The increasing tragedies around climate change and covid have been well-documented and communicated by the scientific community. Scientists have been discussing the dangers of climate change since at least 1957. Such warnings gained little policy attention in the ensuing decades. The first global policy effort, as reflected by the UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), did not happen until 1988. The IPCC has since been churning out ever more dire reports about the need to drastically and immediately reduce fossil fuel emissions. There is no shortage of technical or policy solutions for climate change. The costs of renewable “clean” energy, such as solar panels, have been steadily declining. What is missing is a sense of urgency by both policymakers and the public.
The more recent tragedies of covid-19 are no less well documented. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued numerous reports about the issue, alongside the World Health Organisation (WHO). Given readily available remedies, the failure of public policy to respond must be found elsewhere, particularly the failure of scientific communication strategies.
In my 2015 book, Three Perspectives on Human Irrationality, I discuss aspects of human nature that defy ordinary scientific approaches. This is not to dismiss the power of the scientific method, which opened up vast improvements in the quality of human life once introduced (https://pulitzercenter.org/lesson-plan-grouping/curricular-resources-living-century-and-extra-life-exploring-causes-and).
Science communicators understandably follow the scientific method. They are rational, straight, and focus on the “facts” as far as scientific knowledge will permit. Take any press conference by Anthony Fauci, the Director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or the latest completed IPCC report. They present reports that reflect the state of scientific knowledge, including assumptions, probabilities, and models.
In doing so, they fail to communicate effectively. Communicators fail to consider whom their audience is, or its diversity. The people they need to reach most are not scientifically literate, and they process information in highly irrational, often emotive and tribal ways. Such audiences are less likely to consider whether the sources of their information are scientifically authoritative; they want clear answers.
Attempts to blindly apply the scientific method to human behaviour consistently fail, such as predicting elections. The response of marginally interested groups can be decisive in campaigns to change collective behaviour. What advertisers and politicians know is that an emotional appeal is far more important than any rational argument, and that pitches need to be tailored differently for different groups. The straightforward messaging of climate change and vaccination scientists ignores such realities.
It is understandable why scientists want to maintain neutrality and avoid emotional bias. Yet, the messaging strategy can be differentiated from the scientific content. Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, reached a lot more people about climate change than any scientific report. As Anthony Leiserowitz’s work on climate change points out, there is no lack of knowledge about climate change. But most people do not see it as a proximate threat. They put it below economic conditions and personal security (terrorism) as priorities, even while it has the ability to wipe out all human life on earth. Forthcoming research reveals how the media sensationalizes reporting about terrorism while underplaying the longer-term but more serious threat of climate change.
Thus, knowledge only becomes action through the prism of politics and media coverage, which is short-term, episodic, and reactive in nature. Similarly, the emotional and conspiratorial appeals of presenting covid vaccination as a threat to freedom are appealing and convincing in the absence of a concerted and consistent information strategy, particularly when authoritative figures inflame doubts, such as the ban on mask mandates by the Governors of Texas and Florida, or the continual conspiratorial coverage by Fox News. Such appeals are reinforced when information from authorities is inconsistent, incomplete, and at times contradictory, such as questions around the origins of the virus. Politicians and interest groups, unlike scientists, understand the power of information; witness the millions spent to sow doubt about climate change, alongside more direct interventions to slow policy change.
For science communication to be effective, it has to expand its toolbox to consider social sciences as important windows to human behaviour, and engage with, not ignore, politics. Scientists need to step up and passionately argue for the truth, rather than leaving the public communication space open to charlatans. When George W. Bush made his false connection of Iraq to the 9/11 bombings in 2001 and to chemical weapons, it was emotional and tribal appeal that held the day, not rational or scientific argument. Similarly, the U.S. spent two decades in Afghanistan supporting a corrupt government with no chance of success or exit strategy because there was inadequate truth telling to overcome defence policy interests. Policy would have been better served and outcomes vastly superior had sober discussion from a long-term perspective been injected with the same vigour.
There have been some policy responses to both crises: divestitures, regulations, and vaccine mandates and passports, all of which are helpful. But these are post hoc and reactive and reveal the lack of a coherent, consistent, and cogent communications and policy strategy. The safety of others and collective interests are apparent and accepted principles in areas such as drivers’ licenses. Extending scientific findings to ethical discussion is necessary. We need to engage all the tools of persuasion if we want to be effective in changing human behaviour to meet our collective challenges. Instead of dismissing them, we need to expose and take on both the short-term grifters and the well-organized lobby groups who seize upon political opportunities to sow misinformation that is in their own interests. Just stating the facts is hardly enough when so much is at stake. The current scientific approach to communication is an experiment that has failed.