For two days, approximately one hundred of us deconstructed the social aspects of climate science and attempted to articulate solutions to the public relations impasse. It was heartening to see the natural science community reach out to the social sciences for advice after admitting that the scope of their research was limited. Climate scientists talked to leaders in the religious community about creation care. Wildlife biologists spoke about how to engage hunting and fishing enthusiasts about the impact of climate change on their local forests and bodies of water. Earth and environmental scientists talked with geographers, sociologists, economists, communications specialists, educators, authors and psychologists. Bridges were built and interdisciplinary work happened. This is a conversation that needs to happen more often, and soon.
And yet, an ominous cloud hung over the meeting. Some in the community quietly spoke of expecting to receive subpoenas from a new Republican Congress that is running on a platform of denying the research basis of climate change. How to drive necessary conversation and action in the face of an unfortunate political reality?
The constant media talking point is that “the science isn’t settled”, as if any scientific knowledge is ever settled. This argument misunderstands the nature of science, which demands constant critique and replication of results across contexts and over time. (See Merchants of Doubt for an excellent example of how scientific uncertainty is used to justify inaction by deliberate misinformers).
As educators, we have a unique role in changing this status quo. But we too often think that simply providing more information will be enough to change someone’s mind, or in this case, behavior. This is not enough. Recent research shows that challenging an ideologue’s assertions with more evidence may actually increase their resistance as they seek to justify their original position. “To overcome this effect, communicators must attend to the cultural meaning as well as the scientific content of information” (Italics added, Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, & Braman, 2010, p.23). This is an important challenge for all of us.
Public polling research from Yale University shows that a majority of Americans accept the science of climate change and public trust in scientists remains quite high despite intentional efforts to discredit their research findings. Those of us in the social sciences have much to offer the conversation. As a school of education and human development we are uniquely situated to begin bridging the gap between the scientific evidence and the communities that will need to deal with new realities in the future. Education across and within all contexts is crucial, regardless of the current political winds. There will always be resistance and this work can be disheartening given the glacial pace of change. But I remain optimistic, and there are tangible signs of hope.
We all have a role to play in this challenge. What is yours? How will you help create sustainable communities that are capable of enduring the struggles ahead? NASA and NOAA are predicting that 2010 will be one of hottest years ever recorded. Let’s get moving.