As someone who writes about climate change and weather for a living, I think a lot about the many barriers to accurately communicating complicated scientific topics to general audiences. With climate change, there are so many pitfalls to communicating in a way that truly connects with people that sometimes it almost seems like a lost cause. Study after study and poll after poll have shown that there is a huge discrepancy between the widespread agreement within the scientific community that the earth is warming in large part due to human activities, and the prevailing public view of the situation, which is far more skeptical about what is causing the climate to warm, or even whether it is warming at all.
A new study published in the journal Climatic Change examines one barrier to effective climate science communication that I previously never considered before, but that now seems totally obvious. The paper identifies personality type differences between Ph.D. climate researchers and the general public, and (shocker!) finds that most climate researchers process information and make decisions based on that information very differently than the general public.
“Our results demonstrate that the dominant personality types for Ph.D. climate change researchers are fundamentally different from those found in the U.S. population. This suggests that there is a strong potential for inherent challenges in communication between these two groups,” the study states. “As the climate change community continues to move forward with effective communication and education, it is important to keep in mind that it isn’t just ‘what we say’ but, ‘how we say it.’”
While it’s not exactly a big surprise that scientists tend to process information differently than the general public -- consider the popular culture view of scientists as eccentrics -- this study brings to bear some uniquely promising information to the climate change communications conundrum.
For instance, the study finds that climate scientists tend to fall within the Myers-Brigg category of those who tend to process information based on “intuition,” whereas the general public shows a preference for “sensing.”
Here’s why this particular finding is important. People who are classified as processing information using intuition tend to focus on theories and ask “why” questions, and are interested in the bigger picture more than small details. They are also oriented towards the future, and prefer the use of metaphors, analogies and other “symbolic language.”
“Sensors,” on the other hand, are interested in the present, and tend to relate the present to events in the past. They ask “what” and “how” questions, rather than “why,” and look for facts instead of theories. Sensors also prefer plain language rather than metaphors.
The results suggest that scientists would help facilitate greater public understanding of climate science and climate change if they would discuss the issue’s relevance to the present day, and at the local level. Too often, climate scientists focus their remarks on global projections out to 2050 or 2100, which lack relevance to the here and now.
As the study states:
The preference for Intuition by early career climate scientists suggests that this group is likely to be more oriented towards future climate impacts than members of the general public, who generally prefer Sensing over Intuition. For Sensors, the current situation is more relevant and more easily appreciated, and past experience and concrete facts are more trusted than future possibilities. Thus, climate impacts beyond the present or readily foreseeable future may lack relevance among the general public…
When communicating with Sensors, it is also important to focus on concrete near-home examples. While the plight of polar bears may be of great concern to Intuitives, Sensors are likely to be motivated more by documented temperature or seasonal changes in their local areas. In other words, with this audience, you may think globally, but you should speak locally.
Another intriguing finding is that climate scientists have a “strong preference” for “judging” rather than “perceiving,” which has implications for how they handle uncertainty and doubt.
The study states:
…on average, climate change researchers will prefer to reach a decision or come to closure and ‘move on’ to the next step more quickly than the general population. The general population, with a higher proportion of Perceivers, is more likely to see room for doubt, or want to take more time to explore possible alternatives, especially when outcomes are not likely to be positive. When presenting climate change to the general public, it is important for researchers to confirm what information is still unknown and what areas are still being studied.
The study doesn’t offer a detailed blueprint for perfect climate change communications strategies, but it does provide some instructive lessons for the many climate scientists and communicators out there searching for better ways of discussing this hot-button issue, including myself.