On Saturday, I gave a pat on the back to Nature for including social science in their new climate change journal. The real battle in climate change is a social one – it’s a problem caused by people and their actions, and surprisingly enough, the solution will be achieved by getting people to act. Social scientists love talking about this. Here’s Pidgeon and Fischhoff (2011), explaining the role of emotion in decisionmaking:
“Recent advances in behavioural and decision science also tell us that emotion is an integral part of our thinking, perceptions and behaviour, and can be essential for making well-judged decisions.”
That’s a recent advance? Randy Olson, scientist-turned-filmmaker, picked up this sentence to deliver a verbal bashing of the social science communication community.
“Why don’t you find out what happens when you get so overly caught up in the information of communication that nobody in the world wants to listen to you? I’m gonna start calling this “The Nerd Loop” — where cerebral people think the solutions to communication lie in being more cerebral. I’m sorry, but in general, the “thinkier” you get, the tinier your audience.”
Randy rails against studying communication, advocating instead a creative, art-science mashup approach to tackling major science communication issues. I like Randy’s book, and found myself nodding throughout his article. It’s blunt, but he’s quite right. Many more people (a hundred times more!) watch Jon LaJoie professing his ludicrously unthreatening intention to ‘kill people’ than even the flagrantly heartstring-tugging ‘pets teach science’. Warning: the first of these videos is painfully stupid, misogynistic and long (yet, if viewed as satire, is a scathing reflection on society and hip-hop music).
This may seem obvious, but it bears thinking about (Randy just cringed at the ‘t’ word). I have some very smart friends who love intensely creative, fringe forms of media, cherishing the challenge and difficulty of the art. One of them showed me Jon and his gaudy shirt. Loves him for the pure, brash stupidity. Huh? How can someone so smart like something so stupid? But it’s infectious and accessible. Jon’s lyrics and attitude are shrewdly judged – he’s a clever guy appealing to a very receptive, large market.
At the moment, though, it’s the safe middle ground of tired lectures and voice-of-god science TV shows with talking heads in front of books which dominate the science communication world. What fraction of their audience is swayed to action by what they say? Even the National Theatre’s Greenland production, an attempt to explore climate change in a live setting, was basically terrible. There’s no Jon LaJoie on the side of science, dumping political correctness while hating on climate deniers Anthony Watts or Christopher Monckton.
That’s because the demographic of people who study and intimately understand climate science, along with all of its dangers and challenges, rarely even come close to overlapping with LaJoie’s market. Yet LaJoie’s market outnumber climate scientists hundreds to one, and they drive cars, use electricity and many can vote.
So how have the social scientists gone so wrong? Have they been living under a rock, ignorant of the role of emotion in decision-making and wondering blindly why their strategies don’t work? Well, no. Let’s compare the conclusion of their article with that of Randy Olson.
“Given the gravity and the complexity of climate-related decisions, we need a new model of science communication, with new collaborations among the sciences at both the national and the international level.” – Pidgeon and Fischhoff
“Start over. Do something new. Take some frickin’ chances for Christ sake. Quit doing the same things over and over again. Surprise us. Break into the climate skeptics computers and steal THEIR emails. Something. Anything. Make it interesting, people. Break out of the Nerd Loop.” – Randy Olson
It sounds pretty similar, yes? The key difference is that Pidgeon and Fischhoff are calling for collaborations among the sciences, while Randy is pleading with scientists to drag people in from outside to help. They both see the problem, they both see the resources being thrown at useless and ineffective information campaigns (yes, we have known for a long time… behaviour doesn’t follow attitude). Where they differ is who the solution should come from.
Social science will keep doing what it does. I commend Pidgeon and Fischhoff for making a call to arms, and having smart people monitoring, analysing and assessing science communication is important. Better yet, I want to see targeted behaviour change research and social marketing that bypasses the brain and gets direct results. However, such research is slow, and has nothing to work with if people in the real world don’t start giving them a bigger range of climate change communication to study.
I want to see Randy’s dream come true. I want to see pro-climate-action communication strategies that make me cringe, make me laugh, make me uncomfortable, that fail, that go viral, that cause skeptics and scientists alike to write angry blogs – and I want some of them to work. I don’t want to see another Inconvenient Truth. It’s done. It
might have worked in the white middle class. But Gore’s never going to rock up in a Hummer and stroke a fake polar bear while rapping about Russian people burning. And there’s at least 20 million people out there who would give that 5 minutes of their time.
Nick Pidgeon, & Baruch Fischhoff (2011). The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks Nature Climate change, 1, 35-41 : 10.1038/nclimate1080