The crisis in science literacy

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Last week in Vancouver I attended the Botanical Society of America's President's Symposium, Understanding the Crisis in Science Literacy: The BSA is Planting Science in the 21st Century. The first two talks, by Matt Nisbet and DIetram Scheufele, revisited ground that I've touched on before - the role of framing in mass communication. One example I hadn't seen before shows nicely how context influences interpretation. It's from Daniel Kahneman's Nobel Prize lecture on 8 December 2002.
kahnemann-lecture.pngThis is figure 4 from "Maps of bounded rationality: a perspective on intuitive judgment and choice," by Daniel Kahneman.
The middle pair of marks look like a "B" in the top row and like the number "13" in the second row.1 But the marks are identical. Only the context in which they appears differ. Here's what Kahneman has to say about the pair of figures:

An ambiguous stimulus that is perceived as a letter in a context of letters is seen as a number in a context of numbers. The figure also illustrates another point: the ambiguity is suppressed in perception. This aspect of the demonstration is spoiled for the reader who sees the two versions in close proximity, but when the two lines are shown separately, observers will not spontaneously become aware of the alternative interpretation.2

Why do I bring this up now? Because it's an excellent example of how context affects perception. If context has such a strong effect on what we see, surely the way in which we frame arguments will have a strong effect on how they're received.

Andy Revkin referred to this yesterday.  

I was struck by a comment that followed my latest piece on cutting disaster risks, reacting to this line: "Only direct experience seems to trigger change."

Yeah. It seems Homo S "Sapiens" at large needs to first get hit by the wall before changing path. There will be always someone debating (denying) the science (evidence) of walls and bricks. We can't falsify the theory about that wall ahead, so it's no science, blah, blah, blah, ... bang. -- Florifulgurator (Dadaist, Germany)
This characterization of the human habit of dawdling in the face of looming risks reminded me of earlier contributions here on global warming by David Ropeik, a former journalist and longtime student of risk communication.
Revkin goes on to quote part of a blog post Ropeik made in February:

The science and policy communities tend to see the issue through their own professional lenses of fact and science and reason. The science of human behavior, particularly the psychology of risk perception, robustly shows that we use two systems to make judgments about risk; reason and affect, facts and feelings. It is simply naïve to disregard this inescapable truth and presume that reason and intellect alone will carry the day. That's just not how the human animal behaves. Even as potentially catastrophic as climate change might be, if people don't sense climate change as a direct personal threat, reason alone won't convince them that the costs of action are worth it.
There are still too few scientists and policy leaders describing the potential impacts of climate change on a local level. This is an admittedly dicey business because it's hard to know specifically what changing the climate of the planet is going to do to Denver or Delhi or Dusseldorf. But there is plenty of scientific evidence of the harm climate change might do at the local level. These potential local risks need to be emphasized, in the concrete terms that will give people more of an idea of what climate change might do to them.
I found Ropeik's observations especially interesting in light of the recent blogstorm about Sizzle. Science bloggers generally panned it.3 Even after thinking about it for awhile, I wrote that

In Sizzle neither the climate scientists nor the climate skeptics were given enough time for the weight of the evidence for climate change to become clear.
Of course, I also recognized that

[T]he visit to the lower 9th ward is the most powerful part of the movie. It brings home the impact that global climate change could have on us, particularly when I read on Sunday yet another sign of Katrina fatigue: a memorial planned for the victims of Katrina is stalled.
That's exactly the kind of approach Ropeik seems to be recommending. Sizzle tries to make climate change dramatic, immediate, and personal. It's speaking to affect, not to reason. Which leads me to the same question that Revkin poses:

Note how the word "might" has to be used to stay true to the science, which would immediately deflate the concreteness that David says is necessary to trigger action. Does this mean it's an impossible task?
I'm not at all sure of the answer, but maybe this is a start.

If we're speaking to affect, our emotions aren't likely to hear the "might". They'll only hear "9th ward". Thus, if we persuade by speaking to affect, it feels as if we're being a little dishonest, because we're not letting our audience in on everything we know.4 Speaking to affect can't possibly communicate with the precision, subtlety, and nuance that reason demands. But maybe there are not only different modes of persuasion, maybe there are also different purposes.

Maybe speaking to affect is best used to convince us that there's a problem worth solving and speaking to reason is best used to help us solve it. Maybe speaking to affect is best used to talk to the mass audience that must support change and speaking to reason is best used to talk to the smaller group of leaders who decide what change is needed.

If so, Sizzle isn't trying to tell leaders how to solve global warming. It's telling a mass audience that global warming is a problem. To paraphrase Ropeik, it would simply be naïve to focus on facts and figures. To convince a mass audience, we need the 9th ward.

Only direct experience seems to trigger change. "U.N. chief seeks action to cut disaster losses before the fact," Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times, 30 July 2008.

1The effect is more pronounced if you block off the image so that only one part appears at a time.
2That's not quite true. The two lines were shown separately in Vancouver, and I noticed the "13" interpretation of "B" on the first slide. Of course, I also quickly realized that the point of the slide was going to be its ambiguity, which is probably what caused me to see it before seeing the next one.
3It's worth pointing out that after reading Variety's review, Greg Laden is less negative than he was at first.
4And the distinction between affect and reason in persuasion isn't new. Aristotle distinguished three modes of persuasion: (1) persuasion based on the character of the speaker, (2) persuasion based on the emotional state of the listener, and (3) persuasion based on the logic of the argument. The first two are speaking to affect; the last, to speaking to reason. (see Aristotle's Rhetoric in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
for more information).

5 TrackBacks

TrackBack URL: http://darwin.eeb.uconn.edu/cgi-bin/mt/mt-tb.cgi/1699

Two follow-ups on Sizzle. From Almost Diamonds, "Stereotypes in Comedy"... and from Uncommon Ground, "The crisis in science literacy" And then, this. If you are a US citizen living abroad you MUST click this picture:... Read More

Being persuasive from Uncommon Ground on October 2, 2008 9:05 AM

Readers of this blog already know that I think that when scientists try to communicate with the public we spend too much time trying to communicate the facts and not enough time telling people why they matter.1 We aren't willing... Read More

Persuasion Bookmarks from Post Saver - Website voting and saving system on October 19, 2008 12:47 PM

Bookmarked your page with keywords persuasion! Read More

Climate matters from Uncommon Ground on October 21, 2008 7:43 AM

Climate Matters from Brighter Planet on Vimeo.Andy Revkin provided the link.... Read More

Randy Olson (marine scientist and producer/director of Flock of Dodos and Sizzle) has a book coming out in September. Here's a bit of the blurb from his publisher (Island Press):"Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of... Read More

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