Possible Methods to Overcome Climate-Change Denial

This began as an email to my brother, who is valiantly trying to change the minds of the climate sceptics he knows. Then I thought I would share it with my colleagues in science. And I thought my friends who teach math and statistics might find it interesting. It got so long, I thought I’d just put it here.

Dear friends:

I’m writing because I have either spoken with you about the work of Dan Kahan or because I think it might be of real interest. He studies the “science of science communication,” including the issue of how to overcome the effects of political polarization on climate change education.

His research is fascinating but his findings are tough to take. First, and this is kind of intuitive, perceptions of risk (to things like climate change or guns) is linked to social identity. He calls this the “White Male Effect.” People make rational choices when constructing their opinions, based in part on their decisions’ relative, perceived threat to their social identity. Many older, white men, then may have more to risk with their social group by becoming publically concerned about climate change than they do if they dismiss it as not a major problem.

Second, simply educating people (like these older white men) about the science of climate change or encouraging them to engage in open-minded thinking does not move the needle on the ideological divide. A graph on page 6 of this article by Kahan, “A Note on the Perverse Effects of Actively Open-Minded Thinking on Climate-Change Polarization,” suggests that conservative Republicans who engage in open-minded thinking may be more likely to identify the import of identity-based cognition and they actually appear LESS likely to accept the scientific consensus.

From Kahan and Richmond, “A Note on the Perverse Effects of Actively Open-Minded Thinking on Climate-Change Polarization”

So what to do? One thing not to do, I think, is to simply argue with sceptics. The research doesn’t show this as effective, though it may be cathartic or soothing. Instead, Kahan suggests some options from research on overcoming “protective” cognition, in a mercifully short article in Nature.

I think that these ideas are applicable to all sorts of issues. Trying to “teach” a room full of liberals about white privilege during a professional development day starts to look like attempting to sway the minds of conservative climate-change deniers on Facebook. As soon as we put our audience on the defensive, we’ve lost them.

Kahan writes in Nature: “One method … is to present information in a manner that affirms rather than threatens people’s values…. If … they are presented with information in a way that upholds their commitments, they react more open-mindedly. …” This sounds simple but it takes thought and planning. We have to know our audience!
“The second technique for mitigating public conflict over scientific evidence is to make sure that sound information is vouched for by a diverse set of experts. … People feel that it is safe to consider evidence with an open mind when they know that a knowledgeable member of their cultural community accepts it. Thus, giving a platform to a spokesperson likely to be recognized as a typical traditional parent with a hierarchical world view might [for example] help to dispel any association between mandatory HPV vaccination and the condoning of permissive sexual practices.”
These seem like slender reeds with which to support such vital arguments. But I don’t know what else there is do.

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