Scientists and those who accept scientific precepts have failed to learn the art of proper messaging. In this piece, we discover how that can be changed.

Science in America: Selling the truth

Opponents of science are experts at winning the battle for hearts and minds. It’s time to learn their game and beat them at it

Editorial: “Why America should put its trust in reason”

JOHN HOLDREN, science adviser to President Barack Obama, is a clever man. But when it comes to the science of communication, he can say some dumb things. In January, Holdren welcomed the prospect of climatologists being called to testify before Congress: “I think we’ll probably move the opinions of some of the members of Congress who currently call themselves sceptics, because I think a lot of good scientists are going to come in and explain very clearly what we know and how we know it and what it means, and it’s a very persuasive case.”

Fat chance. In March, an impressive array of climate scientists did exactly what Holdren wanted, but their efforts seemed only to inflame the scepticism of Republicans opposed to regulation of emissions.

For researchers who study how people form their opinions, and how we are influenced by the messages we receive, it was all too predictable. Holdren’s prescription was a classic example of the “deficit model” of science communication, which assumes that mistrust of unwelcome scientific findings stems from a lack of knowledge. Ergo, if you provide more facts, scepticism should melt away. This approach appeals to people trained to treat evidence as the ultimate arbiter of truth. The problem is that in many cases, it just doesn’t work.

Perversely, just giving people more information can sometimes polarise views and cause sceptics to harden their line. “We can preach the scientific facts as long as we want,” says Dietram Scheufele, a specialist in science communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “This is replicating the same failed experiment over and over again.”

Soft science

The good news is that the latest research on communication and public opinion reveals strategies that anyone who wants political debate to be informed by accurate scientific information should be able to use to get their message across.

Indeed, given recent comments from some Republican presidential hopefuls, it may be high time US scientists put aside their own scepticism about the “soft” social sciences, and embrace what these studies have to say.

First, though, a bit of perspective. While some of the comments made recently by Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and others may seem alarming, it’s important to bear in mind the relatively narrow audience they were intended to reach.

This is presidential primary season, when candidates must appeal to the most ideologically committed voters to win their party’s nomination. When Perry invoked Galileo in contending that “the science is not settled” on climate change, it was a message crafted to appeal to hard-core Republican voters and big-money donors within the oil and coal industries – not to the majority of Americans who accept that our planet is getting warmer and that human activities are largely to blame.

In fact, few objective measures support the idea that fundamentally anti-science ideology has taken hold in the US. Scientists are generally held in high public esteem, scientific knowledge shapes up fairly well compared to other nations, public interest is high and investment in research remains healthy. “You can’t find a society that’s more pro-science,” argues Dan Kahan of Yale University.

Even so, there are a few key areas of US public opinion where this picture begins to break down. People aren’t empty vessels waiting to receive information. Instead, we all filter and interpret knowledge through our cultural perspectives, and these perspectives are often more powerful than the facts. That poses a problem for some areas of science, which have come to clash with the values of a sizeable proportion of the US population.

Evolution provides the clearest example. Religion is a bigger factor in the lives of Americans than it is for citizens of most other developed countries. Evangelical Christian churches that preach literal interpretations of Genesis are especially influential. No wonder the US comes near the bottom of the pile in international surveys measuring the percentage of people who accept evolution (see “Darwin’s doubters”).

Cultural filters also explain why some social conservatives – including Bachmann – are willing to believe anecdotal reports that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine can cause mental retardation. Here, evidence that the vaccine is effective and poses little risk is being filtered through the fear that a product designed to protect against a sexually transmitted virus will encourage promiscuity among teenage girls.

Such biases are not the preserve of the right – many of those who falsely believe that childhood vaccines cause autism are left-leaning supporters of “natural” medicine who distrust the pharmaceutical industry.

But on climate change, again, it is those on the right who are butting heads with scientists. Climate is especially interesting because polling indicates a relatively recent and strengthening ideological split on the issue (see “Divisive climate”). The most ardent sceptics are those who identify with the Tea Party movement, according to a poll run earlier this year for the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. For these voters, the cultural filter seems to be the idea that taking action to limit climate change means “big government” intervention in the US economy, anathema to staunch conservatives.

