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Narratives for communicating climate change

Last week I wrote about work by UC researchers on framing climate change, a chapter that focuses on how we can harness our understanding of human psychology — how we learn, think, and behave — to communicate science better. Here’s another paper (one that’s gotten very popular, very quickly) that considers human cognition for the efficacy of communicating about climate change.

Narrative Style Influences Citation Frequency in Climate Change ScienceThe authors of this paper (Ann Hillier, Ryan Kelly, & Terrie Klinger, all from the University of Washington) started with the insight from psychology that people understand and remember story-like (narrative) writing better than explanatory (expository) writing. They considered abstracts from 802 scientific papers about climate change, and looked for different markers of narrative structure:
1) description of setting (where/when the events took place)
2) narrative perspective (the presence of a narrator)
3) sensory language (appealing to the senses or emotions)
4) conjunctions (used often in narratives to connect narratives logically)
5) connectivity (phrases that create explicit links to something mentioned earlier in the text)
6) appeal (whether the text makes an appeal to the reader or a recommendation for specific action)

The authors crowdsourced this first part of their data analysis. This means that non-scientists who use an online job platform (crowdflower.com) were given the authors’ instructions for analyzing the abstracts. This way, each abstract was analyzed by 7 independent people, and involved human interpretation and discretion, which can likely provide a more accurate index of narrativity than any computerized methods can at the moment.

The authors considered how many times each paper in the study had been cited by others as a reflection of how much impact each paper had on subsequent science conducted. They found that 4 of their 6 narrative indicators (sensory language, conjunctions, connectivity, and appeal to reader) were related to how frequently articles were cited by others. In other words, papers higher in narrativity were cited more often than those that were more expository.

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Subset of Figure 1, showing that as articles increase in narrativity, their citations increase as well.

The more citations a paper receives, the more other researchers will see the work. It’s possible that higher quality work lends itself better to a narrative style, so papers high in narrativity will also be cited often. Since this study is correlational, we have no way of ruling out this possibility that the best science is conducive to narrative presentation, and it would be cited a lot regardless of its narrative style because it’s just good research. The causal arrow is not clear here, but it is clear that impactful research tends to take on a narrative structure. Even though narrative writing doesn’t necessarily lead to citations, imitating the style of papers that are cited often doesn’t seem to be a bad idea.

This work is not the first to suggest that narratives can be helpful for understanding climate change. FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit organization that designs ways to communicate complex issues and tests their efficacy for cognitive and behavior changes, has a toolkit that uses (visual) narratives to communicate about climate change. (Also note that the toolkit is just the tip of the iceberg for the extensive work FrameWorks has done on communicating climate change.)

Together, the work by FrameWorks and the study of narrativity and citations present a pretty clear takeaway for climate scientists (and likely scientists in many fields): ease off the traditional academic expository style and lean into a more understandable and memorable narrative style.


For an interesting (and more critical) take on this paper, see this post by Randy Olson at scienceneedsstory.com)

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What happened to Team Science?

Last week I saw Hidden Figures, a movie highlighting 3 African-American women who were instrumental in the math work behind NASA’s earliest space missions. I was captivated, and the movie’s success suggests that I wasn’t the only one. The movie showcases the intense obstacles women and African-Americans faced in American society, and sent a message that is still relevant and important today.

One theme that really struck me was the widespread fascination for science, particularly the American space program. Everyone was rooting for the space program. Families crowded in front of the TV to watch coverage of early US space missions, and cheered outwardly at its successes. They were rooting for America in a time of great tension with Russia (sounds familiar…), and they were rooting for scientific progress. Science seemed to be a topic that united Americans.

I’ve never witnessed this kind of collective enthusiasm for scientific progress. I don’t think I’ve ever watched live coverage of a science event on TV, and I can’t recall any scientific event that I celebrated with family and non-scientist friends. I think it’s safe to say that science is not uniting Americans right now. My intuition is the reverse: science fuels ideological divides. It gives people more issues to argue about.

To test myself, I googled: “Americans rooting for science.” The only relevant search result I found referred to the “war on science.” Then I searched for that phrase, and there were many relevant and recent results. Americans aren’t united by Team Science; they are at war over it.

How did we get here? Why is science now so inseparable from other political beliefs, and therefore always a topic for debate? Have our national priorities shifted? Have we become a more individualist nation, all burrowing deeply into our own echo chambers? Are we too distracted by cat memes to realize when big scientific stuff is going on?

I don’t know, and I don’t know if it’s a bad thing. But I do wish my earliest memory of gathering in front of a TV had been to watch a rocket taking off and not of the Twin Towers collapsing.

