Better Understanding Through Better Communication

Kristin Strock


by Kristin Strock, assistant professor of environmental studies

A range of studies support a consensus among climate scientists that anthropogenic—i.e., human-caused—climate change is occurring. In fact, a commonly referenced 2013 study by Cook et al concluded that 97 percent of climate scientists agree on this issue. But that consensus is not reflected in public perception: Recent polling suggests that only 27 percent of Americans believe that scientific consensus on the matter has essentially been reached.

As a scientist who studies the effects of climate change, I wonder if the way in which I communicate scientific information to the public plays a role in perpetuating this divide. In many cases, there is an assumption that scientific literacy is both the problem and solution to environmental issues. Kevin Finneran, editor in chief of Issues in Science and Technology, puts it this way: “Scientists are sometimes like American tourists; [we] think if we just speak English loud enough, people will understand us.” This is known as the deficit model and has been a long-standing model of science communication, despite being regularly criticized by science communication professionals.

It is encouraging to note that results from the Pew Research Center report that a majority of Americans trust the information coming from scientists and believe scientists should play a role in structuring policy. And at the same time, scientists are being increasingly encouraged into a more active science communication role, especially in regards to climate change. An example of this is the March for Science and the support for the march from many scientific societies. As more scientists increasingly step into the limelight and employ modes of science communication that are increasingly informed by research on the subject, hopefully we can start closing the perception divide on fact vs. alternative fact that exists in conversations about the scientific consensus on climate change.