The futility of “just the facts” climate science
My last post was about the evolution of conservative identity politics over the past 40 or 50 years, which made hostility to climate science more or less inevitable, regardless of how climate scientists chose to communicate their findings. Introduce climate science into a milieu characterized by suspicion of scientific elites, hostility toward government, and tribal support for fossil fuels and sprawl, and, well … Al Gore big-government liberal U.N. hoax! ‘Twas ever fated.
I make the point for two reasons. One is to push back against the endless tide of sentiment blaming climate scientists or advocates for the right wing’s madness on climate. Nobody — not Al Gore, not Barack Obama, not dirty climate bloggers — can make the right behave rationally on this, except the right itself. Conservatives are grown-ups making their own decisions and responsible for their own actions. This is not to say that communication around climate change has been particularly adept — I’ve spent 10 years criticizing it! — but it is to say that conservatives are freestanding moral agents and not mere clay shaped by the messages of climate hawks.
The second reason is that an understanding of the historical roots of American cultural polarization sheds light on the climate fight. The clash of cultural identities brought about by the resurgent right, indeed the battle over modernity itself, precedes, both temporally and psychologically, many of the factors that people tend to blame for polarization on climate change. Especially in the U.S., polarization is so deep, I will argue, that any attempt to present climate science “neutrally,” as pure facts and information with no cultural valence, is doomed to failure. We climate hawks cannot back our way out of cultural meaning; the only way out is through.
To begin, let’s turn to a great recent post from Dan Kahan of Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project. It is built around a simple observation: Realists and “skeptics” hold very different views on climate science, but they share a deep cluelessness about how science is communicated, how people assess evidence, and how polarization occurs.
Whether it’s climate hawks talking about why there are so many skeptics, or skeptics talking about why there are so many climate hawks, the story is mostly the same: A nefarious minority seizes control of cultural institutions, using them to peddle falsehoods to a public that doesn’t have the time or scientific literacy to separate truth from lies; this process of deception is assisted by lazy, biased media and an army of online zealots.
Unfortunately, social-science evidence suggests that pretty much every part of this story is wrong. Kahan:
• If public confusion over climate change was a consequence of over-reliance on heuristic reasoning, we’d expect the beliefs of those members of the population who are highest in science comprehension to be most in line with the best available evidence. In fact, those members of the public highest in science literacy, numeracy, and critical reasoning skills are the most culturally polarized ones.
• No doubt, misinformation on climate change abounds. But scientifically sound evidence that misinformation causes polarization does not. On the contrary, there is ample evidence that ordinary people, as a result of the ubiquity and intensity of cultural cognition, aggressively mislead themselves. They aggressively seek out information that confirms and avoid information that challenges their predispositions. And when exposed to the same sources of valid information selectively credit and discredit it in patterns that amplify polarization. Polarization, in sum, creates the demand for professional misinformers, who can profit handsomely by enabling people to persist in culturally congenial beliefs.
• Blaming the media is also pretty weak. The claim that “unbalanced” media coverage causes public controversy on climate change science is incompatible with cross-cultural evidence, which shows that US coverage is no different from coverage in other nations in which the public isn’t polarized (e.g., Sweden). Indeed, the “media misinformation” claim has causation upside down, as Kevin Arceneaux’s recent post helps to show. The media covers competing claims about the evidence because climate change is entangled in culturally antagonistic meanings, which in turn create persistent public demand for information on the nature of the conflict and for evidence that the readers who hold the relevant cultural identities can use to satisfy their interest in persisting in beliefs consistent with their identities.
• The “internet echo chamber” hypothesis is similarly devoid of evidence. There are plenty of evidence-based sources that address and dispel the general claim that the internet reinforces partisan exposure to and processing of evidence (sources that apparently can’t penetrate the internet echo chamber, which continues to propagate the echo-chamber claim despite the absence of evidence).
The theme in all these bullet points is the same: Cultural identity precedes, and creates demand for, distorted media, internet echo chambers, misinformation, and all the rest. The people engaged on climate change, pro or con, seek out confirmation of their beliefs (a process known as motivated reasoning) and a market has arisen to provide it. Much of what people see as a cause of climate polarization is better viewed as an effect.
As I said in my last post, cultural/political polarization, of which climate polarization is but a special case, is the result of a broad, complex, decades-long evolution of American culture, far deeper than the climate fight itself and largely immune to how climate-focused communicators choose to talk. (Climate is a sideshow in U.S. politics, at best.) The polarization runs much broader and deeper, enough to render it essentially mysterious. Anyone who claims to know some clever communications strategy to subvert or evade it is talking out their wazoo.
Nonetheless! Those of us focused on climate face the question of what to do with this knowledge — the knowledge that there are deeply entrenched cultural identities in the U.S. hostile to engaging honestly with the scientific evidence on climate change. We have to decide how to proceed.
Climate scientist Tamsin Edwards’ solution is for advocates to be advocates and scientists to be scientists, and never the twain shall meet. Scientists will offer facts/information only and let policymakers figure out what to do with it. “Risk assessment vs. risk management,” as Edwards puts it. Scientists who behave this way will come to be seen as “honest brokers” by “both sides” and thus begin to heal a fallen world.
I find this kind of unreconstructed positivism wildly unconvincing in both theory and practice. (So does long-time science writer John Rennie, in a two-part response to Edwards on “the inevitable politics of climate science” — one, two.) It’s impossible, and if it were possible, it wouldn’t work.
