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Communication of difficult
science ideas in nuclear and
climate science
Gordon J. Aubrecht, II
SOS/AAPT, 1 October 2011
Unless something is done, millennium-length
consequences of the greenhouse gases we have already released
will cause harm to the planet. Groups of people supported by
political forces and money have decided that denial of scientific
data is not only reasonable, but a moral force that opposes that
of stewardship. I characterize these people as “denialists,” to
distinguish them from true skeptics, scientists who must be
skeptical to do their work.
Denialists have succored the people who just want the problem
to go away by sowing doubt about scientific integrity and
distorting the meaning of scientific uncertainty. How scientists
can change the framing of the issue and how individual
scientists can influence the public through reasoning with
fellow citizens and writing letters to their local papers
countering misinformation is the focus of this talk.
Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!
—Sir Walter Scott, Marmion,
Canto vi. Stanza 17
The question is about how to
communicate scientific
knowledge about climate change.
Psychologists and sociologists
have been studying this
Denialist: “refusal to accept an
empirically verifiable reality. It is
an essentially irrational action
that withholds validation of a
historical experience or event.”
Those who have serious or
plausible arguments against
aspects of anthropogenic climate
change are skeptics and are
consonant with science, while
those who take an anti-climatechange position as a matter of
ideology or faith are denialists.
The media present a problem at times.
“[T]hose with significant interest in
maintaining the fossil-fuel intensive status
quo have deliberately created a public
perception of a lack of scientific consensus
and greater uncertainty about the extent and
causes of modern climate change, suggesting
that a wait-and-see stance is the most
responsible and scientifically justified course
of action.”
“The exonerations haven’t generated anything
like the intense media coverage that the initial
scandal did. Newspapers have typically
covered them with small stories far removed
from the front page — or ignored them
altogether. ‘The accusations were on A1, the
exonerations are usually on A15,’ said Aaron
Huertas, press secretary for the Union of
Concerned Scientists.”
D. R. Baker, SF Chronicle, 20 July 2010
Clear communication is prized by
scientists, but that is mainly
accomplished by our use of the universal
language of mathematics to reduce
semantic confusion. We needed to
attend graduate school to learn from
equations. Laypeople cannot easily
follow our understanding of information.
What physicists can do to start:
•We can give our students actual physical
experiences to discuss and build their own
•We can be clear about the meaning of the
word “theory” in science, that it is far more
than a proffered idea that is expressed, as
many laypeople think.
•We can give them access to the science of (in
this case) climate change.
•We can explain the tentativeness of our
understanding, explain that models are not
actual reality but a close approach, and that,
the better the model, the better the
correspondence with observation.
•All understanding in all science is subject to
change should disproof occur.
Student / citizen perception problems:
“invisible” causes (one can’t see the carbon dioxide
problem out the window);
temporally and spatially distant impacts (it will
happen to other people, and in the distant future);
insulation of modern-day humans from our
environment (there is not as much vulnerability to
delay or absence of gratification for taking action
(“no individual alive today will see Earth’s climate
return to its state under current, much less preindustrial concentrations of greenhouse gases and
inability to encompass the scale of the change in
ability due to adoption of technology (“it was both
rational and an evolutionary advantage to focus only
on the here and now” [4]);
complexity of the issue; uncertainty (misused as an
excuse to do nothing by denialists); and
weak signaling of the need for change (for example,
relatively cheap fossil fuel prices).
Framing: The way we describe a
situation can prejudice a person to
respond a certain way.
(Example, explaining to the privileged white
males that they would have to give up some
privileges getting them to want to deny
climate change because it might endanger
those privileges.)
From “Stuff white people like: denying climate change”
By David Roberts
2 Aug 2011 4:11 PM
“… conservative white men are far more likely to deny the threat of
climate change than other people.” …
“First there’s the “white male effect” -- generally speaking, white males
are less concerned with a variety of risks. This probably has to do with the
fact that they are less exposed to risk than other demographics, what with
running things and all.
“Then, as Chris Mooney notes, there’s the ‘social dominance orientation’
of conservatives, who see social life as following the law of the jungle.
One’s choice is to dominate or be dominated; that is the natural order of
things. Such folk are leery of climate change solutions premised on
fairness or egalitarianism.
