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An externally-valid approach to consensus messaging

Posted on 21 June 2014 by John Cook

Earlier this week, Dan Kahan published a blog post questioning the value of consensus messaging. He generously allowed me to publish a guest post, An "externally-valid" approach to consensus messaging, responding to his issues. For starters, I examine Dan's idea that the consensus gap (the gap between public perception and the 97% consensus) is due to cultural cognition. I point out that there is a consensus gap even among liberals:

A 2012 Pew surveys of the general public found that even among liberals, there is low perception of the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming. When Democrats are asked “Do scientists agree earth is getting warmer because of human activity?”, only 58% said yes. There’s a significant "consensus gap” even for those whose cultural values predispose them towards accepting the scientific consensus. A “liberal consensus gap”.

My own data, measuring climate perceptions amongst US representative samples, confirms the liberal consensus gap. The figure below shows what people said in 2013 when asked how many climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming. The x-axis is a measure of political ideology (specifically, support for free markets). For people on the political right (e.g., more politically conservative), perception of scientific consensus decreases, just as cultural cognition predicts. However, the most relevant feature for this discussion is the perceived consensus on the left.

At the left of the political spectrum, perceived consensus is below 70%. Even those at the far left are not close to correctly perceiving the 97% consensus. Obviously cultural cognition cannot explain the liberal consensus gap.

So if cultural cognition can't fully explain the consensus gap, what else has contributed?

A clue to the answer lies with a seasoned communicator whose focus is solely on “externally valid” approaches to messaging. To put past efforts at consensus messaging into perspective, reflect on these words of wisdom from Republican strategist and messaging expert Frank Luntz on how to successfully communicate a message:

“You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you're absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time. And it is so hard, but you've just got to keep repeating, because we hear so many different things — the noises from outside, the sounds, all the things that are coming into our head, the 200 cable channels and the satellite versus cable, and what we hear from our friends.”

When it comes to disciplined, persistent messaging, scientists aren’t in the same league as strategists like Frank Luntz. And when it comes to consensus, this is a problem. Frank Luntz is also the guy who said:

“Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming in the scientific community.  Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.  Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field.”

Luntz advocated casting doubt on the consensus for one simple reason. When people understand that scientists agree that humans are causing global warming, then they’re more likely to support policies to mitigate climate change. Confuse people about consensus, and you delay climate action.

Lastly, I finish with some wonderful excerpts from a must-read paper by Ed Maibach:

Reflecting on the disinformation campaign and the social science research into consensus messaging, Ed Maibach at George Mason University incorporates both the “internally valid” social science research and the “externally valid” approach of Frank Luntz:

We urge scientific organizations to patiently, yet assertively inform the public that, based on the evidence, more than 97% of climate experts are convinced that human-caused climate change is happening. Some scientific organizations may argue that they have already done this through official statements. We applaud them for their efforts to date, yet survey data clearly demonstrate that the message has not yet reached or engaged most Americans. Occasional statements and press releases about the reality of human-caused climate change are unfortunately not enough to cut through the fog—it will take a concerted, ongoing effort to inform Americans about the scientific consensus regarding the realities of climate change.

How do we achieve this? Maibach suggests climate scientists should team up with social scientists and communication professionals. What should scientists be telling the public? Maibach advises:

In media interviews, public presentations, and even neighborhood and family gatherings, climate scientists should remember that many people do not currently understand that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus about human-caused climate change. Tell them, and give them the numbers.

The book Made To Stick looks at “sticky” messages that have caught the attention in the public’s eyes. It runs through many real-world case studies (e.g., externally valid examples) to demonstrate that sticky ideas are simple, concrete, unexpected and tell a story. For a general public who think there is a 50:50 debate among climate scientists, learning that 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming ticks many of the sticky boxes.

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Comments 1 to 22:

  1. Over the past couple of days, a lively discussion of this issue has been going on in the comment thread to the article, Defending the consensus, again!, posted on the And Then There's Physics website. 

    I have posted a link to John Cook's OP on that thread. 

