Much of what we do as scientists is based on the belief that our fellow citizens are ‘rational actors’, who just need access to good informatioon to make rational decisions. However, the recent debate over whether humans are altering the earth’s climate suggests to many that lack of information is not the problem. In a recent column in the magazine Mother Jones, Chris Mooney reports on studies which suggest that “people reject[...] the validity of a scientific source because its conclusion contradicted their deeply held views…that undercuts the standard notion that the way to persuade people is via evidence and argument. In fact, head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts—they may hold their wrong views more tenaciously than ever.”
A new book “Living in Denial” by Kari Norgaard of University of Oregon studies how residents of a small Norwegian town respond to information on climate change. As Andy Revkin of the New York Times notes on his blog, the Norwegian example holds broader lessons for how societies respond to such novel threats.
A study in the journal Nature Climate Change finds, not surprisingly, that people who have suffered from the effects of climate change (here Europe’s unusually severe recent floods) were less likely to deny that climate change was occurring. Another paper in the same issue proposes ways in which a “communications science” perspective can open a dialogue on methods for adapting to climate change.
On the other hand, some feel that a direct challenge to climate change denial is the best communications science.