Communicating Scientific Consensus on Climate Change

by Juana Granados

In a review of 12,500 scientific abstracts by Cook et al. (2013), 97% accept the consensus position that climate change is caused by humans. On the other hand, only 42%, of Americans believe the idea that scientists regard global warming as real concern. Why? Is it because these 42% are uninfluenced by the objective forms of data presentation used by scientists such as pie charts and the type of language used in scientific papers? Would these people be better served by the use of metaphors?  Van der Linder et al. (2014) conducted a randomized online survey consisting of 1,104 people, aimed at reflecting the entire United States’ population. Participants were told that they were going to be focusing on popular topics. Thus, a mix of topics were presented to hide the study’s real objective. Two separate tests, both asking the same question about the certainty of climate change’s occurrence were conducted. The first was in the form of a simple opinion poll while the second consisted of descriptive text, belief vs. action metaphors, and pie charts.

This experiment was done with the thought that the communication of climate change using the three forms of presentation could significantly increase people’s understandings of the scientific consensus. The highest percentage of agreement was achieved using standard scientific descriptive text about climate change, generating an increase in the respondents’ belief that the scientists were believers of the scientific consensus of 17.88%.The pie chart resulted in an increase of 14.38%. A variety of metaphors, which which the investigators thought might be more effective weren’t. On average, they led to an increase of 11.91%, the lowest of the three forms in both tests.   Thus, merely exposing people to a clear scientific textual presentation is fairly effective…they don’t require that it be served up in metaphor. Not that the authors claimed this, but it seems that if more people read some actual scientific content instead of getting their information from Fox News (or whatever), the more convinced they would become, even if they aren’t scientists.

Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D., Green, S.A., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., Way, R., Jacobs, P., Skuce, A., 2013. Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research Letters 8, 024024.

Van der Linden, S. L., Leiserowitz, A. A., Feinberg, G. D., & Maibach, E. W., 2014. How to communicate the scientific consensus on climate change: plain facts, pie charts or metaphors?. Climatic Change 126.1-2, 255-262.

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