A couple of recent discussions with people who I would describe as a part of the ‘general public’ in respect to climate science, have left me somewhat perplexed and concerned. These people are ‘otherwise rational sceptics’, in the sense that these are reasonable folk who nonetheless have seriously felt doubts about the science and the consequent policies of climate change. Their feelings on the subject and the issues are not of the same order as the rantings of some well-known bloggers, and they have no obvious agenda or loyalty to a particular dogma or worldview which might explain their hesitancy when it come to this subject.
The problem I have had is how to express my opinions, which I believe are well-informed and rational, based on my own research over a year and more, in a way which allows them the opportunity to question their own doubts, without being perceived as ‘pushy’ or ‘aggressive’ about the subject, yet at the same time presenting the science and the scientific evidence, which is pretty unequivocal itself, about the causes of global warming and the implications for policy.
Here is the ‘communication challenge’ in a nutshell, then: if I respond by asking for explanation or evidential support, more often than not, I either get a reiteration of the original doubt, couched slightly differently, or a citation of a source which is one of two things; an article in the media (normally from online), or a link to a website whose history, financial support or track record for ‘objectivity’ is well-known to bloggers, but not necessarily to my co-conversationalists.
How does one respond to such offers of ‘evidence’? Often, it involves pointing to hyperbolic or deceptive use of language in an article, which has generated an impression, which amounts to a message, of something which is at best highly dubious – such as the idea that there is a lively scientific debate about much of ‘AGW theory’. Alternatively, there is often a resource available amongst the blogs, debunking the proffered quasi-scientific material.
But the responses to this aren’t especially positive. People will say they don’t ‘trust the media’, but still persist with the impressionistic response to the ‘signals’ in an article, repeating their doubts. ‘Debunking’ blog articles are dismissed on the grounds that they are biased, or that they are ‘dismissive of alternative points of view’; there’s a kind of ‘Mandy Rice-Davies’ response to material which is offered in contradiction to their original opinion (‘Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?).
The effect of politely presenting what, to me, are clear and decisive refutations of familiar misunderstandings, is to have any evidence which contradicts the original view/opinion dismissed in one way or another, as not valid, or as, in their own way, evidence of the existence of a ‘range of opinions in science’, but hardly ever as authoritative or decisive.
If you believe, as I do, that a sound understanding of the science of climate change is important in communicating the issues or the implications, or even if you simply want people to ‘see’ what is to you ‘self-evident’, there is at least one alternative; to present the evidence bluntly and simply; ‘Here is what the science says…’ . I have tried this several times, and the response is worrying. Firstly, I am accused of being an advocate or otherwise biased myself. Then I am accused of being dismissive of another person (not their argument, but their ‘right to have a doubt’, if you like. Then I might be accused of using bullying tactics, or of being ‘aggressive’ in my bluntness. Whatever the response, it tends to indicate that my bluntness has stimulated not ‘doubt about the doubts’, but hostility and defensiveness, anger and then entrenchment.
Whatever way I try to communicate a message which responds to ‘doubt’ about the science of climate change, it seems that I am failing to get to what is really the issue, or the underlying problem, that these people have with AGW. This is worrying, because I tend to think of myself as a reasonably competent communicator, with a fair-minded approach. But I am failing. In some essential way, my attempts to offer reason in response to doubt do not result in any change in the view of the correspondent (actually, this is probably an exaggeration; there are times when it seems that we can reach agreement on certain things).
Am I missing a trick? Is there some methodology of communication which I don’t know about, which can address this problem? Is it me who even has the problem, or is there something about these people which is blocking the possibility of progress in reaching a better understanding?
I feel that this is an important issue, because my sense is that there are still a substantial number of people like this around – never mind what the opinion polls tell us. And if these views exist among the ‘general public’, they probably also exist in the corridors of power. Further, there is the question of how politicians who are committed to ‘managing’ climate change and its impacts can get the ‘necessary’ response from their electorate/constituency.
So if you have a bright idea how to handle this problem, please let me know…