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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 04/20/2009

Social Science Uncovering New Climate Angles

By Andrew Freedman

* Rainy Start to Week: Full Forecast *

Every time I am asked if I "believe in global warming," I am reminded of the communications challenge that faces us when confronted with complex issues such as climate change.

As detailed in this week's cover story in the New York Times Magazine, social science research is now revealing that people tend not to respond very well to long-term, diffuse threats, particularly when information about such threats is conveyed using analytical rather than "experiential" reasoning. Work at Columbia's Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED), where I am contributing to a climate science communications project, demonstrates that there is a need for exploring innovative ways of engaging people on matters of climate science, climate-related risk management, and personal and societal policy choices in order for society to implement appropriate solutions to the problem.

Keep reading for more on the complex interactions between climate change science and the human mind...

The article sheds light on something that is evident in the comments section of nearly every CWG climate change post: how people feel about climate change, and climate change solutions, can dominate their views of the science and of policies to adapt to and/or mitigate the problem. In other words, their emotional reactions to the issue can trump their analytical reasoning.

As Times author Jon Gertner wrote, "The possibility that society won't act decisively on global warming until we experience a shattering realization - a Pearl Harbor moment, as the climate blogger and former Department of Energy official Joe Romm recently put it - aligns with our tendency to respond quickly to the stimulus of experience and emotion, but slowly to a risk that we process analytically and that may be rife with uncertainties."

Other social science research in the fields of political science and media studies has demonstrated that the political ideology of an individual or an institution can also skew their outlook on both climate science and policy. This may partially explain the persistent partisan divide in the United States on whether man made climate change is occurring and how we should address it.

How do we get to the coveted middle ground, and make sound decisions based on robust scientific conclusions?

One answer may lie in improving climate science communication, which groups like CRED are trying to do. This brings me back to climate science presentations, and the necessity of taking into account how the human mind works. When climate scientists and policy makers rest their case on complicated technical charts to convey the influence of human activities on the climate system, they often fail to instill any sense of urgency or emotion in their audiences, despite the urgency they may feel as a researcher. They rely too much on analytical reasoning, to use the language of CRED researchers discussed in the Times article.

For example, the iconic "Keeling Curve," which shows that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have been increasing significantly since the 1950s, might give a climate scientist chills. It is perhaps the most famous image in the climate science story. However, members of the general public may be rather nonplussed by it, since the climate change implications of the chart are not immediately evident.

As the Times article makes clear, it's not only the complexity of the climate system that trips us up when trying to grasp its implications, but also the complexity of the human mind.

By Andrew Freedman  | April 20, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, Media, News & Notes, Science  
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One of the interesting (or scary, really) problems with this particular application of decision science is that due to the long residence times and slow time constants involved in the physical system, the consequences of the threat, while well-established analytically, will not appear fully until many years after the crucial decisions are made.

Essentially, we are being asked to do things, make sacrifices in some cases, to avert a danger that is not glaringly apparent (at least in North America) until well AFTER it is too late to avert. For people who are not well-plugged into the science, that choice does seem to have an element of *faith* to it. I have been pretty brutal here at times with some of the denialists, in part because I feel like many of them are knowingly spreading false or misleading memes. But perhaps I should practice a little more compassion in dealing with them, given this element of "faith" that is the apparent experience of people who are not as science-oriented. Something to think about.

Thanks for pointing us to that Times article, Andrew.

Posted by: B2O2 | April 20, 2009 11:52 AM | Report abuse

It's really hard to determine if any of the changes we've been having in our weather are due to global climate changes. They could be random variations in the general climatic pattern.

The most apparent changes I've heard about climate change involve shrinkage [or, conversely, advance] of mountain glaciers, rises [or falls] in sea level and possible changes in polar ice coverage and depth at both poles year to year.

Possible changes to watch would involve year-to-year changes in the isokeraunic data. If the number of days with thunderstorms in Washington continues to increase year by year, that should indicate a warming of climate. If this statistic increases for most locations globally on an annual basis that could indicate global warming.

One caveat involving isokeraunic data is that drying of climate in a specific locale may decrease the number of thunderstorm days at that site, but that drying could also be an indicator of global temperature rise.
Thus, the best isokeraunic indicator of global warming would involve a rise in the annual number of thunderstorm days with constant relative humidity. This could also be recorded as an increase in the number of actual cloud-ground lightning strikes.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | April 20, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

The number of thunderstorm days in Washington does NOT necessarily involve climate "warming", or even a general climate "change". Many different factors go into the number and type of thunderstorms, including surface temperatures and dew points, dew points and wind directions aloft, lapse rates, vorticity/wind shear, position and strength of the jet stream, surface fronts, oriention of those fronts, ridges and troughs aloft,and much, much more. So, a general warming of climate would not necessarily produce more simply depends on too many different factors.

Posted by: MMCarhelp | April 20, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

The New York Times, now there's an unbiased source! To bad they are going out of business.