Getting a scientific message across means taking human nature into account

I really enjoyed thinking about, researching, and writing this piece for The Conversation, where this work was originally published.

Getting a scientific message across means taking human nature into account

Rose Hendricks, University of California, San Diego

We humans have collectively accumulated a lot of science knowledge. We’ve developed vaccines that can eradicate some of the most devastating diseases. We’ve engineered bridges and cities and the internet. We’ve created massive metal vehicles that rise tens of thousands of feet and then safely set down on the other side of the globe. And this is just the tip of the iceberg (which, by the way, we’ve discovered is melting). While this shared knowledge is impressive, it’s not distributed evenly. Not even close. There are too many important issues that science has reached a consensus on that the public has not.

Scientists and the media need to communicate more science and communicate it better. Good communication ensures that scientific progress benefits society, bolsters democracy, weakens the potency of fake news and misinformation and fulfills researchers’ responsibility to engage with the public. Such beliefs have motivated training programs, workshops and a research agenda from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine on learning more about science communication. A resounding question remains for science communicators: What can we do better?

A common intuition is that the main goal of science communication is to present facts; once people encounter those facts, they will think and behave accordingly. The National Academies’ recent report refers to this as the “deficit model.”

But in reality, just knowing facts doesn’t necessarily guarantee that one’s opinions and behaviors will be consistent with them. For example, many people “know” that recycling is beneficial but still throw plastic bottles in the trash. Or they read an online article by a scientist about the necessity of vaccines, but leave comments expressing outrage that doctors are trying to further a pro-vaccine agenda. Convincing people that scientific evidence has merit and should guide behavior may be the greatest science communication challenge, particularly in our “post-truth” era.

Luckily, we know a lot about human psychology – how people perceive, reason and learn about the world – and many lessons from psychology can be applied to science communication endeavors.

Consider human nature

Regardless of your religious affiliation, imagine that you’ve always learned that God created human beings just as we are today. Your parents, teachers and books all told you so. You’ve also noticed throughout your life that science is pretty useful – you especially love heating up a frozen dinner in the microwave while browsing Snapchat on your iPhone.

One day you read that scientists have evidence for human evolution. You feel uncomfortable: Were your parents, teachers and books wrong about where people originally came from? Are these scientists wrong? You experience cognitive dissonance – the uneasiness that results from entertaining two conflicting ideas.

It’s uncomfortable to hold two conflicting ideas at the same time. Man image via www.shutterstock.com.

Psychologist Leon Festinger first articulated the theory of cognitive dissonance in 1957, noting that it’s human nature to be uncomfortable with maintaining two conflicting beliefs at the same time. That discomfort leads us to try to reconcile the competing ideas we come across. Regardless of political leaning, we’re hesitant to accept new information that contradicts our existing worldviews.

One way we subconsciously avoid cognitive dissonance is through confirmation bias – a tendency to seek information that confirms what we already believe and discard information that doesn’t.

This human tendency was first exposed by psychologist Peter Wason in the 1960s in a simple logic experiment. He found that people tend to seek confirmatory information and avoid information that would potentially disprove their beliefs.

The concept of confirmation bias scales up to larger issues, too. For example, psychologists John Cook and Stephen Lewandowsky asked people about their beliefs concerning global warming and then gave them information stating that 97 percent of scientists agree that human activity causes climate change. The researchers measured whether the information about the scientific consensus influenced people’s beliefs about global warming.

Those who initially opposed the idea of human-caused global warming became even less accepting after reading about the scientific consensus on the issue. People who had already believed that human actions cause global warming supported their position even more strongly after learning about the scientific consensus. Presenting these participants with factual information ended up further polarizing their views, strengthening everyone’s resolve in their initial positions. It was a case of confirmation bias at work: New information consistent with prior beliefs strengthened those beliefs; new information conflicting with existing beliefs led people to discredit the message as a way to hold on to their original position.

Just shouting louder isn’t going to help. Megaphone image via www.shutterstock.com.

Overcoming cognitive biases

How can science communicators share their messages in a way that leads people to change their beliefs and actions about important science issues, given our natural cognitive biases?

The first step is to acknowledge that every audience has preexisting beliefs about the world. Expect those beliefs to color the way they receive your message. Anticipate that people will accept information that is consistent with their prior beliefs and discredit information that is not.

Then, focus on framing. No message can contain all the information available on a topic, so any communication will emphasize some aspects while downplaying others. While it’s unhelpful to cherry-pick and present only evidence in your favor – which can backfire anyway – it is helpful to focus on what an audience cares about.