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  2. "At the left of the political spectrum, perceived consensus is below 70%. Even those at the far left are not close to correctly perceiving the 97% consensus"

    What are we calling "far left"?

    Are we talking about liberals, socialists or communists?

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  3. From Peru, the survey was in the US, so by "far left" they mean left leaning liberals, or at most what I call "welfare capitalists", ie, people who believe social justice and reasonable standards of living can only be achieved by grafting a comprehensive welfare system onto a capitalist economic structure.

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  4. I would suggest that the terms "socialist" and "communist" (and "fascist" for that matter) are not proper terms applied to today's political environment. They're early 20th century concepts that no one adheres to today in the same forms they existed previously. 

    Today these terms are used to try to ridicule those who people disagree with on political issues. 

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  5. Rob, I would say the same thing about 'left' and especially 'far left' particularly in the US context--there is essentially no such thing, not as an effective political force, at least.

    The other depressing thing along these lines (depending on how you think about it, I suppose) is that there is little difference between 'left' and 'right'--essentially between Dems and Repubs--as to life style choices being affected by concern about GW. Essentially no one in the US avoids air travel (or long distance travel in general) because of its GW footprint.

    IIRC, Republicans are actually more likely to have installed solar power on their homes than Democrats are.

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  6. Am I missing something? Seems to me that, to measure the gap between scientists’ perceptions & the public’s, we don’t need to ask the public “how many climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming,” but rather “are humans causing global warming?” I think the gap that matters is not that between scientists’ beliefs & the public’s beliefs about scientists’ beliefs, but instead the gap between scientist’s beliefs & the public’s beliefs about the same thing: anthropogenic global warming.

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  7. Rob Honeycutt @4, that is an odd comment given that there still exist socialist governments (Venezuela comes to mind) and politically active communist parties (and fascist parties, including 2 active in Australia, and 1 active in New Zealand) around the world.  The stipulation "... in the same form ..." may make your statement correct, but only in the way that nobody steps in the same river twice.  Liberal, liberal/democratic, christian/democratic, libertarian and conservative parties have also changed over the decades, and as we do not consider that to indicate their ceasing to exist, neither do the changes in comunist, socialist and fascist parties indicate the end of communism, socialism or fascism as political movements.

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  8. Tom...  What I'm saying is the terms are generally used today a way to be dismissive of an opposing moderate political points of view. 

    I don't think John is polling opinions in any extremist nations, so I wasn't considering that relative to my comments.

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  9. Rob @8, I will certainly concede that in the US, and to a lesser extent in Australia socialism, communism and fascism are politically moribund, and the terms used primarilly as means of denigrating the various shades of center right to right positions actively presented by parties.  That, however, is not the case world wide.  I certainly do not know enough about Peruvian politics to say to what extent they are moribund in Peru (and hence irrelevant to From Peru).

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  10. I don't want to add a layer of pedantism to this exchange but I confess that  get quite irritated specifically by the way the word "socialism" is used in the US by most. Socialism means state ownership of the means of production, it should be used according to that definition. Indeed, it is not very applicable nowadays, but there are still nations in the world that could be called socialist.

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  11. Believe it or not, but the Communist Party of the USA has its own website.

    The Socialist Party USA also has its own website.

    Caution is however advised — the NSA most likely records the email address of everyone who visits either site.

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  12. The narrative behind likeithot's comment is that climate science is closed shop, somehow practised only by a cadre of people with a common political values, and possibly only in the US. It also believes that non-experts views on a subject are equally as valid. Yeah right. 

    Very well, the 97% consensus statement is about those who know what they are talking about. 

    Likeithot - going to tell us what future data would change your mind? Or are your beliefs so deeply founded your values that you cannot imagine data that would change your mind. Or perhaps, since you obviously havent read much climate science, you are going to propose data that is its odds with the science's predictions. (eg you seem to believe that decadal periods of neutral or cooling are at odds with the theory).

