I am prompted to write this essay having read a recent article published three weeks ago in Nature Climate Change by Shi et al (http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate2997.html). Though I don’t often comment on a single study, I think this study may have more general implications for improving the conduct of science communication, especially those related to post-normal issues. It also has relevance to my recent paper on Decision-making in the face of uncertainty, Understanding Risk (https://www.pmcsa.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/PMCSA-Risk-Series-Paper-1_final_11May2016.pdf/) that also took post-normal issues as one of its starting points.
Effective science communication is particularly challenging when dealing with complex issues where the science is incomplete and leaves many uncertainties, public interest is high with opinions often divided, and where governments must make timely decisions. These are the characteristics of what have been called ‘post-normal’ policy-making, following on from the notion of post normal science, as initially described in 1993 by Funtowicz and Ravetz http://isecoeco.org/pdf/pstnormsc.pdf).
It is generally accepted that science cannot resolve competing worldviews on many contentious issues where there is both scientific complexity and high personal values content. There are studies that suggest that simply providing more and more detailed scientific information rarely changes people’s entrenched views on contentious issues. Indeed there are papers that suggest that some forms of science communication can actually further polarise rather than assist society in reaching a consensus. Climate change, genetic technologies, water fluoridation, immunisation and the obesity epidemic are examples of areas where a diversity of values, beliefs and worldviews has led to limited societal consensus. I have previously discussed this (https://www.pmcsa.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/Salmon-Lecture_Final.pdf) where I commented on Justin Farrell’s book, The Battle for Yellowstone (Princeton 2015) (http://press.princeton.edu/titles/10517.html) that discussed the very different perceptions of the science in the context of the policy decision to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone National Park. The Canadian science studies scholar, Mark Saner, made a very similar point in an early commentary on the influences of values and worldviews on explaining the strongly divergent views on the use of genetically modified organisms (http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v19/n7/full/nbt0701_609.html). In public discussion, debate and decision-making on policy issues with a scientific component that has post-normal characteristics, the interaction between science, values and world-views becomes particularly acute. This does not imply that science is values-free but rather that the core values of science (i.e. research ethics, organised scepticism, alertness to bias in data collection and analysis, replicability of experiments, community self-sanctioning and peer-review, etc) are generally not the same type of values that come in play for individual and societal decision-making.
Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus, climate change remains an area where there is a considerable range of values, beliefs and worldviews that affect the way climate science is understood, interpreted and incorporated into public policy. The Shi et al paper suggests some ways to enhance the quality of dialogue between science and society but the study also suggests that some forms of science communication have the potential to further polarise divergent views rather than assist society in reaching a consensus. They classed personal values related to environmental domains into three general categories: egoistic (self), social-altruistic (society) or biospheric (environment). In their survey which occurred across multiple cultural and political demographics, they further considered how the effects of these categories of values interacted with hierarchal and individualistic worldviews to influence people’s perception of climate change. In their study they distinguished three different components of knowledge pertaining to climate change: 1) knowledge about cause; 2) knowledge about mechanisms and 3) knowledge about effect.
Their results point to some insights that merit serious consideration by all of us interested in the science of science communication and which also have implications for the conduct of science communication. Simply summarised, they make two distinct points. Firstly that science and risk communication must consider the implications and importance of individual values of multiple audiences. Secondly they provide a potential path forward for more effective communication about climate change in that they show that a focus on communicating about the causes of climate change is more effective than focusing communication on technical aspects of the mechanisms of climate change and its consequences. Indeed in line with previous work, their study suggests that acquiring detailed scientific knowledge about the mechanisms and the consequences of climate change, may in fact lead to less, rather than more, public concern about the issue. To quote:
“If communication and education are based on carefully curated materials, messages and dialogues that do not violate individual values, public education and risk communication may lead to greater concern about climate change.”
These observations suggest two challenges for science and risk communication. The first is the need to create science communication approaches that accept the diversity of values in the audiences. As I have previously suggested, this implies the value of taking a knowledge brokerage approach that focuses on illuminating what is known and not known about an issue. The second challenge is to recognize that in complex and post-normal areas of public concern and public policy such as climate change, those minimalist communication routes which cannot sufficiently parse and nuance the message are likely to be less effective or may even have unintended consequences. I suspect there is a general lesson here for many issues in risk and science communication across a broad domain of environmental, social and human sciences.