Navigating climate science

Sep 20, 2010 By Bob Beale
Navigating climate science
Science communicators should take more account of how people make judgments and decisions when faced with complex uncertain problems.

The idea that greenhouse gas emissions are warming Earth's atmosphere is one of the most certain concepts in natural science yet as the level of scientific certainty has grown, so has the level of public scepticism about it, note Dr. Ben Newell and Professor Andy Pitman.

"Despite the near total lack of evidence to the contrary, a significant portion of the public, journalists and politicians emphasize their serious doubts about the of ," the two UNSW academics say in a new article arguing that science communicators should take more account of how people make judgments and decisions when faced with complex uncertain problems.

Their paper, titled "The Psychology of Global Warming: Improving the Fit between the Science and the Message", appears in the . Dr. Newell is a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology and Professor Pitman is co-director of the Climate Change Research Centre.

The pair explore the disconnect between the science and public understanding, and how to bridge that gap by understanding how we process information to make decisions.

It is well-established, for example, that losses and gains have a very different : the pleasure associated with receiving $500 is less than the ‘pain’ felt at losing the same amount, so we tend to be more averse to losses than we are attracted by corresponding gains.

"Recent research indicates that some environmental outcomes are treated similarly to financial ones," they say. "So when describing actions to mitigate global warming, messages should focus on the potential to avoid large losses - such as high fuel or heating bills - than the corresponding gains, such as the savings accrued over time by installing solar hot water."

How humans interpret evidence, how they react to evidence and how they form views based on evidence is not based solely on the quality of the evidence. A growing body of psychological research suggests useful ways to tailor the message to common ways of thinking and feeling.

Information processing does not occur in an emotional vacuum, the authors note. Emotions contribute strongly to perception and understanding of evidence, such as the effect of increased CO2. Using vivid images of global warming, such as shrinking glaciers and melting ice sheets engages emotional processing but should be done judiciously to avoid emotional numbing or a despair response: research suggests that individuals have a "finite pool of worry".

A tendency to be swayed by biases in the external samples of information can also affect memory and judgment processes. For example, if the public read, or hear opinions from climate change skeptics about 50% of the time then this could lead to a bias in the perception of the balance of in the minds of the public - that the science is only about 50% certain.

Numbers and units of measurement used to convey the statistics can also have a major impact on interpretation of the severity of the problem. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere seems tiny when it is expressed as 0.0384% by volume, or 390 parts per million - yet if it was collapsed into a single layer, it would be a substantial eight metres deep.

Explore further: Texas OKs most new history textbooks amid outcry

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

1,700 UK scientists back climate science

Dec 10, 2009

(AP) -- Fighting back against climate skeptics, over 1,700 scientists in Britain have signed a statement defending the evidence that climate change is being caused by humans, Britain's weather office said Thursday.

If not in atmosphere, where does carbon go?

Nov 02, 2007

A prominent atmospheric scientist Monday (Oct. 29) called for more research into natural carbon “sinks,” which today absorb almost half of man-made carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and which will play a large ...

A new measure of global warming from carbon emissions

Jun 10, 2009

Damon Matthews, a professor in Concordia University's Department of Geography, Planning and the Environment has found a direct relationship between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming. Matthews, together with colleagues ...

Recommended for you

Study identifies why re-educating torturers may not work

Nov 21, 2014

Many human rights educators assume – incorrectly, as it turns out – that police and military officers in India who support the torture of suspects do so because they are either immoral or ignorant. This ...

Research helps raise awareness of human trafficking

Nov 21, 2014

Human trafficking –– or the control, ownership and sale of another human being for monetary gain –– was a common occurrence centuries ago, but many believe it doesn't exist in this day and age and not in this country.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.