Credibility, Impartiality, and Trust in Audience’s Intelligence Cited as Key to Public Engagement

When discussing climate and other scientific topics, scientists shouldn’t shield public audiences from complexity — but they don't need to bombard them with data either, experts said at the AAAS Annual Meeting.
From left, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Lisa Krieger, Noah Diffenbaugh | Atlantic Photography Boston

SAN JOSE, California — When looking at how things change over time, humans have a tendency towards "endpoint bias," which means we place too much emphasis on the last point in the trend. So, when in 2013 NASA observations showed that Arctic sea ice had grown compared to 2012, climate scientists were faced with an interesting communication problem.

Although the 2012 levels were record lows, and sea ice extent has been declining overall since 1979, an article by Fox News emphasized the uptick as a "whopping 60 percent increase." Due in large part to endpoint bias, the article was quite effective at making readers — liberals, moderates, and conservatives alike — think that Arctic sea ice extent will continue to grow the future, according to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson of university's Annenberg School for Communications and her colleague Bruce Hardy devised an experiment for correcting this misunderstanding and putting the 2013 data point into its proper context. They found that their communication strategy, which they call LIVA, worked well regardless of their study subjects' political or ideological leanings, Jamieson reported at the AAAS Annual meeting

Although it's often assumed that people will never see past these biases, the LIVA approach is effective because it gets people "thinking as if they are trying to make the best conclusion from the best available evidence," said Jamieson, at a 12 February session called "Scientists Communicating Challenging Issues," one of the meeting's Communicating Science Seminars. LIVA stands for "Leverage scientific credibility, and Involve the audience in Visualizing scientific evidence and making sense of an illustrative Analogy."

"I have confidence that liberals, moderates, and conservatives can be exposed effectively to corrective information if the source is as scrupulously nonpartisan as humans are capable of…and aggressively provides an explanatory framework," Jamieson said.

Respect for public audiences' ability to accept scientific evidence when provided the right tools was a key theme that emerged during the panel discussion, which included Noah Diffenbaugh, an associate professor in the School of Earth Sciences and a senior fellow in the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, and Lisa Krieger, a journalist at the San Jose Mercury News. The panelists agreed that scientists and science communicators shouldn't shy away from complexity when engaging with the public.

For example, several important climate change reports including What We Know by AAAS should have addressed the "inconvenient" 2013 Arctic sea ice data head on, said Jamieson. Not doing so left them vulnerable to criticisms of partisanship, detracting from their credibility, she said.

Nonpartisanship is also paramount for Diffenbaugh, who described himself as "fundamentalist about not ever making an advocacy statement." Diffenbaugh, a working group author for the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change, said that "with climate change and other challenging issues, somebody in the conversation needs to be focused only on evidence.… As scientists, if we're not playing the role of only sticking to the facts, then my concern is that no one in the conversation will be playing that role."

As a journalist, Lisa Krieger said she must appeal to her readers' emotions and tell a captivating story. But, she also explains carefully what the evidence she's reporting does — and does not — show, so that readers can put the information in the appropriate context. "I trust the reader," she said.

Respecting a reader's ability to understand scientific information is not the same as overloading them with data, Krieger said. Diffenbaugh agreed, noting that scientists have a "reflexive" tendency to give a highly detailed response when asked about what they found in their latest study. But, a simpler answer that addresses what is known in the field more broadly is usually more helpful, he said.

One thing that Krieger's readers and editors do need, which scientists can be reluctant to provide, is information about how new scientific evidence will impact citizens' lives. It is often difficult for scientists to speculate on how quickly a new discovery may translate into practical benefits for the general public, Krieger acknowledged. But, she asked scientists to work with her, because an editor's decision about whether to publish a story can hinge on having that sort of information.

Cooperation between scientists and journalists can also help accelerate the process by which public audiences come to accept scientific evidence, Jamieson said. For example, the now-discredited study that linked vaccines with autism remained in the scientific literature for 12 years before it was retracted. During that time, reporters continued to cite the study, and today a measles outbreak that began in Disneyland continues to spread. "It took until measles outbreak for [the journalistic community] to realize that to lay down a memory trace of a finding as it is articulated and then have to put the correction on top, that's not the way to do it," Jamieson said.

On the other hand, journalists also played an essential role in the investigation that eventually led to the study's retraction, she noted, calling for more cooperation between scientists and journalists.

"To the extent that scientists work with the journalistic community and honor it when it finds flaws in scientific practice instead of becoming defensive, we will increase the likelihood that evidence is honored."