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.
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.
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.
Humans are currently in a war against global warming. Or is it a race against global warming? Or maybe it’s just a problem we have to deal with?
If you already consider climate change a pressing issue, you might not think carefully about the way you talk about it – regardless of how you discuss it, you already think of global warming as a problem. But the way we talk about climate change affects the way people think about it.
For scientific evidence to shape people’s actions – both personal behaviors like recycling and choices on policies to vote for – it’s crucial that science be communicated to the public effectively. Social scientists have been increasingly studying the science of science communication, to better understand what does and does not work for discussing different scientific topics. It turns out the language you use and how you frame the discussion can make a big difference.
The paradox of science communication
“Never have human societies known so much about mitigating the dangers they faced but agreed so little about what they collectively know,” writes Yale law professor Dan Kahan, a leading researcher in the science of science communication.
Kahan’s work shows that just because someone has scientific knowledge, he or she won’t necessarily hold science-supported beliefs about controversial topics like global warming, private gun possession or fracking.
Instead, beliefs are shaped by the social groups people consider themselves to be a part of. We’re all simultaneously members of many social groups – based, for example, on political or religious affiliation, occupation or sexuality. If people are confronted with scientific evidence that seems to attack their group’s values, they’re likely to become defensive. They may consider the evidence they’ve encountered to be flawed, and strengthen their conviction in their prior beliefs.
Unfortunately, scientific evidence does sometimes contradict some groups’ values. For example, some religious people trust a strict reading of the Bible: God said there would be four seasons, and hot and cold, so they don’t worry about the patterns in climate that alarm scientists. In cases like this one, how can communicators get their message across?
A growing body of research suggests that instead of bombarding people with piles of evidence, science communicators can focus more on how they present it. The problem isn’t that people haven’t been given enough facts. It’s that they haven’t been given facts in the right ways. Researchers often refer to this packaging as framing. Just as picture frames enhance and draw attention to parts of an image inside, linguistic frames can do the same with ideas.
One framing technique Kahan encourages is disentangling facts from people’s identities. Biologist Andrew Thaler describes one way of doing so in a post called “When I talk about climate change, I don’t talk about science.” Instead, he talks about things that are important to his audiences, such as fishing, flooding, farming, faith and the future. These issues that matter to the people with whom he’s communicating become an entry into discussing global warming. Now they can see scientific evidence as important to their social group identity, not contradictory to it.
Let me rephrase that
Metaphors also provide frames for talking about climate change. Recent work by psychologists Stephen Flusberg, Paul Thibodeau and Teenie Matlock suggests that the metaphors we use to describe global warming can influence people’s beliefs and actions.
The researchers asked 3,000 Americans on an online platform to read a short fictional news article about climate change. The articles were exactly the same, but they used different metaphors: One referred to the “war against” and another to the “race against” climate change. For example, each article included phrases about the U.S. seeking to either “combat” (war) or “go after” (race) excessive energy use.
After reading just one of these passages, participants answered questions about their global warming beliefs, like how serious global warming is and whether they would be willing to engage in more pro-environmental behaviors.
Metaphors mattered. Reading about the “war” against global warming led to greater agreement with scientific evidence showing it is real and human-caused. This group of participants indicated more urgency for reducing emissions, believed global warming poses a greater risk and responded that they were more willing to change their behaviors to reduce their carbon footprint than people who read about the “race” against global warming.
The only difference between the articles that participants read was the metaphors they included. Why would reading about a war rather than a race affect people’s beliefs about climate change in such important ways?
The researchers suggest that when we encounter war metaphors, we are reminded (though not always consciously) of other war-related concepts like death, destruction, opposition and struggle. These concepts affect our emotions and remind us of the negative feelings and consequences of defeat. With those war-related thoughts in mind, we may be motivated to avoid losing. If we have these war thoughts swimming around in our minds when we think about global warming, we’re more likely to believe it’s important to defeat the opponent, which, in this case, is global warming.
There are other analogies that are good at conveying the causes and consequences for global warming. Work by psychologists Kaitlin Raimi, Paul Stern and Alexander Maki suggests it helps to point out how global warming is similar to many medical diseases. For both, risks are often caused or aggravated by human behaviors, the processes are often progressive, they produce symptoms outside the normal range of past experiences, there are uncertainties in the prognosis of future events, treatment often involves trade-offs or side effects, it’s usually most effective to treat the underlying problem instead of just alleviating symptoms and they’re hard to reverse.