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  13. PhillipeChantreau @10, socialism is not committed to any particular form of ownership of property per se, and certainly not only to state ownership of property.  From wikipedia, we learn that:

    "Socialism is a social and economic system characterised by social ownership of the means of production and co-operative management of the economy, as well as a political theory and movement that aims at the establishment of such a system. "Social ownership" may refer to cooperative enterprises, common ownership, state ownership, citizen ownership of equity, or any combination of these. There are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them. They differ in the type of social ownership they advocate, the degree to which they rely on markets or planning, how management is to be organised within productive institutions, and the role of the state in constructing socialism."

    Of particular importance is that there now exist several versions of socialism in which while ownership of capital is social, neither it, nor decision making are centralized.  This is often to be achieved through industrial democracy.

    Further, it is also possible to be a socialist and favour a mixed economy either as an interim measure or as a long term compromise necessary because other values (democracy) take precedence and prevent measures that might otherwise be necessary to achieve what is considered to be the ideal economic system (for a given socialist theory).

    Having said that, the term is often, and outragiously abused in the US where its "popular" meaning appears to be anything but a fully libertarian capitalist state.

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  14. As a hopefully informative side note on US politics, these politics are strongly shaped by the election system. Namely, by "plurality wins". Whoever gets the largest chunk of the vote wins that House delegate, that Senator, or the President. 

    The more common Parlimentary systems end up with more proportional representation, with small groups from many small parties, and as a result coalitions are required to obtain the majority, with the last 1-2% fringe addition having a strong effect on policy due to the need for those fringe parties to obtain a majority. 

    The US plurality method results in the current two-party system, with those parties (by the standards of other political systems) only slightly right and slightly left of center - as the parties _must_ appeal to the center/independent/uncommitted votors to win. 

    As a result, while there are extremist parties in the US, few have any influence - and the US Tea Party (an astroturfed movement driven by monied interests attempting to block regulations affecting their bottom line) exemplifies this, as the _only_ way they have made headway is by running as Republicans. Not as a separate party. 

    Now, back to the discussion...

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  15. It would be interesting to compare how the climate science denialism has been evolving over time among US politicians. Does anyone have the appropriate historical data?

    I recall that in late 1990s during pres Clinton and early 2000s, the level of science acceptance in Congress, although lower than the climate scientist's 90% at that time, was roughly universal, i.e. there were no difference along political lines, or free market support. The latest schism as shown of the figure, is the apparent result of a successful denial campain by fossil fuel inductries and other special interest groups.

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  16. scaddenp:

    Maybe you'll get to read this before it gets censored, I don't know, but since you asked I'll answer.

    Since climate change is nothing new, for me to "believe" in AGW there would have to be a clear correlation between the beginning of human CO2 emissions and evidence of warming.

    On the contrary, neither the temperature record (warming trend from before introduction of human produced CO2) nor the glacial melt trend (a pre-existing trend from before any greenhouse effect from industrial CO2) coincide in time or scale to human production of CO2.

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    Moderator Response:

    [Dikran Marsupial] Please do not challenge moderators to censor or delete your posts, this is rather childish behaviour, and in future will result in your posts being deleted.  Please read the comments policy and abide by it.  If you think that your post is likely to be off-topic, then simply make your comment on a more appropriate article and continue the discussion there (and post a comment here linking to the continuing discussion on the other thread).

    Note you would only expect to see such a clear correlation if anthropogenic CO2 forcing were the only forcing that affected the climate and in the absence of significant internal variability, so this article may be a good place to discuss your question..

  17. likeitnot (presently)@16 wishes to see "a clear correlation between the beginning of human CO2 emissions and evidence of warming" as proof that AGW is real, as the basis for such a "belief." Interestingly, such a 'clear correlation' can be discerned even though CO2 is not the sole agent of AGW.

    Scripps Institute present an excellent graphic of CO2 levels for various time intervsals. This shows the present CO2 increases can be traced back to the early 1800s.

    It then just requires a short trip to the UN IPCC AR5 WG1 report to examine Figure 5.7 and note that the start of the present trend in rising temperatures also began in the early 1800s. Further, the recent rising temperature trend is not just unique in scale over the last millenium or two, but also unique over the entire Holocene era.