Hammering another nail into the coffin of the deficit model, Kahan’s latest survey of more than 1500 US adults indicates that far from overcoming our cultural biases, education actually strengthens them. Among those with greater numeracy and scientific literacy, opinions on climate change polarised even more strongly.

Kahan’s explanation is that we have a strong interest in mirroring the views of our own cultural group. The more educated we become, he argues, the better we get at making the necessary triangulation to adopt the “correct” opinions. On issues like climate change, for most people these cultural calculations trump any attempt to make an objective assessment of the evidence.

As well as explaining how intelligent and educated people come to misunderstand where the scientific consensus lies, Kahan’s work suggests a way to drag debate back towards what the science actually says: change the messenger.

Trusted voices

Kahan scores people on two cultural scales: heirarchists versus egalitarians and individualists versus communitarians. Liberals tend to be egalitarian-communitarian, while conservatives are more often hierarchical-individualist.

In one experiment Kahan examined attitudes to the HPV vaccine. When presented with balanced arguments for and against giving the vaccine to schoolgirls, 70 per cent of egalitarian-communitarians, and 56 per cent of hierarchical-individualists, thought it was safe to do so.

Kahan then attributed the arguments to fictional experts described so as to make them appear either egalitarian-communication (liberal) or hierarchical-individualist (conservative).

The “natural” pairing, with an egalitarian-communitarian arguing in favour of the vaccine, and a hierarchical-individualist arguing against, drove the two camps a little further apart. But, crucially, swapping the messengers around had a dramatic effect: 58 per cent of egalitarian-communitarians and 61 per cent of hierarchical-individualists rated the vaccine as safe (Law and Human Behavior, vol 34, p 501).

These findings suggest that one way to change people’s minds is to find someone they identify with to argue the case. Climate scientists have almost certainly been badly served by allowing former Democratic vice-president Al Gore to become the dominant voice on the issue. His advocacy will have convinced liberals, but is bound to have contributed to the rejection of mainstream climate science by many conservatives.

So who might do a better job of carrying the climate message to conservative ears? Perhaps the US military, which is worried about the security implications of climate change, or senior figures within the insurance industry, who are factoring the risk of more frequent severe weather events into their calculations.

Of course, scientists themselves could step up to the plate. But their powers of persuasion may be limited. While it wasn’t always so, US scientists tend to lean heavily towards the Democrats’ camp – which helps explain why the idea of climatologists forming part of a liberal conspiracy to whip up alarm and keep federal research dollars flowing has become part of the climate deniers’ narrative.

The appeal of this story to those on the political right illustrates another key finding: how a message is framed in relation to the cultural biases of the intended recipients is crucial to its persuasiveness. The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a conservative think-tank that seeks to undermine the teaching of evolution in US schools, has learned this lesson well. After failing to get biblical creationism taught in science classes, the institute came back with the “scientific” concept of intelligent design, and two carefully researched talking points: “evolution is just a theory” and “teach the controversy”.

Not only were these frames attractive to the religious right, they were also difficult for scientists to counter without seeming to endorse censorship. Especially clever was the use of the term “theory”. To many people the word is roughly synonymous with “hunch”, so the frame did its intended job of questioning Darwinism’s credibility.

Matthew Nisbet, a communication specialist at American University in Washington DC, has long argued that scientists need to do a better job of framing (Science, vol 316, p 56). Working with Edward Maibach of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, Nisbet recently found that framing action on climate change in terms of public health benefits prompts a positive response from a broad range of Americans, including those who are ambivalent when it is framed as an environmental issue (BMC Public Health, vol 10, p 299).

Another promising frame is the idea that climate change presents an economic opportunity for the US through the creation of “green jobs”, although in recent weeks this rallying cry has been muffled by the controversy surrounding the Californian solar power firm Solyndra, which went bankrupt despite being loaned more than $500 million by the Obama administration.

Still, Scheufele is convinced that the most effective frames for communicating about climate change will ultimately revolve around economic opportunities, as concerns about the economy are usually where political debates are won and lost.

For many scientists, talk of “framing” and “selling” ideas to the public sounds uncomfortably like misinformation through the dark art of spin. This misses the point, argue advocates of framing. It’s possible to communicate accurately about science in the context of an engaging frame, they say.