For example, these University of California researchers point out that the idea of climate change causing rising sea levels may not alarm an inland farmer dealing with drought as much as it does someone living on the coast. Referring to the impact our actions today may have for our grandchildren might be more compelling to those who actually have grandchildren than to those who don’t. By anticipating what an audience believes and what’s important to them, communicators can choose more effective frames for their messages – focusing on the most compelling aspects of the issue for their audience and presenting it in a way the audience can identify with.

In addition to the ideas expressed in a frame, the specific words used matter. Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman first showed when numerical information is presented in different ways, people think about it differently. Here’s an example from their 1981 study:

Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If Program B is adopted, there is ⅓ probability that 600 people will be saved, and ⅔ probability that no people will be saved.

Both programs have an expected value of 200 lives saved. But 72 percent of participants chose Program A. We reason about mathematically equivalent options differently when they’re framed differently: Our intuitions are often not consistent with probabilities and other math concepts.

Metaphors can also act as linguistic frames. Psychologists Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky found that people who read that crime is a beast proposed different solutions than those who read that crime is a virus – even if they had no memory of reading the metaphor. The metaphors guided people’s reasoning, encouraging them to transfer solutions they’d propose for real beasts (cage them) or viruses (find the source) to dealing with crime (harsher law enforcement or more social programs).

The words we use to package our ideas can drastically influence how people think about those ideas.

What’s next?

We have a lot to learn. Quantitative research on the efficacy of science communication strategies is in its infancy but becoming an increasing priority. As we continue to untangle more about what works and why, it’s important for science communicators to be conscious of the biases they and their audiences bring to their exchanges and the frames they select to share their messages.

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Climate change is a big problem and we need to find better ways of talking about it

A team of researchers representing a range of academic departments across most of the schools in the University of California (UC) system recently published a chapter summarizing what we know about efforts to communicate climate disruption and how we can improve on them. It’s full of useful information (especially in the tables, which include things like common climate myths vs. facts and existing communication programs in the UC system). An overarching theme that I’ll focus on is that framing matters.

What’s a frame?

Picture frames often enhance the image inside. Frames can draw attention to the parts of the image that lie inside them and obscure or detract from the parts that lie outside. Linguistic frames do the same thing. The chapter refers to framing as “an effective communication tool for drawing attention to, legitimizing, and providing an interpretive context for abstract, complex, or unfamiliar information” (p. 9). For example, one person might frame a medical procedure by saying that it has a 70% success rate, while another might frame that same procedure as having a 30% failure rate. Although they both reflect the same information, each highlights something different — either success or failure — and psychology research has shown that in many instances, people reason differently when they encounter different frames for the same idea. Truly complex concepts like climate change can’t be communicated without framing, because it’s impossible for a communication to portray everything imaginable that’s known about a topic without highlighting some information and downplaying others.

The power and ubiquity of framing show us that facts alone are not enough. Frames used to communicate about climate disruption need to be selected conscientiously in order to give people a sense of why they should care about the issue and what they personally can do about it. Climate change can be framed by highlighting the human health issues it creates, the economic gains that can be realized by addressing it, or effects on local versus global levels. Climate change can also be framed using images.

This image makes me think, damn, we need to save the Earth. If that one didn’t work for you, maybe this one will:

Considerations for Frames

There is no one-size-fits all frame for motivating people to care about and act on climate change. Instead, communicators need to know their audience and anticipate the audience’s reaction to different messages. Tailoring frames for specific audiences becomes even more challenging when audiences are culturally diverse (a very notable point, since the authors are all from California, the most populous and diverse state). But it’s a challenge worth taking up. In the state of CA, for example, a message about rising sea levels may impact someone living on the coast more than someone living inland in an area affected by drought. Anticipating what matters to an audience can help communicators choose the most appropriate frames.

Religion provides an additional opportunity for framing. The major world religions emphasize humans’ responsibility to care for their natural world, and religious leaders have begun explicitly urging their followers to take this message seriously in the context of climate change. Unlike religion, climate change is often associated with political beliefs (almost half of Republicans are skeptical of climate change while just over 10% of Democrats are). In order to get more people to acknowledge the gravity of climate change and the actions we need to take to prevent disaster, communicators should focus on reducing the political divide on the issue, for example having prominent Republican groups and “opinion leaders,” people who have clout in their communities (such as Bible study or PTA leaders), speak about the urgency of addressing global warming.

Economics and business frames are also important to hone. Many people currently see addressing climate change as bringing about job losses, but in reality job prospects in the renewable energy sector are greater than those for traditional energy sources. Communicators need to emphasize these facts as well as highlighting the major companies that are already committed to improving energy practices.