Posted by: Jimbo77 | April 20, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

On the topic of improving climate science communication...A former colleague (now a PhD candidate in atmospheric chemistry) and I were discussing this during a recent conference. She expressed her frustration with the academic world, where scientists are trained to communicate in a certain language only amongst each other (e.g., to display their proficiency and findings by publishing in scientific journals), not to the general public. She is leaning toward a position in science education and discovering that she needs to un-learn these skills in order to communicate to a broader audience.

Then again, do the average non-scientists really desire to understand the science behind climate change, and will they respond better if they do? Climate is such a huge phenomenon - I think communicating the changes already taking place in our own backyards can be more effective than talking about global-scale projections. Communicating uncertainty is another huge factor. As the Times article mentions, people may interpret "80% certain" and "20% uncertain" differently.

I think improving the communications training of scientists and the scientific training of communicators will help. I'm glad to hear that some universities have started to require that science majors take a social science or communications course.

On a weather-scale, it's been interesting to watch Gulf of Mexico residents' response to hurricanes since Katrina and Rita. It seems that some people who do not typically think with an analytical/long-term mindset only learn through experience. It's understandable that if you've never lived through devastation from a severe weather event, it's hard to imagine it could happen to you.

Food for thought.

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | April 20, 2009 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Andrew, for touching on idiosyncrasies of human nature that I have been suggesting for a long time.

Quite interesting I must say, the NYTM is now reporting social science research suggesting that "people tend not to respond very well to long-term diffuse threats". This is no surprise to me, with or without research. Simple observation of human nature is quite revealing.

If you can see it or feel it or experience the sensation as in "experiential" learning or reasoning, you can relate much more efficiently.

Also, the evolution of the human experience and values predisposes a desire for instant gratification and rapid achievement within any investment that we contribute time or money to. This will not be the case here.

Modern day humans are prone to lose interest in long term initiatives irregardless of personal involvement or investment.

When personal investment is involved, as will be the case here, the threshold of critical mass is much lower when no perceptable results are achieved within efficient timeframes.

When likely "Climate Change" related legislation is implemented by our governance, the first step in a journey of a thousand miles will have been taken. The many decades of persistence required for ultimate achievement of "diffuse" and uncertain goals will be fraught with many perils.

This is a simple fact of human nature.

Posted by: AugustaJim | April 20, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

andrew and b202 make a great point about people not responding to long-range threats. the same psychology lets people smoke and overeat. that's why the media has to keep (or start...) beating us over the heads with the million little signals of climate change - the shorter winters, flora and fauna migrations, insects surviving northerm winters etc, and, yes, sea level rise....

unfortunately, it has to be the media who sound the alarm, because as ann said, scientists always cloak their claims with logically-required qualifiers like "probable and likely" and so on.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | April 20, 2009 5:15 PM | Report abuse

On the general topic of appreciating risk, this news item discusses the inability of most people to understand a "20% chance of rain" -- and yet, I think the article gets it wrong when it states:
"The reality: 'When a forecast says there is a 20 percent chance of rain tomorrow it actually means it will rain on 20 percent of the days with exactly the same atmospheric conditions,' Joslyn explained.
Put another way, on that day there's an 80 percent chance there will be no rain anywhere in the forecast area."

Am I mistaken, or is the "put another way" just not right? It means an 80% chance any particular spot will see no rain - not that there's an 80% chance no one in the forecast area will see rain - right?

Posted by: manatt | April 20, 2009 7:27 PM | Report abuse

"the media has to keep(or start...) beating us over the heads with the million little signals of climate change"

That is a sure receipe for disaster or destruction of the sponsor.

Study the administration of former President Richard Nixon, the Watergate Scandal or the words of Pres. Richard Nixon.

Posted by: AugustaJim | April 20, 2009 7:51 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Andrew, for an absorbing post! And thanks to everyone else for your thoughtful comments, which add so much to the discussion of this topic.

Posted by: --sg | April 20, 2009 8:10 PM | Report abuse

"the media has to keep (or start...) beating us over the heads with the million little signals of climate change - the shorter winters, flora and fauna migrations, insects surviving northerm winters etc, and, yes, sea level rise"

I agree with Walter that moving public preception of climate change requires continued reporting the broad spectrum of effects. The problem is each effect in isolation can be subject to heavy criticism - not enough data, could be a natural cycle, etc. The discussion then moves off the main point.

Posted by: KGDave | April 21, 2009 8:33 AM | Report abuse

manatt: I also thought that article about the public's understanding of precipitation forecasts got it wrong. I think one of our forecasters can best clarify that question for you, since every time I explain it to people I seem to make them more confused ;) I once had an hour long debate with a roommate about the meaning of a forecast that called for a 40 percent chance of thunderstorms.

walter: I agree that sustained media attention is necessary in order for society to best address long-term problems, be it climate change or the solvency of social security. However, the notion that the media should "beat people over the head," as you suggested, I think is mistaken. The media's role is to inform and to stimulate debate, but not to preach and tell people what they must think about a subject. I am not sure if that is what you were trying to say (I suspect not), I just think the expression you used may have given the wrong impression.

