advice for climate communicators

from Dan Kahan:

[W]hen positions on a fact that admits of scientific investigation (“is the earth heating up?”; “does the HPV vaccine promote unsafe sex among teenage girls?”) becomes entangled with the values and outlooks of diverse communities—and becomes, in effect, a symbol of one’s membership and loyalty in one or another group—then people in those groups will end up in states of persistent disagreement and confusion. These sorts of entanglements (and the influences that cause them) are in effect a form of pollution in the science communication environment, one that disables people from reliably discerning what is known to science.

The science communication environment is filled with these sorts of toxins on climate change. We need to use our intelligence to figure out how to clean our science communication environment up.

An example or two may help:

How readily and open-mindedly people will engage scientific information depends very decisively on context. A person who hears about the HPV vaccine when she sees Michelle Bachman or Ellen Goodman screaming about it on Fox or MSNBC will engage it as someone who has a political identity and is trying to figure out which position “matches” it; that same person, when she gets the information from her daughter’s pediatrician, will engage it as a parent, whose child’s welfare is the most important thing in the world to her, and who will earnestly try to figure out what those who are experts on health have to say. Most of the contexts in which people are thinking about climate change today are like the first of these two. Find ones that are more like the second. They exist!

Dan’s sciency take on this subject provides a sort of post hoc explanation for why I abandoned the climate wars.


  1. The HPV vaccine is a hard one to do this with (and one I’m rather more familiar with than climate change) because the values caught up in it are religious and moral values that are much more flexible than climate change though. Pretty much everyone will say that the planet getting warmer is bad; people who deny that climate change is happening or that it is human-caused still wouldn’t say “Oh well, it is human-caused, but we don’t really need those islands anyway, so warming it up doesn’t really hurt much” if they did change their mind.

    The HPV vaccine, on the other hand, is caught up in a societal value that is deeper than the ones caught up in climate change (that is, the values of regulation, capitalism, trust in science, etc), and that is how we treat the sexuality of young adults and children. We live in a culture that is extremely focused on the sexuality of teen girls, and they’re coming at it from all angles, from the sexy schoolgirl trope to the people afraid that the HPV vaccine might encourage teenage promiscuity– one of control, titillation and occasional exploitation. That is the culture that is worried about teenage girls having more sex or more sexual partners.

    Because of this, it’s possible to reject the HPV vaccine debate entirely in a way that isn’t possible with climate change. One can say that it does not matter whether the HPV vaccine causes increased sexual activity or sexual partners in teenage girls, because the priority is keeping those girls safe, not on attempting to control them. How could you do the same thing with climate change, where the possible “bad thing” actually involves places getting flooded and ecosystems collapsing, not just teenagers maybe having more sex?

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  3. Nora – Thanks for this. Here’s what I *think* Kahan would say if he were here: What your last paragraph presumes is that people are thinking these things through more than Kahan would, I think, say they are. Kahan’s argument is that most people don’t think about it as hard as you’re giving them credit for, but rather just do a group identity thing – whatever my group thinks, yeah, me too.

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