The humanities can play a much-needed, and as yet unfulfilled, role in communicating climate science.

Asked to choose between direct measurement using a carefully calibrated instrument or getting an indirect indication of how something looks, sounds, smells, tastes, or feels, scientists overwhelmingly would choose the former.

But the effort to establish the historical record for global warming quickly comes up against the limits of the instrumental data. To go back further — to really determine whether current warming is anomalous — scientists have had to use proxies: growth rings in trees and corals, variations in key isotopes in ice cores, pollen counts and sizes in sediments, etc.

This methodological approach from climate science prompts a question about the May 2012 Sackler Colloquium on “The Science of Science Communication.” Might the zeal for rigor expressed in the title limit the analysis to a too-short “instrumental” record? After all, scientists, per se, began studying communication only in the late 1800s, and their research has been generally recognized only since the start of World War II.

To place our present climate communication difficulties in context, to really see the big picture, we need to extend our vision through the use of proxies for scientific measures of communication. And for these, we must look to the humanities, which provide a record that goes back at least 2,400 years.

The National Academy in May hosted a provocative two-day session on ‘The Science of Science Communication.’

Four examples from the two days of plenary talks and panel presentations during the National Academy of Sciences’ Sackler Colloquium (see related article) illustrate how the humanities might perform this role.

But first let’s consider the common ground between one classical analysis of communication proffered in 4th century Athens and the science presented in May in the Academy’s neoclassical “temple of science in America.”

Here is Aristotle’s one-sentence definition of rhetoric: “Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”

In this short sentence Aristotle hints at several points that were stressed over the two days of the colloquium, points he then elaborates over the 300 pages of his three-part treatise complete with reviews of the relevant literature (and, yes, there was literature to review):

  • There are multiple means of persuasion — communicating science is not merely a matter of providing the necessary information.
  • Among the “available means” are the three different rhetorical appeals Aristotle later describes: logical, emotional, and ethical (character). Two of these were stressed in the colloquium:
    — An effective message must create an emotional connection for the audience.
    — How the audience perceives the messenger affects how they receive the message.
  • One has to “observe” the given case in order to determine which means to use — an effective communicator conducts audience research.

Aristotle does not reduce “any given case” to audience. Instead, he recognizes that the circumstances in which a particular messenger addresses a particular audience will affect how a message is received. In the four examples considered below, we can see how Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric — and the roughly 2,300 years of rhetorical theory that followed — provide additional context for the 21st century challenge of communicating climate science.

You Have Information Only If Someone Is Willing To Be Informed

Aristotle, in ‘The Art of Rhetoric,’ touched on several points relevant to today’s climate communications challenges.

One of the first assignments in many college speech or oral communication courses is “the informative speech.” But none of the three types of speeches Aristotle describes in his Rhetoric— forensic (legal), deliberative (political), and epideictic (ceremonial or entertaining) — can be called “informative.” Aristotle’s advice regarding the first two types clearly presumes the speakers will be opposed. Only in the third do speakers have their audience to themselves, but these listeners expect to be moved to tears, to proud attention, or to laughter.

The ancient Greeks would likely have labeled David Pogue‘s keynote presentation on the second day of the Sackler conference as epideictic. Pogue showed how high energy and highly visual skits can deliver intriguing but non-controversial bits of science to young viewers, thereby illustrating how an entertaining speech can also be informative.

The more important take-away, however, is that speaking to inform requires that speakers and audiences share an established social and cognitive framework: an audience must believe in the expertise the speaker claims to possess or represent. One possible explanation for public skepticism regarding certain kinds of science may be that this shared framework has not yet been established — or has been fractured.

At least one Sackler presenter noted the loss of an important part of the infrastructure for communicating science: science reporters. Others pointed to ways the Internet has changed how people consume news. These observations suggest that the social foundations for communication may have changed in some fundamental ways: We are no longer unified by a very limited set of shared news sources, each embracing a model of objective reporting; it is easier now to live in separate “fact-worlds,” sustained by media selections that reinforce pre-existing viewpoints.

A model of science communication based on the informative speech cannot work with audiences unwilling, or unavailable, to be informed. Once reminded about the primacy of contention in the much longer history of rhetorical thought, we may be better poised to deal with the loss of these consensus-building elements in the present.

Communication Is a Two (or More)-Way Process

Over the two-day Sackler event, several speakers observed that communication is a two-way process. The focus of the colloquium as a whole, however, was on communicating science to a given audience. The flow seldom moved in the opposite direction, from audience to speaker or messenger, and then only during audience research and assessment phases.

