Though we already know climate data is far from being able to convince everyone that climate change exists, it also hasn’t really impacted the general public in ways that you might expect.
Sure, climate change climatologists have repeatedly proven some of the scary statistics you’ve seen in headlines. And sure, despite all the evidence in the world indicating that global temperatures are rising, dissenters will habitually turn the other way.
Are we really going to die in 50 years? Is it really true that some cities will be underwater in the coming years? You might be skeptical about some of these assertions and if you are, you wouldn’t be alone.
That’s because people don’t necessarily digest headlines like those well, according to a Stanford study that dives into how the framing of certain statistics (which encapsulates climate data) can have drastically different impacts on readers.
Here are just a couple of explanations that justify why that’s the case.
The Uncertain Strength of Certainty
Intuitively, you would think that it makes sense for people to believe more in precise data predictions. What is surprising though is how and why readers decide what data to ignore.
Researchers discovered that the American public generally found data indicating specific worst and best case scenarios a whopping 8% more credible than a middle estimate.
That is, “We’re all going to die in 75 years” may be less believable than “We’re all going to die in 50 or 100 years.”
Obviously scientists want to provide the public with as much exact data as possible, but absolute certainty is not always attainable. And especially as it relates to climate data, there comes a level of responsibility to convey data properly. Miscommunication about climate data, which comes from media and beyond, is costing lives. Clearly something needs to change.
Ambiguity Often Decreases Credibility, But Not Always With Climate Data
Oftentimes, scientists lose credibility with their audiences when there are ambiguities in their research or convey information in ways that seem very general. Similarly, with a lot of uncertainty related to the climate change topic, it can be important to admit so.
The study’s co-author, Stanford University Professor Jon Krosnick, explained that detailing an array of possible climate outcomes increased scientists’ credibility with non experts.
However, he also noted that this credibility “may be nullified when scientists acknowledge that … the full extent of the consequences of those predictions cannot be quantified.”
That’s interesting, but it cuts both ways. Should scientists rigorously quantify climate change’s impacts even in areas where it can be near-impossible to do so? Or should they maintain a level of ambiguity so they avoid the risk of being entirely wrong down the line?
Worst Case, Worst Credibility
The Stanford study was also consistent with other researchers’ findings. In a similar study from the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), researchers found an interesting caveat. Readers hate worst case scenarios.
ACSH writer Dr. Charles Dinerstein remarks that worst case scenarios made literally no impact compared to middle estimates. He explains “they serve as clickbait or confirm an echo chamber belief, rather than facilitating discussion.”
Apparently, we have become so jaded that headlines like “We are all going to die in 50 years” are met with defeat instead of action.
Apathy is what drives newer movements like BirthStrike to prop up; that is, if we’re all going to be killed off by climate change, why even bother to have another generation?
This defeatist attitude is why the framing of climate data needs to change.
Summary: What Can Scientists Do To Make Climate Data More Digestible?
Environmental researchers must produce objectively true climate data, but they also have to appear credible to an often irrational public. Scientists don’t necessarily write from a subjective perspective per se, and their intent is generally to inform rather than persuade. But they should perhaps look to also persuade readers that their findings are true and not just alarmist.
If successful, this can implicitly convince readers to take action (or at least believe climate change exists). And finding that sweet spot is challenging; part of that might include accounting for both the best and worst case predictions as specifically as possible. Additionally, underscoring the idea that not everything is directly measurable may also give readers a fuller idea of what’s happening.
Scientists don’t have an obligation to convince the general public of anything when they’re submitting papers to peer-reviewed journals. After all, their papers are read over by field experts. But the framing of the climate data they collect, done poorly, is literally a matter of life and death.
Final Note: We encourage scientists working in the climate science field to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org to work together to make environmental coverage digestible to the public.