I'd be interested in your suggestions, as well as suggestions from other readers, about what the media should be covering more in terms of climate science stories, and how to go about doing that. That might apply to CWG specifically, and the media at large. Thanks!

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | April 21, 2009 11:00 AM | Report abuse

manatt -- we have an FAQ that addresses the percent chance of precipitation question --

Posted by: CapitalWeatherGang | April 21, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

--begin quote--
There's a new bogeyman lurking in the closet, and this one isn't imaginary. Us. One out of three children aged 6 to 11 fears that Ma Earth won't exist when they grow up, while more than half—56 percent—worry that the planet will be a blasted heath (or at least a very unpleasant place to live), according to a new survey.
--end quote--

source of the above quote

I wonder how they will feel when they realize they have been lied to? Hmmm..... Think they will ever trust the media again? I'm going to go out on a limb and say, "No".

Keep up the good work!

Global temperatures for the last 30 years.

Prominent scientists who disagree.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 21, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Thanks - I saw the FAQ, and it seems consistent with my understanding, but doesn't completely clarify the issue. The interesting point is that an article discussing how most of the public doesn't understand a percentage chance of rain, itself, provides an incorrect explanation. How, then, do you accurately convey a chance of a greater unknown, with greater consequences - whether it's a hurricane strike or climate change. Finally, a percentage chance of rain seems to me like a very poor way of describing risk in the weather context. There's a difference between, for example, widely scattered thunderstorms and a frontal passage. It also seems completely dependent on the size of the forecast area, which is undisclosed. There may be a 20% chance of a shower in DC, but a 50% chance for all of Maryland if it is really based on the likelihood of precipitation at any given point. I'd also be interested in a retrospective study of how accurate such forecasts are. Something to support that, in fact, past forecasts of a 20% chance of rain preceded rain in the forecast area 1 in 5 times. Generally I suspect the percentages are imprecise enought to be meaningless. If there's a large storm system moving up from the south, it's going to rain across the region - if it's a hot summer day and thunderstorms might pop up, there will be a few widely scattered showers. Saying the chance is 20% doesn't add credibility to the forecast.

Posted by: manatt | April 21, 2009 6:50 PM | Report abuse

The problem is that journalists are gullible individuals who have no comprehension of how empirical science is conducted. The claim that carbon dioxide which comprises less than 400 parts per million in the atmosphere can have any impact on temperature makes no sense. The claim that CO2 can cause heating by trapping infrared radiation conflicts with established science in the form of an experiment conducted by R.W. Wood in 1909 which disproved the claim that trapping IR can cause heating in greenhouses or the atmosphere.

Those who claim humans can control air temperature by manipulating minor gases are very much like the people who condemned Galileo for having the audacity to suggest that the human occupied planet earth was not the center of the universe. Real scientists recognize that the earth orbits the sun and variations in the sun's energy output, rather than minor changes in atmospheric gases, determines whether earth warms or cools.

Climatology is at best only a primitive science that is to science what the Detroit Lions are to professional football.

Posted by: reasonmclucus | April 22, 2009 4:54 AM | Report abuse

"For example, the iconic "Keeling Curve," which shows that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have been increasing significantly since the 1950s, might give a climate scientist chills. It is perhaps the most famous image in the climate science story. However, members of the general public may be rather nonplussed by it, since the climate change implications of the chart are not immediately evident."

Any real scientist would recognize that the fact temperatures went up and down during the same period indicates there is no correlation between increases in carbon dioxide and temperature change.
Only graphs comparing solar output and temperature change have any correlation, although the impact tends to be delayed because 70% of earth is covered by water which changes temperature slower than land. This delay is reflected in daily temperature changes as represented by land breezes and sea breezes as well as seasonal variations and variations over the longer periods of solar output changes.

Posted by: reasonmclucus | April 22, 2009 5:01 AM | Report abuse

when i said "beat over the head" i was being colorful, hopefully.... i'm just so disappointed that almost all scientists (mr.q's awesome list notwithstanding) think one thing and the public is so divided and un/misimformed. i see this as "media's" (whatever that is) fault. there are not two sides to every story. and anytime a "skeptic's" opinion is given "for balance" in an article it should be made clear that their's is a "fringe" view. spencer, pielke, michaels not represent the "other side of the story" in the scientific world. i know there's freedom of the press and people can say whatever they want and so that's why we have people espousing bad science in the guise of skepticism.

most "real scientists" attribute the fact that there is not a one-to-one sychronized correlation btwn co2 and temp to the fact that it's a very complex system. it's interesting that you mention solar cycles because given the current "solar minimum" it should be freezing cold. "real scientists" are well-aware of the variations and cycles of the sun, in fact, it's disproved-skeptic-argument-#1! ( ) and i agree it's pretty amazing that a few parts per million could make a difference - but it does. there's a lot of amazing little hard-to-comprehend facts like that in science (like given atomic structure your body is 99.99+% empty space!). the greenhouse properties of co2 are well-understood. "real scientists" are now working on the magnitudes direction of all the other forcing mechanisms and feedbacks.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | April 24, 2009 12:41 AM | Report abuse

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