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Unquestioned answers or unanswered questions?

Sep 5, 2012 by | No Comments

In this guest blog Dr Anna Rabinovich, a spe­cialist in cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion based at the University of Exeter, reveals new find­ings that have important implic­a­tions for com­mu­nic­ating uncer­tainty in cli­mate science.

Uncertainty is an inherent part of sci­entific inquiry, and pro­gress often means quan­ti­fying rather than elim­in­ating it. Yet com­mu­nic­ating uncer­tainty has become a central problem in trans­lating sci­entific know­ledge about cli­mate change to the gen­eral public, some­times res­ulting in public dis­en­gage­ment and mis­trust. But is uncer­tainty really such an impen­et­rable bar­rier for sci­ence communication?

Our recent research sug­gests that it may not neces­sarily be so. In a recently pub­lished set of studies Thomas Morton and I found that people’s responses to uncer­tainty in cli­mate sci­ence mes­sages depended on what they think the pur­pose of sci­ence is, and under cer­tain cir­cum­stances, uncer­tainty actu­ally enhanced a message’s effectiveness.

There are broadly two ways of thinking about sci­ence and its pur­pose. According to the “clas­sical” model of sci­ence, the aim of sci­ence is to uncover the objective truth about the phys­ical world and to provide a solid proof of the validity of this knowledge.

This model sug­gests that there is a single ver­sion of truth to be dis­covered: True know­ledge is exempt from debate because it can be unques­tion­ably proven. Thus, the clas­sical model of sci­ence presents good sci­ence as a set of unques­tioned answers—it sug­gests that each ques­tion has one cor­rect answer that needs to be discovered.

According to the altern­ative “Kuhnian” model of thinking about sci­ence (named after the philo­sopher of sci­ence Thomas Kuhn), sci­ence is a series of debates and con­flicts, with dom­inant ‘paradigms’ (ways of under­standing the world) emer­ging and then being replaced by new ideas. Here, the func­tion of sci­ence is to debate these dif­ferent paradigms. The “Kuhnian” model of sci­ence presents good sci­ence as a set of unanswered questions—it assumes that most sci­entific ques­tions have a number of pos­sible answers.

We pre­dicted that people who viewed sci­ence as a search for abso­lute truth (i.e., a clas­sical model of sci­ence) would be demo­tiv­ated by uncer­tainty in sci­entific state­ments because uncer­tainty is incon­sistent with what they see sci­ence to be. Conversely, for people who viewed sci­ence as a forum for debating dif­ferent pos­i­tions and per­spect­ives (i.e., a Khunian model of sci­ence), the pres­ence of uncer­tainty in sci­entific state­ments should not be demo­tiv­ating because uncer­tainty is con­sistent with how they see science.

We tested this pre­dic­tion in two exper­i­mental studies by exploring inten­tions to engage in pro-environmental beha­viour fol­lowing exposure to sci­entific mes­sages about cli­mate change con­taining dif­ferent levels of uncertainty.

In the first study, we pre­meas­ured par­ti­cipants’ (mem­bers of the gen­eral public) beliefs about sci­ence in terms of the two models of sci­ence described above. That is, we assessed whether people believed that sci­entific ques­tions have only one cor­rect answer (a clas­sical model) versus mul­tiple pos­sible answers (a Khunian model).

We then presented par­ti­cipants with a number of cli­mate sci­ence state­ments with dif­ferent degrees of uncer­tainty (e.g. “There is 80% chance that global warming may make more than a quarter of all spe­cies extinct”), and assessed par­ti­cipants’ inten­tions to act in an envir­on­ment­ally sus­tain­able way as an indic­ator of whether the mes­sage was motiv­ating or demotivating.

We found that for par­ti­cipants who believed that sci­entific ques­tions can have mul­tiple answers (i.e., who adopted a Kuhnian model of sci­ence), uncer­tainty was not demo­tiv­ating. In fact, these par­ti­cipants responded to high uncer­tainty about impacts of cli­mate change by increasing their will­ing­ness to act in a sus­tain­able way. This con­trasted from par­ti­cipants who adopted a more clas­sical model of sci­ence – these par­ti­cipants were unre­sponsive to the level of com­mu­nic­ated uncertainty.

In the second study (with a dif­ferent set of par­ti­cipants) we asked par­ti­cipants to read a short text about the “nature of sci­ence”. For half of the par­ti­cipants, this sug­gested that the pur­pose of sci­ence was to debate dif­ferent ver­sions of truth, not to uncover abso­lute truth, that all sci­entific find­ings are inher­ently uncer­tain, and that good sci­ence is explicit about uncer­tain­ties involved.

The other half read text which sug­gested that the pur­pose of sci­ence is to uncover unques­tion­able truth, that uncer­tainty is a sign of imper­fect know­ledge, and that as sci­ence pro­gresses it is able to offer clear answers that do not allow altern­ative interpretations.

We then asked par­ti­cipants to read the same state­ments about cli­mate sci­ence as in the first study. We found that people who had read that sci­ence is a debate (rather than search for abso­lute truth) were more motiv­ated to act in response to mes­sages that con­tained a higher level of uncer­tainty than by less uncer­tain messages.

In con­trast, par­ti­cipants who had read about the clas­sical model of sci­ence demon­strated the opposite effect.
Thus, sci­entific inform­a­tion with a higher level of uncer­tainty about the risks was more motiv­ating when it cor­res­ponded to par­ti­cipants’ (induced) beliefs about sci­ence. Uncertainty in sci­ence does not always under­mine will­ing­ness to act in line with sci­entific mes­sages. In fact, uncer­tainty can be motiv­ating for those who share the concept of sci­ence as debate.

Implications for com­mu­nic­ating cli­mate science

Our res­ults sug­gest that pre-existing beliefs about sci­ence are at least as important for stim­u­lating action in line with sci­entific inform­a­tion as the mes­sage itself, and the fit between the two is cru­cial. This means that rather than avoiding com­mu­nic­ating uncer­tainty alto­gether, cli­mate sci­ence com­mu­nic­ators should make an effort to under­stand beliefs held by the recip­i­ents of their messages.

Rather than sim­pli­fying and reframing sci­entific mes­sages in an attempt to make them accept­able for the gen­eral public, com­mu­nic­ators might con­sider shaping their audience’s under­standing of what sci­ence actu­ally is. In this way, one could attempt to pre­pare the public for the levels of uncer­tainty pre­valent in con­tem­porary sci­ence, and present this uncer­tainty as a sign of a deeper under­standing of the sub­ject rather than a sign of falling short of the sci­entific ideal.

Rabinovich, A., Morton, T.A. (2012). Unquestioned answers or unanswered ques­tions: Beliefs about sci­ence guide responses to uncer­tainty in cli­mate change risk com­mu­nic­a­tion. Risk Analysis, 32, 992‑1002.

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