Friday, August 18, 2017

Led by:  Prajwal Kulkarni
Description: Evidence from numerous scientific disciplines has painted what should be a convincing picture of anthropogenic climate change (ACC).  Yet, well-funded and organized campaigns have managed to undermine public confidence.  This table top salon discusses how contrarians are often given false credibility on ACC because science communication rarely addresses the methodological diversity that exists in science.  The public instead hears scientists speak of “the” scientific method and “the” way that science works.  This misconception of science as homogeneous creates a situation where scientists are considered an authority on almost any scientific topic.  Rather than portraying a single approach to science, emphasizing its methodological diversity might better communicate the key idea that scientists are not knowledgeable about all of science.  The public might be more inclined to believe in ACC if they only listened to scientists from the field that do the day to day work and understand the complexities.

There are several areas ripe for future research on this topic.

First, there is an acute need to understand the profiles of climate change denialism—what are the different types of people, within industry, government and in the public who deny that climate change is happening, and what kinds of views do they hold? One could imagine a taxonomy of individuals based upon their level of knowledge on the subject, occupation, ability to lead decisions on the issue of climate change, and the profile they hold in society; likewise, a taxonomy of different views on climate change could be constructed that takes into account the nuances of specific views, for example: “climate change is anthropogenic, destructive, and irreversible; attempting to affect change would threaten economic interests, therefore we should take no policy action to alleviate it.”

Second, what ways can scientists learn about the social and political contexts of their work in order to better navigate the climate change discourse? Traditional institutional norms encourage the insularity of scientists as specialists so that they might advance knowledge creation within disciplines, but this may have the effect of making them less adept at communicating their views to a skeptical public that is unfamiliar with their ideas. What are the basic communications competencies that scientists need to acquire in order to communicate to the broader public, and what are the best ways to facilitate the adoption of effective public communication methods?

Third, does public opinion have a meaningful effect upon creating public policy to respond to climate change? Especially in an international context, diplomatic policy can be crafted in back rooms where transparency is minimal and decisions are of great consequence. The diplomat may feel compelled to make decisions that she deems in the national interest, but which could have the effect of alienating segments of the public. Will the public accept these decisions, and what are the consequences if it does not?

Fourth, what are the potential sources of cultural authority in the climate change discourse? For example, if a “scientist” denies or affirms that climate change is taking place, what legitimizes her as an authority on the subject? Understanding the ways in which the public distinguishes between different representations of credibility within the scientific world could affect how scientists and the institutions they affiliate with choose to communicate with the public to maximize their legitimacy.

Finally, how do the political affiliations of scientists themselves affect their own views on climate change? Different scientific disciplines may draw men and women of specific political ilk, and the beliefs of individual scientists could shape how scientific discourse, including on the topic of climate change, is shaped. Understanding the political orientation of different scientific communities may help to shape discourse and outcomes related to climate change science and policy.

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