Before communicating science, these speakers argued, one should survey and/or interview a sample of the intended audience in order to gauge the level of understanding and identify workable frames of reference. A message can then be shaped to fit this particular audience. And by interviewing or surveying another sample afterward, the researcher can assess the effectiveness of that message.

Bust of Plato who, along with his student Aristotle, argued that rigorous discussion is key to understanding. 

One might argue that the sort of engagement that occurs in audience research and assessment should serve as a model for communicating science. And indeed Aristotle, and Plato before him, argued that knowing is the outcome not of the passive reception of a message but of the rigorous discussion of a question or problem. Without the experience of actively arguing the relevant points, one cannot genuinely engage or consistently hold a new view.

Thus while several speakers suggested better ways of framing messages about climate change, it is not at all clear that these new frames — human-health-centered messages, for example — would fare any better against pressing economic concerns or a cost-benefit analysis of the sort, for instance, that Bjorn Lomborg is always ready to offer. (See his most recent attempts.) And as some other speakers noted, even well-framed appeals may not survive the value-norming that occurs within one’s social group.

Tom Dietz of Michigan State University took some steps in the direction of critical dialogue in proposing that science communication be incorporated into a process of democratic deliberation: scientists and concerned citizens working together to define problems and propose solutions. The two-, three-, and more-way communication of public participation creates a common ground for communicating science.

In this alternative view, in other words, science is communicated most effectively in the context of political deliberation. But models of deliberative democracy are more often constructed by political philosophers, academics trained in the humanities, than by political scientists.

Real Disagreement Requires Careful Discussion

On the first day of the colloquium, two speakers reflected on experiences with the intense public debates over nanotechnology and geoengineering. Typically, these debates produced only more acrimony. Sometimes, however, the opposing parties, by continuing their discussions, recognized that their dispute was not about the science but about their values. The trick lies in finding the way to get to this recognition.

Determining the exact points of disagreement in a dispute was the express purpose of a rhetorical system devised in the Hellenistic era. That approach prompted opposing parties to work through a sequence of stasis questions regarding facts, definitions, causes and consequences, values, and proposals. Contemporary rhetorical scholars, such as Jeanne Fahnestock and Marie Secor have adapted this mostly legal system for use in science and policy debates.

A dispute over “the science” might boil down to a disagreement over data, over the definition of the problem, over alleged causes or predicted consequences, or over proposed solutions. Or conflicting values could still lurk in the hidden center of the dispute. But values exert their influence differently over facts, versus definitions, versus causes and consequences, versus proposals. The stasis system could thus facilitate more precise analyses of these complex public debates.

Americans Are Not Just ‘WEIRD’

Toward the end of the second day of the May Sackler Colloquium, a casual observation created an opening for two other humanistic disciplines: history and government.

An earlier speaker had noted that social science studies have a “WEIRD” bias. Because most research institutions are located in Europe and North America, and because college students are the subjects most readily available for academic researchers, sample populations for social science studies are disproportionately Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.

But on the issue of climate change, the United States has behaved quite differently from its counterparts in the West. Why?

One panelist noted that climate skepticism is concentrated in four countries: Britain, Australia, Canada, and the U.S., all English-speaking and linked historically. So does Anglo-Saxon culture and heritage play a role in climate skepticism? Regrettably, it was by then too late to follow-up on that notion. (A list of plausible explanations might include the differences between Roman law and the common law tradition followed by Britain and its colonies, the common-sense realism of the Scottish enlightenment, or some combination of the two.)

But an equally tantalizing point was not even mentioned: of the four countries named, only the U.S. has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Why? Perhaps here the fact that Britain, Canada, and Australia all have parliamentary systems — in contrast to the deliberate separation of the executive and legislative functions in the U.S. — is a factor.

Although the colloquium was largely devoted to science communication in the U.S., the focus on “the science of science communication” in effect filtered these important, perhaps even definitive, historical and political factors out of the dialogue.


In these four reflections on the two days of the Sackler Colloquium, no new strategies for communicating science have been offered. But these four examples do suggest ways the humanities — including cultural theory, history, political philosophy, and rhetoric — might contribute to a fuller understanding of science communication, especially the challenge of communicating climate science.

Two final notes:

The humanities have developed a very precise vocabulary for word play. “The Science of Science Communication” is an example of antanaclasis: using the same word, but with different meanings, two or more times in a sentence. Here the first “science” points toward approach or process, the second to results.

Ancient Greek rhetoric also stressed the importance of kairos — the opportune moment. The eagerness with which news sources in mid-July picked up on “The State of the Climate 2011” and the attribution study that accompanied it can almost certainly be explained by the fresh memories of the extraordinary heat wave of the week before. One can’t count on such coincidences, but careful communication choices can make them more likely.

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...