"Science has operated for so long on this information deficit model, where we assume that if people just have more information, they’ll make the right decision. Social scientists have news for us: we humans don’t operate that way."
So says Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist from Texas Tech University, quoted in a recent issue of Smithsonian magazine (see the link for the excellent article). She emphasizes a key point in the debate of how to communicate science to the public. The assumption is often that all we need to do is explain the science in more detail, or perhaps just slower, and the public will get it. Many of us scientists have known for a long time that dumping even more data on people not only doesn't improve the chances of them understanding it, it is likely to accomplish exactly the opposite. And even if they understand it, they might choose to ignore it because it conflicts with their personal or political beliefs, a phenomenon called "cognitive dissonance."
So where does that leave us? Explaining the science doesn't seem to improve the public's willingness to take action on the science. How do we communicate?
We can start by being careful of the words we choose. This idea was made very clear in recent reports that the West Antarctic ice shelf had reached the point of "inevitable collapse." While most media outlets quickly jumped on the concept of "collapse" - which the scientific study defined as our inability to stop the eventual melting of ice shelves in West Antarctica over a period of centuries - New York Times columnist Andrew Revkin recognized the danger of giving the wrong impression to the public.
In his article "Consider clashing scientific and societal meanings of 'collapse' when reading Antarctic ice news," Revkin accurately captured the inherent differences in definition of the word "collapse." Scientists view this finding as incredibly important; there is nothing we can do to stop the ice from melting. But it's a process that will take centuries to proceed. The public on the other hand, views "collapse" not as something merely inevitable, but immediate, catastrophic, dramatic. Imagine Joe Q. Public getting all worked up about a news headline that the ice on Antarctica will collapse, only to then find out that this is projected to happen on a timeframe of 200 to 900 years.
Joe's likely reaction is akin to Reagan's "There you go again;" just those darned climate "alarmists" trying to scare me. Add in a chorus of climate denial lobbyists intentionally spinning the differences in word meaning beyond surreality and you have the workings of a failed communication.
To be fair, this is less about scientists and more about the media, but scientists have to stick their heads out of their proverbial ivory towers (or more realistically, dingy, underfunded basement laboratories) and anticipate how their language will be used. To give a good sense of how much of a problem this can be, there is even a Facebook meme going around about it:
As you can see, how the public interprets a word can be very different than how a scientist means it. You can add in public confusion about scientific words like "climate change" vs "global warming," "theory," "anthropogenic," "consensus," and "uncertainty." All of this means that scientists must be extremely careful in how we communicate information to the public. Assume that what you are about to say can be misinterpreted. Also assume that it will be intentionally misinterpreted by those lobbyists who are adept at guiding public opinion (after all, that is their job). Plan to work with journalists and other "news outlets" (aka, blogs) to communicate the science to the public accurately, without undue hype but also without downplaying the significance of the information.
That last point is critical. Plan to communicate to the public. More on that later.