First of all a disclaimer – this is not a click bait. I promise I will get to dragons later. So to start off – What is communication? To put in simple terms it is merely transfer of information. Communication could take many forms. I could transfer information to you by speaking loud and clear with a glitter in my eye or mumbling inaudibles, reeking of kebab and beer after a late night of action. I could also write a piece filled with all kinds of jargon or simply pen something lucid which one can easily comprehend. Graphs, tables, figures, mass media, heck, even mere eye contact, the list of ways to communicate information goes on and on (see Jessica Eise’s blog post for a detailed description on communication, particularly science communication). However, misunderstandings can occur during communication. Often the message communicated is completely or partially lost on the audience. This could be due to a variety of factors. In this post I shed light on such inconsistencies in science to public communication, particularly related to climate change.
Science to public communication is basically breaking down complex scientific ideas, theories and results in simpler terms for a non-scientific, non-expert audience. This could be simply to further the understanding of scientific methods, results, concepts, and their implications or to prompt public action or guide governmental policy. The stakes are pretty high, given the rising temperatures, increase in extreme events, extinction of habitats and species etc. due to the climate change 1. Ineffective communication leads to ambiguity, confusion and subsequent non-cooperation and could create a barrier between the flow of information from science to the general public and policy makers. While there are structural limits that prevent action in specific cases (e.g. low income, access to technology, availability of infrastructure etc.), a great deal of inaction is due to the message being lost in translation or coming up against certain psychological barriers.
Effective climate science to public communication is essential given the detrimental effects of climate change
In terms of the message itself, a linguistic analysis 2 of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, the mother of all climate change reports, indicates that the SPM (Summary for Policymakers) section is hard to read and fails to evoke an emotional response in the audience. In contrast, newspapers and even scientific journals often attain a higher readability and emotiveness score. Unfortunately, however, SPMs are the reports that fuel and guide international policy debates to stimulate action against climate change. If these very reports have ambiguous language, complex words, are less emotive and difficult to comprehend, then the response will also be muted. Hence, even though the IPCC has brought forth important scientific findings over the last five assessment reports, the linguistic analysis highlights a sharp divide in effective communication of the message to a broader audience. This is not to say that the IPCC should put out memes and catch phrases to sell science, but as the principal flag bearer of the climate change community, it does have a duty to communicate its findings and recommendations in a clear and neutral language that can be understood by a wider audience. Involving professional scientific communicators during the discussion of policy oriented scientific texts, setting new guidelines and extending current ones on how to report complex findings and results (a good example on guidelines is the treatment of uncertainty by IPCC, guidance document) and also imparting science communication training for the scientists involved in drafting the reports could definitely address some of the issues related to ineffective communication.
Scientific texts need to adopt a clear and neutral language to appeal to a wider audience
However the obstacles don’t just end with complex language and readability. Psychological barriers are also critical when it comes to inaction. Hold your horses, take a deep breath, ‘cos this is where the dragons come in! In his paper titled “The Dragons of Inaction” 3, Robert Gifford provides a great classification of psychological barriers that lead to shying away from action to mitigate climate change and also to delaying (or failing completely) to adapt to its consequences. Gifford stresses that it is not that the information is unavailable, but that it is not communicated effectively. This is because many scientist don’t know how to overcome the different psychological barriers that creates an obstacle in effective communication. These barriers range from limited cognition encompassed by ignorance and environmental numbness; ideologies and worldviews leading to seeking salvation in technology and clutching on to scientific uncertainty to justify inaction; discredence stemming from religious views and perceptions of inadequacies in proposed climate policies; differing views on risk; tokenism and sometimes just plain denial. A full list of seven categories of dragons and their 29 sub species are tabulated and described in detail in Gifford’s paper (below you can see my own illustration of the seven main dragons).
Psychological barriers can lead to shying away from climate change mitigation and adaptation
A key takeaway is that while structural barriers can be removed through legislation, improving infrastructure, ensuring social and economic equality etc., overcoming the psychological barriers stated above needs the corporation of natural and social scientists along with psychologists. This also nudges us towards working with each other, irrespective of our disciplines, as climate change is a wicked problem that cannot be solved by a single discipline or group. I would really encourage all of you, particularly those working in climate change related areas to at least skim through the article.
So basically ineffective communication is muy malo! Given the detrimental, rapid and significant impacts of climate change, improved communication is the need of the hour. Although climate science has made great strides in the recent years, disseminating this information among the decision makers and the masses is critical, as combating climate change needs public and governmental support. As scientists, we not only have the duty to do good science, but we must also be able to effectively communicate our results to help citizens and policy makers understand the dangers and opportunities that exists in averting climate change. This requires us to acknowledge the barriers that exist in stemming the flow of scientific information and taking necessary steps to overcome them. Working across and together with different disciplines, training in scientific communication, involving linguists and professional science communicators while drafting scientific reports (particularly for the public) and during policy debates, and quite simply the use of transparent and easily comprehensible language can go a long way in breaking the barriers that inhibit the effective flow of information. This can better inform the public and policy makers and ensure the adoption of mitigation, adaptation and environmentally sustainable actions to reduce climate change.
I can ramble on and on about effective communication and preaching to the masses. But hey, did you know that Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for the POTUS? I rest my case.
1 Stocker, T. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 33-115 (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
2 Barkemeyer, R., Dessai, S., Monge-Sanz, B., Renzi, B. G. & Napolitano, G. Linguistic analysis of IPCC summaries for policymakers and associated coverage. Nature Climate Change 6, 311-316 (2016).
3 Gifford, R. The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist 66, 290 (2011).