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At the AAAS Meetings, A Focus on Scientism and Climate Change Communication

Last month at the meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a panel titled “Communicating Diversity in Science: Implications for Climate Change Denial” explored the role that scientism plays as a barrier to effective public communication.  Melanie Gade, a student from this semester’s course on “Science, the Environment, and Media” at American University contributes a guest post today elaborating on Lessl’s arguments--Matthew Nisbet.

Historically, scientists have viewed themselves as disseminators of scientific data. Yet, arguably, the failure to place such data in a value-based context may be responsible, in part, for today’s communication gap between scientists and the public.  In February, at the annual meetings of the American Association of Science (AAAS), Thomas Lessl explained why scientists’ attempts to gain public support for science may actually undermine their efforts to increase public understanding of issues such as climate change.

In Lessl’s view, the traditional role of scientists incorporates two principles.  The first is “technical empowerment” – science is the basis for developing technical solutions to difficult problems.  The second, Lessl describes as “scientism,” meaning that science brings clarity to knowledge and understanding of all human endeavors.  Such “scientism,” however, has spawned elitism within the scientific community that continues to widen the gap between scientists as “the experts” and the public as “the uninformed.”

Lessl’s concepts are incorporated in what scholars critique as the “deficit model” approach to communication strategy.  Still the predominant view of communication among scientists, this outlook presumes that “public skepticism towards modern science . . . is caused primarily by a lack of adequate knowledge about science, [and by overcoming this] ‘knowledge deficit’ — the public will change its mind and decide that both science and the technology that emerges from it are ‘good things’” (Dickson, 2005) [Link]. Consequently, numerous government agencies and institutions have embraced campaigns targeting “scientific literacy,” since the Deficit Model defines “knowledge” within a technical, scientific framework.

Yet scholars argue that the focus on “literacy” tends to promote approaches to communication that that can be patronizing, non-inclusive and further alienate the public.  As scholars note, scientific literacy is only one component of “understanding” issues as complex as climate change.  There is growing recognition that the communication of scientific findings needs to be tailored to specific audiences, thus allowing the public to draw connections to their values and interests.  In sum, as scholars have long argued and many now recognize, using scientific literacy as the platform for science communications strategies need to be reexamined. 

Re-conceptualizing How Scientists Communicate with the Public

To keep pace with modern communications, scientists need to reflect on the institutional and philosophic frameworks they use to communicate scientific information to the public.  At the AAAS panel, Lessl presented two principles he considers critical in order for scientists to rethink how they communicate with the public:

  • Personal knowledge always trumps technical knowledge in communication- Scientists often assume that scientific understanding is all that matters; they resist the idea that the decision making process involves personal values and biases of the audience.
  • Scientific knowledge cannot take the place of prudence in public affairs –As Lessl argues,people bring to the table a variety of truth standards: moral judgment, common sense judgment, a variety of metaphysical perspective, and ideological frameworks.”
  • Though scientists would like to believe that they are somehow above or disconnected from the messiness of politics, when they speak on political topics, they become political actors.  As such, scientists become subject to wider forces affecting communications. In the end, it is the public, not the scientists, with final control. 

    Public Communication as Advocacy

    The goal of educating the public under the guise of “scientific literacy” has also prompted discussions on the use of advocacy in the climate change debate.  Roger Pielke Jr. in his book The Honest Broker argues that many scientists when providing scientific advice engage in forms of advocacy, risking their perceived legitimacy and at times contributing to controversy.  Baruch Fischhoff (2007) [PDF] and others argue that if scientists engage in advocacy, they are viewed as “peddlers rather than arbiters of truth,” and risk their credibility.  Brian Wynne (1992) [PDF] and others have shown that the public is most likely to reject scientific advice if scientists are perceived as linked too closely to causes or institutions that have a clear policy agenda.

    Among, those endorsing an advocacy role for scientists, Judy Meyer and colleagues maintain “policy decisions can be greatly improved when scientists provide both a dispassionate assessment of the relevant science and informed opinions and policy recommendations.”  [HTML]  Michael Nelson of Michigan State University concurs, arguing that scientists, as citizens in a democracy, have a moral obligation to be “just and transparently honest advocates.” [Interview]

    Apart from these advocacy roles, Pielke argues that scientists can effectively engage instead in a type of “honest brokering.”  According to Pielke, scientists can effectively serve as mediators or arbitrators, advising the public of evidence-based science and providing context on a broad range of possible policy actions that allows decision-makers and members of the public to make their own decisions.  This model also begins to take into account that science data needs to incorporate a two-way discussion with the public.

    — Guest post by Melanie Gade, a graduate student in Public Communication at American University, Washington, DC.  This post is part of the course “Science, Environment, and the Media” taught by Professor Matthew Nisbet in the School of Communication at American.  See also other posts on the climate change debate by Ms. Gade and members of her project team.

    See Also:

    Andrew Revkin on “Do Fights over Climate Communication Reflect the End of ‘Scientism’?


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