Climate change is one of the most contentious issues nationally (and globally, at least in places where people have even heard of it), and communicating any controversial issue presents challenges (the subject of a chapter in the National Academy of Science’s guide for effective science communication, which I summarized previously). Adequately addressing climate change may involve more scientific innovations, legislation, and a lot of behavior changes… but we won’t get there if we don’t also focus on communicating the gravity of the issue and what can be done about it.

TLDR Guide to Ch 5 of Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda

Each day so far this week, I’ve shared my highlights of the National Academy of Science’s guide and research agenda for communicating science effectively (ch1, ch2, ch3, ch4). Today I’ll cover the final chapter.


Chapter 5: Building the knowledge base for effective science communication

This chapter brings back a number of issues discussed in earlier chapters with a focus on how the science of science communication can continue to be more informative.

Scientific communications often have an underlying assumption that when communication is done well, the public’s understanding of and attitudes about societal issues will be affected. It seems like a reasonable assumption, but it has not been extensively tested, and there are likely many conditions under which the assumption is false. “Good” communication alone won’t suffice for many of science communicators’ goals.

Future steps for science communicators

The report calls for more partnerships between researchers and science communicators to put into practice the lessons revealed by research on science communication. These partnerships will also be important for furthering research on science communication and testing hypotheses about ideal communication practices.

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I had never considered the possibility that science communication could be irrelevant for the achieving end goals. I think science communicators generally believe that it’s important for their messages to be communicated, and in many cases this is probably true, but I think it is worth considering the relative importance of science communication in creating changes compared to all the other things that also matter.

Using a systems approach to guide research on science communication

In cognitive science, we’re often drawn to look at the cognition of a system. For example, we might not just look at neural activity in order to try to understand some cognitive process, but instead will consider the whole body, environment, and culture in which the cognitive act is situated. This report calls us to think about science communication similarly: every communicative effort is part of a larger system, encompassing the content being communicated, its format, the diverse organizations and individuals who make up the communicators and audiences, the channels of communication, and the political and social contexts that the communication takes place in. This kind of holistic perspective takes into account the system-wide complexity instead of focusing on isolated elements, since findings about elements in isolation may not hold in complex and realistic situations. Since research does often need to be specific to be productive, the report suggests that researchers who are focusing on a single level or element in the system should at least be “acutely aware” of the broader context.

More research

We need more research that will inform best practices for communicating science. Some of this research should come in the form of randomized controlled field experiments, which will involve comparison conditions (for example, strategy A was more successful than strategy B) that take place in identical groups (participants were randomly assigned so that people who received strategy A didn’t differ in any way from those who received strategy B except in the strategy they received).

The report also calls for more training for researchers at all career levels, both so that the science of science communication can continue to become more rigorous, and also so that all other scientists can improve the way they communicate about their own work.


Seriously, we can all get better. This report is long, but it has a lot of important points for science communicators, which I’ve tried to distill into this series of blog posts. For me, the report provides encouragement: there’s a lot we already know about ways to most effectively communicate science, and there’s a comprehensive agenda for continuing to improve.

TLDR Guide to Ch 4 of Communicating Science: A Research Agenda

Each day so far this week, I’ve shared my highlights of the National Academy of Science’s guide and research agenda for communicating science effectively (ch1, ch2, ch3). Today I’m posting my highlights from Chapter 4.


Chapter 4: Communicating science in a complex, competitive communication environment

Trends in the communication of science news

Not surprisingly, the report notes that people have shifted from traditional media like newspapers and TV to more online news, and that this is true especially for young and more scientifically literate people.

Many websites encourage and depend on content created by their visitors (Reddit is my favorite example), which can have great benefits: people can debate, comment on, share, and repurpose information. At the same time, newspapers and TV are devoting less time and space to science news, which means that there are fewer science journalists than there have been in the past. As a result, many communicators (including scientists) have turned to new outlets, like blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos. Today’s media landscape is larger than it has been in the past, but it doesn’t offer clear ways for filtering out false or misleading information.

Coverage of science affects public perceptions

Issues that receive more media attention are perceived as more important and pressing. The leaders, organizations, or corporations associated with those issues are seen as more credible.

More research is needed to understand how media attention shapes perception of scientific information in rapidly changing online environments.

A further complication is that online information is often encountered in echo chambers or filter bubbles. Because people can use information-filtering tools to block information they disagree with and tend to create online social networks that are similar in ideology, preexisting beliefs can quickly become a filter for further information that a person encounters. Search algorithms also work by showing people the information they find agreeable and information that’s popular, adding to the concern that we can easily become stuck in feedback loops on the Internet, in which we’re exposed less and less to the contradictory information that may actually be important for us to encounter.

