belief

 

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https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/

It doesn’t get much clearer. The Earth’s climate is warming. Humans are the reason. But how many people are actually aware of the scientific consensus on this issue?

Research by Sander van der Linden and colleagues shows that when people believe that scientists overwhelmingly agree about climate change, they increase their a) own beliefs in climate change and b) beliefs that humans are responsible. They feel c) more worried about climate change, and as a result of a, b, and c, they support public action to mitigate the effects of climate change.

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At the beginning of the study, participants indicated the percentage of scientists they thought agree on global warming and they answered some questions about their own climate change beliefs. People then received a message about scientific consensus, which took the form either of a) a simple description, b) a pie chart, or c) a metaphorical comparison related to trusting engineers’ consensus about bridges (i.e., if 97% of engineers agreed that a bridge was unsafe, would you use it?) or doctors’ consensus about illness. All the messages included the info that “97 % of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.”

Then participants again indicated what percent of scientists they thought agree on global warming and answered questions about their own beliefs. All messages “worked,” in the sense that people perceived greater scientific agreement after the messages telling them that 97% of scientists agree than if they hadn’t read anything about the consensus at all (though the simple description and pie chart were more effective than the metaphor. People shifted their climate change beliefs more after encountering one of the more straightforward messages than the more complex metaphor. Great food for thought, as many science communicators insert metaphors wherever they can).

Of course, having people believe that there’s strong scientific consensus about climate is only one step toward the larger goal of having them endorse actions that mitigate the effects of climate change. But in follow-up analyses, the researchers identified that perceiving scientific agreement is a gateway belief: believing that scientists agree about global warming led to other beliefs, ones that get us closer to the goal of actions in favor of mitigating climate change. Specifically, it led to greater belief that climate change was real, human-caused, and worrisome. These beliefs, in turn, led to greater support for public action against climate change. It’s often hard to know what leads to what, especially when it comes to beliefs we keep hidden in our own heads, but with some semi-fancy math, these researchers quantified those relationships.

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Climate 365 by NASA Goddard Space Space Flight Center. CC BY.

These studies have some clear takeaways for science communicators (especially when communicating about climate change — but maybe these ideas apply to other topics too — need more research!)

  • Emphasize scientific consensus, that an overwhelming percentage of scientists agree that climate change is a real problem caused by human activity.
  • Don’t worry so much about immediately pushing for public action against climate change. When people understand that scientists agree, they come to agree themselves that climate change is a problem that should be addressed, and THEN they come to support public action. Be careful about skipping steps.

At the same time, there’s not only one right way to communicate about climate change. There are truly effective ways, ineffective and potentially backfiring ways, and many in between. There aren’t cut-and-dry rules because every audience is unique, and taking the audience into account — their beliefs, values, and past experiences, for example — is crucial. But this work sheds light on communication strategies that are probably pretty far toward the “truly effective” end of the ways-to-communicate-climate-change continuum.

Brain Porn

This article by Sally Satel really hit the nail on the head for me by articulating some fMRI feelings I’ve had more eloquently than I could do myself. Brain scans are undoubtedly pretty:

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Image: http://psychcentral.com/lib/2007/what-is-functional-magnetic-resonance-imaging-fmri/

And the idea that we might be able to understand what’s going on when we have certain thoughts and emotions and even to induce them is really seductive.

But it leaves out context, the most crucial ingredient in understanding the mind. fMRI scans are necessarily done in a lab, specifically in a really noisy, claustrophobic machine. Personally, most of the thoughts and feelings I have in life don’t occur in that environment. They occur in real-life situations, with other people, and in situations in which I’m not aware that I’m being scrutinized. Without a doubt, fMRI data teach us a lot about the human brain and some correlates of thoughts and emotions, but it’s not the single explanation for all that goes on in our minds, as many people wish and expect it to be. Satel writes that “mechanism is not meaning. The brain creates the mind through the actions of neurons and circuits, yes, but it cannot reveal its nuanced contents.”

If we want to truly understand the thoughts and feelings that make us human, we have to look beyond the pervasive pretty rainbow pictures of “brain porn” that may at first seem enticing, but in the long run won’t bring the satisfaction we’re looking for.