Communicating Rationality to Irrational Beings (Or Why Climate Change Communication Is So Darn Hard)
Brain: an apparatus with which we think we think.
--Ambrose Bierce, American journalist and writer
Bierce’s saying was invoked this week at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar, during a panel discussion on climate change, denialism, and communication. (Click here to watch a video of the session.) The point was that we humans are pretty irrational beings (even if we think we’re not), which makes communicating science -- a highly rational process -- extremely difficult.
This fact was underlined by presenter Shankar Vendantam, author of The Hidden Brain: How our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, wage wars, and save our lives. Citing research by Yale University’s Dan Kahan, Vendantam said that polarization on the issue of climate change actually increases as members of the public become more scientifically literate -- a fact that flies in the face of reason. Kahan concludes that his research “shows that science journalists have one of the hardest jobs in the world.”
Needless to say, Vendantam won some points with his audience, a group of more than 700 science communicators from 80-plus countries.
We’ve been here in Doha discussing the most pressing challenges facing our profession and learning about some of the top-notch science taking place in this corner of the Arab world. At the top of the agenda: Communicating the threat of climate change and the ways that countries such as this one are trying to mitigate and adapt to it. It's a discussion that is relevant to everyone who cares about the future. Despite the malaise that seems to have settled over the public and our politicians regarding global warming, its consequences are of course as serious as ever. And there has been no escaping that fact in Doha, a city of extremes.
The capital of Qatar, Doha has literally sprung from the desert in the past few decades, built by wealth from oil and gas. The city has been likened to a giant construction site, where buildings are raised up at an astonishing rate by workers from all over the developing world. The view from my hotel window is one of high rises and construction cranes. Today, these buildings are obscured by sand, blowing in from the desert and enveloping the capital.
Qatar has one of the largest carbon footprints of any nation. A few more facts: The temperature is a punishing 45 degrees C (113 degrees F) at midday, so people move from air-conditioned homes to vehicles to offices and shopping malls (except for the unlucky construction workers), burning fossil fuels all the way. Fresh water is scarcer than scare, so more than 90 percent of domestic water comes from the sea and is desalinated at plants that consume enormous amounts of energy. Yet water is free. Then there’s the food, virtually all of which is imported because not much grows in the desert. I could go on.
Given these extremes, Qatar is beginning to take environmental sustainability seriously. It has recognized that its fossil fuel-driven economy won't last forever and is taking steps to diversify that base. But my experience here in Doha magnifies the fact that Qatar -- and the rest of us -- need to do much, much better.
Key questions for those of at the conference have been why there is still so much inaction on climate change -- by governments, by citizens, by everyone. Why are there still so many people who don’t accept the science of human-induced global warming in spite of the overwhelming evidence? What are we -- the people who are paid to translate the latest science for the general public -- doing wrong?
The answer, given emerging research on how our brains work, may be to appeal to emotion, to speak the language of feelings rather than facts. So the next time you get in an argument with someone over whether human-induced global warming is fact or fiction, or simply encounter someone who needs a wake-up call about the environment, remember that sometimes it's our hearts, not our brains, that actually do the thinking.