People who read the medical disease analogy for climate change were more likely to agree with the science-backed explanations for global warming causes and consequences than those who read a different analogy or no analogy at all.
Golden past or rosy future?
Climate change messages can also be framed by focusing on different time periods. Social psychologists Matthew Baldwin and Joris Lammers asked people to read either a past-focused climate change message (like “Looking back to our nation’s past… there was less traffic on the road”) or a similar future-focused message (“Looking forward to our nation’s future… there is increasing traffic on the road”).
The researchers found that self-identified conservatives, who tend to resist climate change messages more than liberals, agreed that we should change how we interact with the planet more after reading the past-focused passage. Liberals, on the other hand, reported liking the future-focused frame better, but the frames had no influence on their environmental attitudes.
And the frames didn’t have to be words. Conservatives also shifted their beliefs to be more pro-environmental after seeing past-focused images (satellite images that progressed from the past to today) more than after seeing future-focused ones (satellite images that progressed from today into the future). Liberals showed no differences in their attitudes after seeing the two frames.
Many climate change messages focus on the potential future consequences of not addressing climate change now. This research on time-framing suggests that such a forward-looking message may in fact be unproductive for those who already tend to resist the idea.
There’s no one-size-fits-all frame for motivating people to care about climate change. Communicators need to know their audience and anticipate their reactions to different messages. When in doubt, though, these studies suggest science communicators might want to bring out the big guns and encourage people to fire away in this war on climate change, while reminding them how wonderful the Earth used to be before our universal opponent began attacking full force.
Climate change (is it happening? how problematic is it? and are humans responsible?) is a partisan issue. Work by Dan Kahan (which I’ve written about before) shows that conservatives are more likely than liberals to believe that climate change is not a result of human activity and that if unchanged, it will not be as destructive as many people claim. Researchers Matthew Baldwin & Joris Lammers explore the possibility that partisan differences in beliefs about climate change might result from differences in the way conservatives and liberals tend to think about time (their temporal focus).
Their starting point was that previous research has shown that conservatives focus more on the past than liberals do. Then they tested two competing frames: one was future-focused (“Looking forward to our nation’s future… there is increasing traffic on the road”) and the other was past-focused (“Looking back to our nation’s past… there was less traffic on the road”). Each participant read just one of these, and then reported their attitudes about climate change and the environment. They found that conservatives reported liking the past-focused message better than the future-focused one and also reported higher environmental attitudes after the past- compared to the future-focused frame.
They replicated these findings in additional experiments with variations. For example, in one test, instead of using linguistic frames to draw attention to either the past or the future, they used satellite images, either showing a progression from the past to today or a forecasted progression from today to the future. Again, conservatives reported more proenvironmental attitudes after viewing past-focused images than future-focused ones.
Next they investigated the temporal focus that real environmental charities tend to use. Not surprisingly, they found that the charities’ messages disproportionately express future consequences, with less focus on the past. Following up on this, they presented participants with money that they could divide among two (fake) charities (one whose message was strongly past- and one whose message was strongly future-focused), or they could keep some or all of it. They saw each charity’s logo and mission statement (the past-focused one stated: “Restoring the planet to its original state” and the future one: “Creating a new Earth for the future”).
Conservatives donated more to the past- than the future-oriented charity. Liberals did the opposite. Further, looking at just the past-oriented charity, conservatives donated more than liberals did. Looking just at the future-oriented one, the opposite pattern emerges. This is a very beautiful interaction (plus the researchers did a few other experiments with slightly varied methods and a meta-analysis, all of which add some weight to these findings).
Considering the finding that climate change communications rely heavily on future-focused appeals, these findings should really make us pause. Is it possible that climate change issues themselves may not actually be what divides conservatives and liberals so much, but instead the way they’re communicated might be driving much of the disagreement between them? My intuition is that framing is not entirely to blame for conservatives’ and liberals’ divergent beliefs about climate change, but this work shows that it may be a big part of the story. It certainly won’t hurt for communicators to start diversifying our temporal frames for discussing climate change.