New research demonstrates the value of another mode of communication that should come more naturally to scientists. Jason Reifler of Georgia State University in Atlanta and Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, tested two different ways of presenting the same information about temperature records to people who identified themselves as “strong Republicans” sceptical about human-caused climate change. One was in the form of a line graph, the other plain text.

The text had little effect, but the graph made the strong Republicans more likely to acknowledge that global warming is both real and a consequence of human activities. “Given sufficiently unambiguous graphical information, people are much more likely to acknowledge the facts,” Nyhan and Reifler concluded, in a paper presented in September at the American Political Science Association’s meeting in Seattle.

Taken together, studies of communication provide a recipe to allow science to better inform US political debate: find frames that work with broad sections of the population and stick closely to those narratives; seek allies from across the political spectrum who can reach out to diverse audiences; and remember that a graph can be worth a thousand words. While there’s little evidence the US is in the thrall of a coherent anti-science movement, the penalty for failing to follow this recipe could be the election of a president who is blind to the true scientific consensus on some of the key issues of our time.

Experience elsewhere provides a cautionary tale, argues Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, who studies the movement that denies that HIV causes AIDS. Thabo Mbeki’s flirtation with this movement and his refusal to endorse the use of antiretroviral drugs during his tenure as South Africa’s president has been estimated to have caused more than 300,000 premature deaths (Journal of AIDS, vol 49, p 410).

“You could very easily end up with a US president who holds unscientific views, and that could be as damaging as Mbeki was in South Africa,” Kalichman warns.

Peter Aldhous is New Scientist’s bureau chief in San Francisco

From issue 2836 of New Scientist magazine, page 42-45.

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37 Responses to “Science and Persuasion”

  1. one to talk about cessation of breeding. A quick search reveals that you whore yourself out selling naked pics of your fat ass. Obviously fake boobs and all. I hope you have kids. If you do (and not taken away), when they get older, they, along with all their friends, friends parents, and potential colleges, will know that a whore. If you had kids yet, If you have, stop prostituting yourself, lest you ruin your future. And yes,

  2. Great speech… Too bad the visual is a bit dark… But the message is clear about this massive fraud perpetrated by some very sinister and evil people, led by Al Gore!

  3. It’s all political. Have you studied United Nations Agenda 21 and how it’s being implemented in the US? Search YouTube for “How your community is implementing AGENDA 21” The lady with long, white hair is a liberal speaking to a conservative group.

  4. bubacchele says:

    Chris Huhne: a new global climate change treaty is not a luxury – The Guardian: Zee NewsChris Huhne: a new globa…

  5. omeyer karri says:

    i came up with a theory that involves the book of genesis (fig leaves) buddha (sitting under the bodhi fig tree) jesus (many sayings about figs) ross horne’s book (new health revolution) and science (figs are the most source of food for fruit eating rainforest animals). i then experimented on the figs by eating mainly dried figs (same brand) for over 6 years now and found cycles which i related to the numbers in psgs 11/12 of the book of revelations. this theory has gone everywhere.

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  7. astroengine writes “For the first time, scientists have been able to measure a type of radiation streaming out from the Milky Way that in other galaxies has been linked to the of young, hot stars. There was no way to make our own galaxy’s measurement of the radiation, known as Lyman-alpha, until the Voyager probes were about 40 times as far away from the sun as — any closer and the solar system’s own emissions drowned out the fainter glow from the galaxy.”

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  8. true precisely it was redefined in 1981 but that doesn’t mean that they r right cause its not a define science

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  10. As governments meet to look for ways to progress on halting global climate change, some are suggesting more discussion is needed on the sharing of the technologies that can fight that change, and a middle ground approach has been put forward to get them there. Related Climate Talks Find Make-Do Solution; IP Rights Dismissed New On TRIPS And Tech Transfer, LDC Needs Text-Based Talks Begin In Cancun Climate Talks; Civil Society Demands Transparency

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  12. rom buswalim says:

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  13. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory – Berkeley, CA – Be of Something Great! The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has an exciting for a student assistant who will work with the Heat Island Group in the Environmental Energy Technologies Division. The Heat Island Group studies ways to save energy, improve air quality, and slow global warming by passively cooling cities in summer. Summer heat islands can be mitigated through “cool

  14. Every time I mention the fact of global climate change, the denialists sending me furious emails. (By the way, I know that AGW is “anthropogenic global warming”; what is CAGW?)

