Lead Author:
Elizabeth L. Malone, Independent Researcher
Contributing Authors:
Michele Betsill, Colorado State University
Sara Hughes, University of Toronto
Rene Kemp, Maastricht University
Loren Lutzenhiser, Portland State University
Mithra Moezzi, Portland State University
Benjamin L. Preston, RAND Corporation
Tristram O. West, DOE Office of Science
Expert Reviewers:
John Robinson, University of Toronto
Sarah Burch, Waterloo University
Hal Wilhite, University of Oslo
Nicole Woolsey Biggart, University of California, Davis
Benjamin Sovacool, University of Sussex and Aarhaus University
Science Lead:
Paty Romero-Lankao, National Center for Atmospheric Research (currently at National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
Review Editor:
Christine Negra, Versant Vision
Federal Liaison:
Elisabeth Larson, North American Carbon Program; NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Science Systems and Applications Inc.

Social Science Perspectives on Carbon

Although people generally respect science and scientific findings, the so-called science-policy gap persists. The gap appears when scientific findings that seem to call for policy action are not taken up by policymakers in expected ways. Thus, renewed attention has been focused on how to communicate scientific findings to facilitate their enaction. Communicating scientific findings can be ineffective depending on the subject matter, the framing used, and the ways in which messages are delivered. What people choose to believe is heavily influenced by their political environment (Lupia 2013) and by religious or political beliefs (Nisbet and Scheufele 2009). For example, if science reaches consensus on a new rocket technology, there is little question from the public about its legitimacy. On the other hand, if observations and analyses are contrary to political messaging or bring into question belief systems, scientific information can be quickly discounted. Research has been conducted to understand this phenomenon in an effort to identify core issues and a path forward for effectively communicating science.

Initial indications are that cultural and peer-group dynamics are more influential than science literacy and the communication of scientific evidence (Kahan et al., 2012). A follow-up study used a different set of questions to rate “open-mindedness” of individuals and found that the metric only reinforces and accentuates existing beliefs (Kahan and Corbin 2016). Similarly, a comprehensive review of 171 studies from 56 nations found that acceptance of climate change science is more strongly predicted by cultural variables such as ideology and political orientation than by demographic variables including age, gender, income, and ethnicity (Hornsey et al., 2016). More research is needed to understand how individuals assimilate knowledge, particularly if it runs contrary to cultural or peer-group influences. Results from this research might be useful in guiding alternative ways to communicate carbon cycle science results more effectively.

Based on the more recent findings of science knowledge assimilation, frameworks for science communication continue to evolve. New models of science communication have been proposed that would require a coordinated effort to identify questions, conduct research to address the questions, and understand how to best communicate the answers in a robust and supported manner (Pidgeon and Fischhoff 2011). A contemporary definition of science communication outlines specific components that should be addressed when communicating science (Burns et al., 2003). A renewed look at how communication is occurring over social media and how science communication can adapt to the new media landscape has been suggested (Brossard and Scheufele 2013).

Research indicates that communicating consensus around science topics increases public acceptance of the findings, but that a process known as attitudinal inoculation may be needed to maintain acceptance (van der Linden et al., 2017). This process essentially consists of pre-emptively highlighting and refuting false claims and potential counterarguments, such as those made by climate change deniers (Oreskes and Conway 2011). False claims and intentional dissemination of misinformation on related science topics have been analyzed by the research community (Farrell 2016; Supran and Oreskes (2017). A concentrated focus on methods of science communication, based on current understanding of knowledge assimilation, will be critical to enabling the use of science for decision making. Likewise, renewed efforts on making science results more accessible and relevant to collective decision making, using current communication technologies, are needed.

Many of these research studies examine one-way communication: from scientists to audiences including policymakers, business people, and the general public. Another form of communication, stakeholder involvement—a standard social scientific method—helps researchers and decision makers to address issues and agree on actions (O’Connor et al., 2000; Fiack and Kamieniecki 2017). Mutual exchanges among stakeholders (policymakers and others involved in carbon-relevant decisions) bring to light people’s values, concerns, and sticking points and allow dialogue needed to establish feasible options and implement programs. Stakeholder involvement typically identifies co-benefits of reducing emissions; multiple benefits help to gain widespread acceptance. Examples include changes that bring benefits such as reduced air pollution with associated health benefits or new jobs in renewable-energy industries. Other benefits could include amenity improvements from increased urban tree cover, more efficient heating and cooling systems, the convenience of “walkable” neighborhoods, and the safety of buildings that can withstand high winds and flooding.

What may emerge in stakeholder-science-policy dialogues are gradually increasing levels of agreement on issues as well as a variety of options for action. People in direct communication may discover that they are arguing from different viewpoints; missing practical concerns or obstacles; and/or that they actually agree within a mutually defined framing of problems, solutions, or both (Hulme 2009; Malone 2009).

Stakeholder involvement and associated communication exchanges between scientists and decision makers improve the likelihood that pathways forward can be identified, adopted changes will be implemented, and that further changes will be adopted over time.

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