I recently wrote for PLOS SciComm about a very cool study on the benefits of using analogies to talk about climate change (aptly called The Promise and Limitations of Using Analogies to Improve Decision-Relevant Understanding of Climate Change). The researchers found that using any analogy (comparing climate change to a medical disease, a courtroom, or a natural disaster) was helpful, but that the medical disease analogy in particular helped people consider important aspects of climate change that often polarize people along political party lines.
Last week I wrote about work by UC researchers on framing climate change, a chapter that focuses on how we can harness our understanding of human psychology — how we learn, think, and behave — to communicate science better. Here’s another paper (one that’s gotten very popular, very quickly) that considers human cognition for the efficacy of communicating about climate change.
Narrative Style Influences Citation Frequency in Climate Change Science: The authors of this paper (Ann Hillier, Ryan Kelly, & Terrie Klinger, all from the University of Washington) started with the insight from psychology that people understand and remember story-like (narrative) writing better than explanatory (expository) writing. They considered abstracts from 802 scientific papers about climate change, and looked for different markers of narrative structure:
1) description of setting (where/when the events took place)
2) narrative perspective (the presence of a narrator)
3) sensory language (appealing to the senses or emotions)
4) conjunctions (used often in narratives to connect narratives logically)
5) connectivity (phrases that create explicit links to something mentioned earlier in the text)
6) appeal (whether the text makes an appeal to the reader or a recommendation for specific action)
The authors crowdsourced this first part of their data analysis. This means that non-scientists who use an online job platform (crowdflower.com) were given the authors’ instructions for analyzing the abstracts. This way, each abstract was analyzed by 7 independent people, and involved human interpretation and discretion, which can likely provide a more accurate index of narrativity than any computerized methods can at the moment.
The authors considered how many times each paper in the study had been cited by others as a reflection of how much impact each paper had on subsequent science conducted. They found that 4 of their 6 narrative indicators (sensory language, conjunctions, connectivity, and appeal to reader) were related to how frequently articles were cited by others. In other words, papers higher in narrativity were cited more often than those that were more expository.
Subset of Figure 1, showing that as articles increase in narrativity, their citations increase as well.
The more citations a paper receives, the more other researchers will see the work. It’s possible that higher quality work lends itself better to a narrative style, so papers high in narrativity will also be cited often. Since this study is correlational, we have no way of ruling out this possibility that the best science is conducive to narrative presentation, and it would be cited a lot regardless of its narrative style because it’s just good research. The causal arrow is not clear here, but it is clear that impactful research tends to take on a narrative structure. Even though narrative writing doesn’t necessarily lead to citations, imitating the style of papers that are cited often doesn’t seem to be a bad idea.
This work is not the first to suggest that narratives can be helpful for understanding climate change. FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit organization that designs ways to communicate complex issues and tests their efficacy for cognitive and behavior changes, has a toolkit that uses (visual) narratives to communicate about climate change. (Also note that the toolkit is just the tip of the iceberg for the extensive work FrameWorks has done on communicating climate change.)
Together, the work by FrameWorks and the study of narrativity and citations present a pretty clear takeaway for climate scientists (and likely scientists in many fields): ease off the traditional academic expository style and lean into a more understandable and memorable narrative style.
We humans have collectively accumulated a lot of science knowledge. We’ve developed vaccines that can eradicate some of the most devastating diseases. We’ve engineered bridges and cities and the internet. We’ve created massive metal vehicles that rise tens of thousands of feet and then safely set down on the other side of the globe. And this is just the tip of the iceberg (which, by the way, we’ve discovered is melting). While this shared knowledge is impressive, it’s not distributed evenly. Not even close. There are too many important issues that science has reached a consensus on that the public has not.
A common intuition is that the main goal of science communication is to present facts; once people encounter those facts, they will think and behave accordingly. The National Academies’ recent report refers to this as the “deficit model.”
But in reality, just knowing facts doesn’t necessarily guarantee that one’s opinions and behaviors will be consistent with them. For example, many people “know” that recycling is beneficial but still throw plastic bottles in the trash. Or they read an online article by a scientist about the necessity of vaccines, but leave comments expressing outrage that doctors are trying to further a pro-vaccine agenda. Convincing people that scientific evidence has merit and should guide behavior may be the greatest science communication challenge, particularly in our “post-truth” era.
