A recent National Academy of Sciences ‘Science of Science Communications’ conference offers a full plate of considerations for serious climate communications aficionados to evaluate down the road.

How do human beings “know”? Or think that they know. Or know that they know?

What about “believe”? To believe something “does not carry a guarantee of truth.” Although the “true-believers” may be convinced of the truth as they see it.

Knowing, on the other hand, represents an absence of doubt and represents the actual truth of the belief. We say someone knows something only if what they “know” is in fact true.

Think for a moment about this: “Two plus two equals ….” In sentient adults, one need not think about it even an instant. We know automatically, and very quickly, that the answer is four. So automatically, in fact, that it’s hard, once hearing “two plus two” not to think of the word “four.” Just as it’s hard to see a single word and not read it.

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David Pogue
on Communicating Science
on TV

Now try another one, this time “seventeen times twenty-four.” Not so automatic for all but the fewest among us. It takes a conscious effort, a bit of time, perhaps even a verification, a re-calculation and reaffirmation, of our answer.

Try one more. For an experienced driver, motoring down a highway may be pretty much automatic. Kind of like two-plus-two. Let’s call that “System One.” But what about making a left-hand turn into oncoming traffic? A different thing altogether, and we’ll label this “System Two.” Best not to attempt it while computing 17 times 24 … for the human brain can handle only so much System Two activity — perhaps just one — at a given time.

It doesn’t sound like the kind of material one usually encounters at a climate change conference, does it? And it isn’t.

But all this was among the many gems shared by a wide range of expert speakers and panelists during the National Academy of Sciences’ recent Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium on “The Science of Science Communication” in Washington, D.C. The two-day conference — for which complete videos are available online — helps set the table for a wide range of extended innovative thinking about how best to communicate climate science and other sciences touching closely on public policy issues.

Nobel Laureate Dan Kahneman distinguishes between ‘System One’ and ‘System Two’ approaches to thinking … and knowing.

Princeton University Professor and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, 2002 Nobel Prize winner for economics, outlined the aspects of and differences between “System One” and “System Two” thinking. The former, he said, is much quicker and more efficient, almost knee-jerk in some ways. It’s based substantially on effective stories and is not heavily dependent on the evidence behind the subject.

System Two, on the other hand, is the approach more often associated with scientific decisionmaking and, for instance, the scientific method. And it’s the approach more likely to be taken on an issue one thinks really important and worth the time and effort to check and double-check.

Messenger’s Likeability, Credibility Key … Evidence Less So

Not to be forgotten, Kahneman emphasized, is the messenger, who the audience must like and trust. “Messages from distrusted sources will be ignored,” he cautioned.

“System One is largely indifferent to the quality and the amount of the evidence,” he repeated. “It is bound more by the coherence of the story than by the evidence behind it …. the coherence of the story determines how much faith we have in them …. The source has to be liked, and the source has to be trusted.”

Focusing on climate change in particular, Kahneman cautioned that the public at large will have difficulty with messages not based on effective stories or lacking in concrete events or involving threats seen as being abstract and distant.

Kahan: Science Knowledge Alone Not Sufficient

Echoing some of Kahneman’s remarks and expanding on them, Yale Law School’s Dan Kahan elaborated on some points he and fellow researchers have been developing relative to climate communications.

Dan Kahan of Yale Law School explains why increased scientific literacy on its own is not enough.

Kahan cautioned that those yearning for increased public understanding of climate science and scientific evidence alone will not find deep and nagging differences of opinion persisting on the potential risks posed by a warming atmosphere. What he called the “Science Comprehension Theory” has as its main point an effort to remedy a deficit, an absence or shortage of the necessary knowledge to muddle through and adequately understand the climate science community’s evidence-based communications. That approach “isn’t flat-out wrong, it’s right; but it’s incomplete,” Kahan said, adding that it flies in the face of people’s rapid and visceral “System One” approaches.

“People fit their perceptions of what the risks of climate change are to values that are characteristic of their cultural identities,” Kahan said. “So people who are relatively egalitarian and communitarian in their values, they’re very concerned about climate change, more concerned about it than they are of terrorism. People who are hierarchical and individualistic in their values, they’re not concerned about it.”

Being in Sync with Beliefs and Values of One’s Peers

He pointed to an association — what Kahneman called associative memory — between emotional and symbolic resonance of risk and the kinds of evidence an individual will believe. People of hierarchical and individualistic values associated climate change with restricting commerce, industry, and technology, “things that are important within their way of life. And they resist that.”

People of egalitarian and communitarian values, by contrast, also might see climate change restricting markets, commerce, and technology, Kahan said, “which they kind of like, because they see those things as productive of disparities in wealth” across society.

The public at large wants to shape their views to be consistent with their communities of interest and peer groups, he said. With individuals having little clout on their own as consumers or voters to substantially influence the directions of and risks imposed by climate change, he said, “it makes a difference within their community if they take a position that’s contrary to what their peers believe. They figure out what people like them believe, … and if they’re good at science literacy and numeracy, they’re even better at fitting their factual beliefs to those kinds of cultural commitments. They can make arguments, and so forth and so on.”

Kahan’s and his research colleagues’ recent research along these lines is spelled-out in more detail in their recent Nature Climate Change report “The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate Change Risks.”

Analyses and evaluations of the Kahan “Polarizing Impact” paper and reports on other elements of the Sackler “Science of Science Communication” Colloquium will be explored in an upcoming Yale Forum report.

David Pogue on Communicating Science on TV

Laughing out loud, while learning and enjoying a presentation on effective science communications … it doesn’t happen every day.

Here’s an exception, one you’re very likely to enjoy and learn from.

The post-luncheon speaker on day two of the Sackler Colloquium was New York Times technology columnist David Pogue, who writes often for Scientific American, does science features for “CBS Sunday Morning,” and was recently named host of the PBS “Nova Science Now” series.

No scientist himself, Pogue described how he became involved in 2001 with a public broadcasting feature on materials science …. “There’s a singin’, dancin’ televised topic,” he spoofed. He noted that some televised science features involve scientist hosts interviewing scientists, a set-up which, he said, often ends up as “a pissing match … or what you guys would probably call ‘an inter-science urinary engagement.’”

Stop reading here. The 27-minute Pogue video is worth seeing for yourself.

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...