First, there is no such thing in human experience as “just facts.” Measurements and data are only meaningful against a background of assumptions and interpretations, what 20th century philosopher W.V.O. Quine called “cultural posits.” My editor tells me that if I quote Quine at length, my few remaining readers are going to flee. But I gotta be me! So here’s Quine:
As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer … For my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer’s gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits.
“Just facts,” if we take that notion seriously, would consist in nothing but unordered sense data, fleeting impressions of light or smell or texture. If we so much as propose a physical world containing enduring objects, we are beyond just-facts to cultural posits, theories meant to help us order those data and predict future experiences. The minute we use language we enter the realm of metaphor and narrative. Facts become knowledge only by being woven into a story.
In short, it’s cultural posits all the way down.
Now, at its best, science makes data transparent, experiments and models replicable, and stories (theories) open to amendment and revision. That’s why science is so good at producing reliable stories that allow for accurate predictions and technological progress. It’s why we’ve come to trust science, especially the physical sciences: They are built on a foundation of deep-rooted, broadly shared, and extremely useful posits.
The stories we tell about values and politics, what’s good or beautiful or compassionate or pragmatic, are built on a higher level of posits that are less solid, less useful at predicting future experience, and far more culturally contested. But the line where science ends and other forms of inquiry begin is not sharp or clear.
Edwards wants scientists to stay safely on the uncontested, physical-science end of that continuum. The problem is, the farther out we move, away from foundational physical-science posits and toward more contested political or moral posits, the more meaningful our stories become to our audience. That’s the stuff they care about! Edwards approvingly cites this quote from Robert T. Lackey:
Often I hear or read in scientific discourse words such as degradation, improvement, good, and poor. Such value-laden words should not be used to convey scientific information because they imply a preferred … state [or] class of policy options … The appropriate science words are, for example, change, increase, or decrease.” (Science, Scientists and Policy Advocacy)
I would submit that if scientists truly spoke this way, no one would pay attention (or understand them) but other scientists. “Value-laden words” are what trigger the affective cues that focus human discernment and understanding. If all scientists spoke to the public like Spock, there would just be a need for a class of people to translate for them, and then all of the same ethical choices — to advocate or not to advocate? — would face the translators.
It’s worth noting, as Rennie does, that we don’t often see calls for other sorts of scientists to refrain from obvious value judgments. If a scientist discovered that a parasite hiding in sandboxes was making children ill, we wouldn’t blink an eye if she went on to say that parasites infecting children is a bad thing and that we should probably get them out of sandboxes. We wouldn’t even blink if she recommended a particular parasite-removal policy — say, cities hiring sandbox-cleaners. It wouldn’t occur to anyone to think she’d made up a parasite hoax in order to expand Big City Government.
Anyway, a democratic public does not want bare facts. It wants meaning. It wants to know why climate science matters and what can be done about it. More fundamentally, it’s not just that people want meaning, it’s that they only absorb facts through meaning. Our identities are how we make sense of information. This is the whole point of cultural cognition research: We seek out information that reinforces our identities.
Scientists, at their best, avoid this kind of blinkered, identity-reinforcing cognition, at least when they’re engaged in scientific work. They struggle to unearth their own assumptions and subject them to testing, to render them falsifiable. It’s a kind of mental self-discipline that requires considerable training. Scientists should not imagine that members of the general public do or could or should share that same self-discipline. If they want the information they convey to be understood and absorbed, they will have to speak as humans speak, from within a cultural identity and a set of values, not hovering above such mortal concerns.
It is entirely possible to be honest and trustworthy while speaking from within a cultural identity. It just involves being open and transparent about one’s assumptions and values. (Jay Rosen calls it, in the journalistic context, “the view from somewhere.”) That’s how trust has always worked in the real world. The notion that “objectivity” or value neutrality is a prerequisite for trust is, in my view, an oddity of the late 20th century that is better discarded.
John Rennie draws a somewhat morose conclusion:
If one credits the case for cultural cognition that Daniel Kahan and others have been building in recent years, people’s attitudes toward the climate issue are largely predetermined by their other cultural affiliations. As such, I’m not sure it makes any difference what climate scientists say, so why shouldn’t they advocate for policies they think might help?
I think the lesson he takes is right: Climate scientists should advocate for policies they think might help, just like all citizens should. But the sense of futility is not warranted. Just because cultural cognition is ubiquitous and inevitable does not mean that the way we communicate doesn’t matter. Far from it! It just means that scientists who do want to be heard and understood must understand the value sets, identities, and preferences of their audiences. The goal should not be to be transcultural or “bipartisan” — today’s preferred code for “of no tribe, from nowhere” — the goal should be honesty and connection.
Look at the way climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe communicates. She is an evangelical Christian whose concern for the planet and for future generations is driven by her faith. She is a Texan, concerned for her state. She is from somewhere, and open about how her experiences and values inform her thinking. With some audiences, these cultural affiliations create a background of trust that allows her to effectively communicate the best science.
With some audiences, they don’t! And that’s the thing. Audiences are different, so they call for different spokespeople, different approaches, different emphases. The Spock-like scientist is simply going to bounce right off most of them, without a dent. The scientists who connect are the ones who inhabit a cultural identity that resonates with their audiences. This is true, it turns out, of any communicator, from any discipline.
Effective communication is an art and a science. It is no surprise that climatologists, who like most scientists don’t exactly tend to be charismatic social dynamos, and who mostly have no training and little experience in public communication, and who face concerted and well-funded opposition, have botched it up quite a bit. They have flailed and misfired and stumbled into some ill-advised brawls. Haven’t we all! But the hope that they can be more effective by returning to a kind of monastic objectivity is, I’m afraid, forlorn. The only way out is through.