Does the prospect of global climate chaos worry you? Do you feel like you can’t do anything about flooding in Bangladesh? Are the compact fluorescent globes you installed really making a difference? Did the climate skeptic you saw interviewed on A Current Affair make a lot of points which sound like they disprove climate change?
If you’ve seen one of the multitudes of media stories on climate change in recent years, you’ve probably asked yourself similar questions before – I know I have. The broad range of images we’ve started to associate with a changing climate cover everything from tragic disaster to smiling cyclists. So how do these images make us feel? Do they scare us, or motivate us, or make us want to put our hands over our eyes and ignore the lot of them?
Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole, of the University of East Anglia in the UK, have been working out how we respond to visual representations of climate change. They’ve found that, while fearful images of climate change can grab our attention, they’re not particularly good at making us want to address the problem. On the flipside, the images that make us motivated to act tend to be less interesting.
This ties in with a key theme of communication in general, which is storytelling. Randy Olson at TheBenshi has an article about the importance of specifics in storytelling; he argues that credibility and the ability to connect with people lies in the ability to use specific information to build a story. Marylin Manson, quoting the novel The Black Obelisk in his Fight Song, screeches that “the death of one is a tragedy, the death of millions is just a statistic” – an aerial view of a earthquake-hit city just doesn’t bring the story to life like a devastated mother staring at the ruins of her family’s home. It’s the ability to link the true scope of an issue with a specific story that people can relate to which defines good communication.
Storytelling and the art of using specifics is something which skilled communicators employ extremely effectively. In the media, scientists don’t tend to utilise this method, while various anti-science movements, such as anti-vaccinators, do so very effectively. Bear this in mind next time you hear a skeptic making an argument; it’s likely to be a scattershot of individual facts, delivered one after the other, which quickly seem to add up to a strong case. Upon examination, those details may be poorly substantiated or incorrect, but it’s not human nature to assume a person would simply lie repeatedly, so the argument bears a ring of authenticity by virtue of being so specific.
I’m reminded of an experience I had a couple of years back when Tom Woodward, a Christian promoter of Intelligent Design creationism, gave a presentation at Griffith. Woodward used plenty of specific examples in his presentation, which, to me, were extremely weak, but would require a basic level of understanding of biology and evolution to see through. For example, he talked about the blood clotting cascade, pointing out its complexity and how hard it is to imagine it happening randomly. For Woodward, waving his hands and implying that Goddidit constituted a solution to the problem (rather than actually studying the cascade to understand how it came to be). Here’s a quote from a recent Woodward article:
“It remains to be seen whether that “falsification program” will be initiated by the scientific community – especially by those biologists who make their living teaching and studying evolution. Dissidents within science who support Johnson’s critique have described a system of “thought control” under which it is professional suicide to question the basic assumptions under which evolutionary science operates. Those who dominate this area of science see themselves as besieged by religious fundamentalists, a category that, to these scientists, seems to include anyone who believes in a God who takes an active role in the world.” – Thomas Woodward
Replace the words biology/evolution with climate, and religious fundamentalists with climate skeptics, and you’re getting pretty close to the exact pseudo-conspiracy theories currently propagated by climate skeptics in the popular media; ditto for the anti-vaccination lobby against health experts and pharmaceutical companies.
So, if ‘big’ images scare us away from acting on issues like climate change, and skeptics are employing rhetorical techniques which have been tried and tested at rousing our attention and building authenticity, doesn’t that leave us pinned? Well, no: it means we need to look for solutions across the board. Science has long had PR issues; good scientific storytelling is, unfortunately, rare in the mainstream media, in any format. I’ve got some ideas, but since I’m blogging once a day this month, I’ll be saving them for another article!
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one: where have you gotten your information about climate change from? Has there been a source which has swayed you one way or another? Is it all too big, or are you doing what you can, or is it a bunch of crap?