Communicating climate science: Why is it so hard? (Because facts are not enough)

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Wednesday, 26 January 2011: 12:00 AM
Communicating climate science: Why is it so hard? (Because facts are not enough)
609 (Washington State Convention Center)
Naomi Oreskes, SIO/Univ. Of California, La Jolla, CA; and E. M. Conway

In 1957-58, Charles David Keeling began systematic measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide as part of the International Geophysical Year, and scientists have been working assiduously and continuously on understanding anthropogenic global warming ever since. In 1964, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences first warned of “Inadvertent weather modification,” and scientists have been trying to communicate their knowledge and concerns to policy-makers and the public since then as well. Half a century later, public opinion polls have repeatedly shown that large numbers of U.S. citizens—and many in Canada, Australia, and some parts of Europe, too—disbelieve the scientific conclusions. Why has it been so difficult for scientists to communicate their knowledge? This paper explores several factors that help to explain the difficulties that scientists face. These include: 1) the scientific ideology of value-neutrality, which is perceived by many as lacking credibility and therefore undermines trust in scientific experts; 2) the scientific belief that our “real work” is in the lab, not in our communities or on the op-ed pages, which leads to insufficient resources dedicated to communicating; 3) the tendency of scientists to speak mostly among themselves and in specialist vocabulary that even scientists from other disciplines may find difficult to decipher; 4) the general problem of “proof” in science, and 5) a lack of understanding of the ideological motivation of climate change doubters and deniers. The latter point is crucial, because simply supplying more and more facts, no matter how “solid” those facts are, will not persuade citizens whose resistance derives from their values, ideology, and anxieties.