Saturday, June 2, 2012

Tailoring the message

One of the most important things that I have learned over the past two years is that everyone comes from somewhere different. People come with their own languages, their own ways of thinking, their own wants, their own penchants and proclivities and dislikes. People are culturally molded to espouse particular beliefs and not others. This is wonderful and beautiful. A world full people that thought and acted in the same manner, with the same ethics and morals would be no fun at all and barely resilient; it would indeed be a world exactly like the one that is taking shape in this age of what Charles Mann calls the homogenocene.

I think that one of the fundamental challenges that I think needs to be overcome in homogenocene is the division we've created between "right" and "wrong". You are either pro-life or pro-choice, a capitalist or America-hater, someone that believes in the "free market" or the "welfare state" are an "tree hugger" or "job creator". In trying to advocate for changed relationships to people and the environment, I have realised that it is important to navigate these dichotomies by meeting people where they are. There are ways in which we can talk to people that don't agree with what we say. All it takes is the capacity to change languages, to make arguments that make sense to those that think differently than you.

We see these dichotomous camps most starkly in the public responses to climate change. It is abundantly clear that climate change is occurring, and that it is anthropogenic. But there are people that still vehemently deny these realities, that believe it is a hoax or conspiracy, that believe responses to it will take away "freedom". One is either a believer or a skeptic. That's it. But how come given all of this knowledge of the causes of climate change and the empirical evidence of our daily lives do people not believe in climate change? It seems as though it comes down to cultural differences--the politics of knowledge and opinion.

According to Dan Kahan and others at Yale University, it is who you are around, the culture you are in, and the culture you are from, that affects most your beliefs in climate change. It is actually not about scientific comprehension. Here are excerpts from Kahan et al.'s paper from the current issue of Nature Climate Change.
Seeming public apathy over climate change is often attributed to a deficit in comprehension. The public knows too little science, it is claimed, to understand the evidence or avoid being misled1. Widespread limits on technical reasoning aggravate the problem by forcing citizens to use unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk2. We conducted a study to test this account and found no support for it. Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest. This result suggests that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.

[Therefore, a] communication strategy that focuses only on transmission of sound scientific information, our results suggest, is unlikely to do that. As worthwhile as it would be, simply improving the clarity of scientific information will not dispel public conflict so long as the climate-change debate continues to feature cultural meanings that divide citizens of opposing world-views.

It does not follow, however, that nothing can be done to promote constructive and informed public deliberations. As citizens understandably tend to conform their beliefs about societal risk to beliefs that predominate among their peers, communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values. Effective strategies include use of culturally diverse communicators, whose affinity with different communities enhances their credibility, and information-framing techniques that invest policy solutions with resonances congenial to diverse groups22. Perfecting such techniques through a new science of science communication is a public good of singular importance25.
There are two important conclusions that I have come to, for now, through experience and Kahan's work. It is that the message we deliver to advocate for ecologically responsible living must be tailored for the audiences receiving it. In drawing lines in the sand, in saying that there is a "right" and a "wrong", that one way of communicating is the best and the other is not, that "free market capitalism" is "free" and "socialism is un-American", we perpetuate the differences that fundamentally divide us.

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