“Then there are the well-understood ‘system-justifying tendencies’ of
conservatives. The authors explain that conservatives ...
strongly display tendencies to justify and defend the current social and
economic system. Conservatives dislike change and uncertainty and
attempt to simplify complexity.
“Further, conservative white males have disproportionately occupied
positions of power within our economic system. Given the expansive
challenge that climate change poses to the industrial capitalist economic
system, it should not be surprising that conservative white males’ strong
system-justifying attitudes would be triggered to deny climate change.
“Finally, there’s ‘identity-protective cognition,’ a notion borrowed from
Dan Kahan at Yale.”
Mental models—mental shortcuts
and heuristics people employ to
‘manage’ cognitive and emotional
complexity—tend to be ill-suited
to respond to climate change
Mental models based on frames can
focus on promotion or prevention.
People with the former view see
goals as ideals and “are concerned
with advancement.” People with the
latter view see the goal as something
they must attain and “are concerned
with maintaining the status quo.”
Sterman & Sweeney study of graduate
students at MIT:
“We find significant misperceptions of basic climate
dynamics in a population of graduate students at an
elite university. ... [A] large majority violate
fundamental physical constraints including
conservation of mass. Most believe atmospheric
greenhouse gas concentrations can be stabilized even
as emissions into the atmosphere continuously
exceed removal of GHGs from it, analogous to
arguing a bathtub filled faster than it drains will never
overflow. These beliefs favor wait-and-see policies,
but violate basic laws of physics.”
These educated people assume
climate is a first-order linear
system and discount climate
inertia — that warming is
committed even if it has not yet
actually occurred.
If flawed mental models can
emerge in this highly-educated
group, they are likely also to be
widespread among the lesseducated populace. Such
“popular” models should not be
allowed to be the basis of policy.
Confirmation bias
People to look for and accept
readily any evidence that supports
a view they currently hold and to
discredit data that does not
support that view, perhaps even
refusing to hear it.
Plausibility matters
“People tend to find some
individuals or professionals (e.g.,
scientists, environmental groups)
more trustworthy on certain
issues than others (e.g., ‘the
media,’ industry representatives).
This fact has been exploited by
‘climate contrarians,’ who have
used PhD-carrying messengers
(even if they were not active
climate scientists) to convey a
contradictory message to lay
audiences otherwise ill-equipped to
judge the accuracy or
reasonableness of their arguments.”
What about those “1000 climate
scientists” who supposedly
disbelieve human-caused climate
change? (Sen. Inhofe as climate
Also, what about the notorious
Oregon Petition Project now has a
list of “31,000 scientists and
engineers” who do not support
human-caused climate change.
This OISM “list” has been found
to be mainly specious. The
scientists and engineers consist of
“all persons who have received a
bachelor’s degree or higher in a
science, engineering (S&E), or
S&E-related field.”
The respect still accorded
scientists may lead to less
antagonism and greater openmindedness among our listeners
as we teach and interact with
fellow citizens.
Proximity matters
Things matter more if they mean
something personal to the listener
or discussant. If something
happens close by, it matters more
than for something that happens
farther away.
Proximity matters
If something happens today, it
matters more than something
happening tomorrow, next week,
next year, or in twenty years.
IPCC focuses on 2050 and 2100,
which may complicate responses.
Response times matter
People have a bias that only things
that happen quickly are worthy of
notice. This leads them to discount
things that occur slowly and to
disbelieve that there can be long
intervals between replenishing (of a
clean atmosphere, for example).
Scales matter
People see 2 °C and think it is so
small that it does not really matter.
They see the oceans and think puny
humans could not affect such a huge
and awesome thing. Mental ideas of
the appropriate scale interfere with
our understanding.
Human heuristics, which were
designed for rapid response to
immediate environmental threats
such as predators, can fail us.
We have suggested several ideas
that teachers should bear in mind
when discussing any apparently
controversial issue such as
climate change.
•Filling the “information deficit” is necessary
but not sufficient. (Give students experience with
nature, help them know what theory means, know that
science works by disproof rather than proof, and
communicate in words, not just equations or jargon.)
•Pay attention to mental models and framing.
•Pay attention to confirmation bias.
•Plausibility matters—scientists are plausible.
•Proximity matters (spatially & temporally).
•Response times matter (fast vs. slow).
•Scales matter.