Luckily, we know a lot about human psychology – how people perceive, reason and learn about the world – and many lessons from psychology can be applied to science communication endeavors.
Consider human nature
Regardless of your religious affiliation, imagine that you’ve always learned that God created human beings just as we are today. Your parents, teachers and books all told you so. You’ve also noticed throughout your life that science is pretty useful – you especially love heating up a frozen dinner in the microwave while browsing Snapchat on your iPhone.
One day you read that scientists have evidence for human evolution. You feel uncomfortable: Were your parents, teachers and books wrong about where people originally came from? Are these scientists wrong? You experience cognitive dissonance – the uneasiness that results from entertaining two conflicting ideas.
One way we subconsciously avoid cognitive dissonance is through confirmation bias – a tendency to seek information that confirms what we already believe and discard information that doesn’t.
This human tendency was first exposed by psychologist Peter Wason in the 1960s in a simple logic experiment. He found that people tend to seek confirmatory information and avoid information that would potentially disprove their beliefs.
The concept of confirmation bias scales up to larger issues, too. For example, psychologists John Cook and Stephen Lewandowsky asked people about their beliefs concerning global warming and then gave them information stating that 97 percent of scientists agree that human activity causes climate change. The researchers measured whether the information about the scientific consensus influenced people’s beliefs about global warming.
Those who initially opposed the idea of human-caused global warming became even less accepting after reading about the scientific consensus on the issue. People who had already believed that human actions cause global warming supported their position even more strongly after learning about the scientific consensus. Presenting these participants with factual information ended up further polarizing their views, strengthening everyone’s resolve in their initial positions. It was a case of confirmation bias at work: New information consistent with prior beliefs strengthened those beliefs; new information conflicting with existing beliefs led people to discredit the message as a way to hold on to their original position.
Overcoming cognitive biases
How can science communicators share their messages in a way that leads people to change their beliefs and actions about important science issues, given our natural cognitive biases?
The first step is to acknowledge that every audience has preexisting beliefs about the world. Expect those beliefs to color the way they receive your message. Anticipate that people will accept information that is consistent with their prior beliefs and discredit information that is not.
Then, focus on framing. No message can contain all the information available on a topic, so any communication will emphasize some aspects while downplaying others. While it’s unhelpful to cherry-pick and present only evidence in your favor – which can backfire anyway – it is helpful to focus on what an audience cares about.
For example, these University of California researchers point out that the idea of climate change causing rising sea levels may not alarm an inland farmer dealing with drought as much as it does someone living on the coast. Referring to the impact our actions today may have for our grandchildren might be more compelling to those who actually have grandchildren than to those who don’t. By anticipating what an audience believes and what’s important to them, communicators can choose more effective frames for their messages – focusing on the most compelling aspects of the issue for their audience and presenting it in a way the audience can identify with.
In addition to the ideas expressed in a frame, the specific words used matter. Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman first showed when numerical information is presented in different ways, people think about it differently. Here’s an example from their 1981 study:
Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If Program B is adopted, there is ⅓ probability that 600 people will be saved, and ⅔ probability that no people will be saved.
Both programs have an expected value of 200 lives saved. But 72 percent of participants chose Program A. We reason about mathematically equivalent options differently when they’re framed differently: Our intuitions are often not consistent with probabilities and other math concepts.
Metaphors can also act as linguistic frames. Psychologists Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky found that people who read that crime is a beast proposed different solutions than those who read that crime is a virus – even if they had no memory of reading the metaphor. The metaphors guided people’s reasoning, encouraging them to transfer solutions they’d propose for real beasts (cage them) or viruses (find the source) to dealing with crime (harsher law enforcement or more social programs).
The words we use to package our ideas can drastically influence how people think about those ideas.
We have a lot to learn. Quantitative research on the efficacy of science communication strategies is in its infancy but becoming an increasing priority. As we continue to untangle more about what works and why, it’s important for science communicators to be conscious of the biases they and their audiences bring to their exchanges and the frames they select to share their messages.
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.
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.
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.