    I think we can safely say that AGW believers are clinically psychotic
    The psychosis of the CAGW cult is total. Rational thought is not possible. It’s like watching a freak show from the asylum.
    Not ONLY must you never be near the reins of government, you should never come out of your padded room.

    Right. So all the scientists who are citing the evidence and presenting the logic of greenhouse gases are the crazy ones, while the tiny fringe minority of TV weather presenters, angry Republicans who don’t want their industries regulated, and demented conspiracy theorists are the sane ones. It’s a topsy-turvy world for the denialists, isn’t it?

    (Also on FtB)
    Read the comments on this post…
    Also check out the featured ScienceBlog of the week: Inside the Outbreaks on the ScienceBlogs Book Club

  15. qquangi galler says:

    It’s the story suggested by the evidence we currently have. Pretty good evidence too – more for evolutionary theory than…

  16. Well, todays gonna be great. P.E, Science, Maths, English with the cold breeze to the day off with… Brill! :/

  17. and nelson and chavez and delahoya are all hall of famers compare his resume with 90 percent of boxers today and you have your answer if his resume was above average or not

  18. Check out my blog post about using every day stuff for the best, easy science experiments for elementary students. –

  19. Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century: Global climate change is one of the mos…

  20. sadalgerho satschenka says:

    But as FoxNews also made clear: there is no such thing as man made global climate change no matter how many fires they show us

  21. Opponents of evolution fall victim to this all the time. They are quite that evolutionary theory claims that man evolved from apes.

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  23. argater purvillone says:

    Global-Warming whether the world wants to believe it or not is the realist view on some of apocalypse & at the same time it is biblical

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    Designer and futurist Thomas Thwaites recently posed an interesting question. What would life be like in a world where evolutionary science never took hold, but humanity was as scientifically developed as we are today? In a series of stories and projects, he tries to answer that question — and explains why, in this alternate scientific history, it might become popular to engineer your children to have wings. More »

  25. cheilenfel lichiard says:

    The problem with global climate change caused by human activity is that once it becomes undeniable, it will also be irrevocable.

  26. bich bajoo says:

    A successful evolutionary theory of the human mind would, after all, annihilate any claim we might make on behalf o …

  27. hooveri stinh says:

    doing this 5-7 page paper on global warming for ethics and a 5-7 page paper on pocahantas and the powhattan village (the true story)

  28. I remember in Science everybody was saying their goodbyes to our teachers.. and I decided i had to ruin them all

  29. Smithsonian recently asked me to interview Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson about his new book, The Social Conquest of You can read the Q & A on their web site. Wilson and I spoke for quite a while, covering wide range of subjects. One interest of the talk addressed his ongoing attack on a major aspect of modern evolutionary theory, known as inclusive fitness. I on his attacks–and the response of his critics–in the New York Times in 2010. Basically, most evolutionary biologists believe that a great deal of behavior–including altruistic behavior–can be explained by the way genes get passed down among relatives. If you help your cousins, some of your genes will get transmitted even if you have no kids of your own. Wilson and his colleagues at Harvard, Nowak and Corina Tarnita, argue instead that inclusive fitness doesn’t make mathematical sense and is unnecessary. Wilson holds that good old natural selection on individuals can explain a lot, and he…

  30. Coming off of the hottest year in U.S. history and 333 months of higher-than-average global temperatures, Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R-TX) first move as the new chair of the House Science and Technology Committee includes a hearing on climate science, according to Dallas News. For Smith, who criticized “the idea of human-made global warming,” the hearing […]

  31. kakavel ori says:


  32. It is will great sadness that we must share the news of the death of Tara Ryan (Health, Science and Physiology, Year 3) RIP

  33. rum asdiecht says:

    Watching BBC1. Former US vice president Al Gore looks plumper… Who knew that one could become a billionaire by promoting global warming?

  34. nopon fist says:

    One day all those who criticize evolutionary theory will read it. Then they’ll be really embarassed about making such …

  35. In ’07 when I 1st heard of O, I was for him cz we needed a good leader who could take global warming by its horns. I wasn’t mistaken.

  36. frano isheal says:

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  37. yanamini due says:

    CO2 is the main cause of global warming. Other gases like methane contribute as well. All of it is man-made.

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