What you know about science is not necessarily what you believe about science

I’ve been working in science communication research for a good half a year now, and my views on outreach are constantly evolving. When I applied for this job, I was convinced that if only the public knew what we (the scientists) know, they would take better decisions. So all we need to do is inform the public, preferably using entertaining and engaging methods. However, I soon came to learn that this is known as the “deficit model” and that there is a lot of research saying that life isn’t that easy. Like, at all.

One article I really like makes it very clear that knowledge about what science says is not at all the same as believing in what science says. The article Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem by Kahan (2015) (btw, a really entertaining read!) describes how changing a question on a questionnaire from “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” to “According to the theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” has a big impact: While in the first case, religiosity of the respondents had a huge impact and even highly educated religious people are very likely to answer “no”, in the second case religious and non-religious people answer similarly correctly. So clearly the knowledge of what evolution theory says is there in both cases, but only in the latter case that knowledge becomes relevant in answering the question. In the first case, the respondents cultural identity dictates a different answer than in the second case, where the question is only about science comprehension, not about beliefs and identity. As the author says: a question about ““belief in” evolution measures “who one is” rather than “what one knows””.

The author then moves on to study knowledge and beliefs about climate change and finds the same thing: the relationship between science comprehension and belief in climate change depends on the respondents’ identities. The more concerned someone is about climate change due to their cultural background, the more concerned they become as their level of science comprehension increases. The more sceptical someone is, the more sceptical he becomes with increasing science comprehension: “Far from increasing the likelihood that individuals will agree that human activity is causing climate change, higher science comprehension just makes the response that a person gives to a “global- warming belief” item an even more reliable indicator of who he or she is.”

So knowledge (or lack thereof) clearly isn’t the problem we face in climate change communication — the problem is the entanglement of knowledge and identity. What can we do to disentangle the two? According to the article, it is most important to not reinforce the association of opposing positions with membership in competing groups. The higher-profile the communicators on the front lines, the more they force individuals to construe evidence that supports the claims of those high-profile members of their group in order to feel as part of that group and protect their identity. Which is pretty much the opposite of how climate science has been communicated in the last years. Stay tuned while we work on developing good alternatives, but don’t hold your breath just yet ;-)

Kahan, D. M. (2015). Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem Political Psychology, 36, 1-43

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