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This image (and other poignant ones on the same topic) from Beta Minds: Echo chambers of social networks

Even when we are exposed to varied information, online environments have features that are likely to affect how people receive that information. For example, number of views or likes on an article or video suggest how popular it is, which in turn is likely to affect how seriously a person considers it. Research on the nasty effect shows that reading rude reader comments on objective science reporting (which is completely commonplace on the Internet) increases readers’ perceptions that the story was biased and can push them to agree less with the story.

Opportunities for Communicating Science

  • Social media
  • Social networks

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  • Blogs
    It’s important to note that studies so far suggest that only a small portion of the public reads science blogs. Many science blog readers are actually scientists themselves, which is not necessarily bad, but definitely noteworthy for communicators blogging.

The chapter closes with a discussion of widening knowledge gaps. While it may be easiest to target science communication to people who often go to museums, watch science documentaries, and keep up with science blogs, those people do not reflect the majority of Americans. It’s great that there are high-quality science communications for interested (educated) people to consume, but as they consume more and more, if the rest of the country remains at status quo (consuming little to no scientific information), knowledge gaps will keep widening. This is an important consideration for communicators (pointing at myself here as well).


Tomorrow I’ll post a synopsis of the report’s final chapter: Building the Knowledge Base for Effective Science Communication.

TLDR Guide to Communicating Science Effectively: CHAPTER 3

For the past two days, I’ve posted my highlights of the 127-page guide for communicating science and research agenda published by the National Academies of Science (ch1, ch2). Today I’m sharing my highlights from Chapter 3.


Chapter 3: Nature of science-related public controversies

There’s no shortage of controversial science issues to communicate about:

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The report points out three features that controversial science issues often share:

  1. Conflicting beliefs, values, and interests of individuals and organizations are central
  2. The public perceives that the science itself or its implications are uncertain
  3. Influential groups and people succeed in having their voices heard above many others, making it hard for scientific evidence to come through

Religious views in particular can play a more central role in beliefs about controversial science issues than political ideology:

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There are some strategies for reducing the effects of competing beliefs, values, and interests (1 above):

  • Tailoring messages from science for understanding and persuasion
    • When information is presented in a way that’s consistent with people’s values, they tend to be more open-minded about the message than when the same information is presented inconsistently.
    • Audience Segmentation: the practice of dividing a large potential audience into subgroups and tailoring messages differently for each subgroup. Research on this area is very new, but it has the potential to help researchers understand how much of an effect science communication can have, for whom, and in what contexts
  • Engaging the public
    • The most effective public engagement happens as early as possible in a public debate, and stakeholders should be engaged over many rounds of discussion. “Repeated deliberation over time builds trust.” (p. 58)
    • We need more research to understand the structures and processes that encourage effective science communication in public forums across a range of issues and controversies.

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Research also suggests some ways to deal with public perceptions of uncertainty (issue 2 above):

  • When there are inaccurate claims of uncertainty (for example, claims that not all scientists believe climate change is a result of human activity), it can be useful to use repeated communications to convey the extent of expert agreement. These communications should occur in a variety of places, involve diverse people, and take many forms, like conversations, social media, presentations, advertising, communication campaigns, and media interviews.
  • It also seems beneficial to be explicit about the uncertainty that’s present in scientific understanding, and particularly depicting how uncertainty decreases over time. This tactic might build credibility and also garner public interest in a scientific story that unfolds over time.
  • But more research is needed on the most effective ways of presenting risks of varying degrees of uncertainty

Finally, the report discusses strategies for ensuring that science is heard among amplified voices of organized interests and influential individuals (issue 3 above):

  • Debunking misinformation
    This can be especially difficult when the false belief is consistent with how people already think about an issue. Communicators should be aware that repeating false information, even if doing so in order to correct it, may reinforce the belief. Corrections may be ineffective if inaccurate information as been repeated enough already. One strategy is to “prebunk” the information when possible by warning people that they might encounter misinformation and explaining why that information is being promoted. But more research is needed to reveal when and for whom this is an optimal strategy.
  • Work with opinion leaders to inform and persuade

This chapter confronts a major hair-pulling issue for science communicators. While communicating science might be hard to begin with, communicating about controversial issues seems at times impossible. The chapter shines light on what prior research can show us about effective communication despite an issue’s controversial nature and articulates areas for future research to continue improving in this direction.

Tomorrow I’ll break down chapter 4: Communicating science in a complex, competitive communication environment.