    I would consider that to be pretty clear.

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  18. I agree that "socioeconomic-political terms" are not clear ways of communicating because they are "open to interpretation".

    For this issue a more meaningful scale would be one with the following limits:

    • Will fight to maximize potential benefit from things that are understood to be unacceptable (unsustainable and harmful actions).
    • Will forego potential personal benefit and fight for the development of a sustainable better future for all. ("sustainable" is another term needing to be defined every time as "something that all humans would be able to concurrently develop to do if they wished and that could be continued indefinitely on this amazing planet.". Many people merge sustain with prolong. Some people deliberately try to do that in their messages.)

    On that scale, the different levels of acceptance of any of the facts of this matter would be expected to appear consistently, and the reason for the difference would be clearer. Any results contrary to such expected results would deserve deeper investigation.

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  19. Classifying people into left, right, socialist, communist, greenie, or fascist  is not going to reflect the scientific consensus along political lines. Such terms are lazy pseudo-intellectual classifications of people so that opposing political arguments in a debate can be easily dismissed using a stereotype.

    With regard to global warming and climate change, it seems that people who believe that AGW is actually happening seem to have at least a rudimentary understanding of some aspect of the science, while those who don't believe that AGW is happening do so more for political or commercial reasons than for scientific reasons.

    To the wider public, the AGW debate appears to be more political than scientific and may be the cause of the disinformation/ignorance gap. Also, the scientists and political groups arguing that AGW is happening spend more time on the indications and the impacts of AGW, rather than the basic science behind the theory which isn't articulated often enough in a manner that the wider public understand.

    The whole global warming debate can be easily summed up in terms the public can understand:

    * That CO2 is a greenhouse gas due to the interaction of the CO2 molecule and infrared radiation from the sun causing it to warm, just like microwave radiation in a microwave oven heats water molecules and cooks our food, or long wave radio waves being bounced off the ionosphere to make long range radio communications possible, or ultraviolet light causing sunburn, or ozone stopping ultra violet light making life possible on the planet.

    * That CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere mostly from burning fossil fuels and land clearing, and if the planet doesn't warm as a result, then some of our understanding of the basic science which forms the basis of our technological society is seriously flawed. This is the basis for the Global Warming argument.

    * That warming of a fluid or gas increases the turbulence of the motion of the atoms of the gas or fluid. It is true in a container in a lab and it is true for whole planet. This increased turbulence will change the weather patterns which will change the global climate. This is the basis for the Climate Change argument.

    Everything else is the mere observation of the data and the interpreting what it means. That is where the confusion occurs.

    The basic science can be easily understood.  despite all the noise of the current wider debate.

    If the planet doesn't warm due to increasing greenhouse gases then that indicates a deep flaw in our scientific understandin and those who believe it won't warm believe in magic.

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  20. mancan18@19

    The situation is a little more complex than you have presented.

    The short-term rather random but signficant influence of the ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation), on global average surface temperatures is a added complexity you need to include. Another complexity to include is the rather random but significant influence of particulate from volcanic releases.

    Many people are not aware of those influences and as a result believe that the global average surface temperatures currently not being significantly warmer than 1998 disproves that CO2 will do what the best understanding of the climate science says it will do. Such misunderstanding is due to a number of influences including:

    • deliberate efforts by people who understand these points but are not interested in best and most fully informing others about them because that would be contrary to their interest
    • a lack of effort by people to pursue a fuller understanding of this issue
    • a deliberate choice by some who do pursue more information to ignore information that is contrary to their interest and accept information that suits their interest.

    The best explanation I have for the preponderance of people who are reluctant to accept the climate science is that the current popular and profitable socioeconomic systems encourage people to prefer to believe things that will allow them to enjoy the most possible personal benefit. It is a powerful motivation. If clearly is a more powerful influence than reason and decency for some people.

    Even a higher global average temperature this year due to the warming of the tropical Pacific, not even as strong an El Nino condition as 1997/98, would be unlikely to change the minds of those who desire to believe otherwise.

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  21. One Planet Only Forever

    Although I would never pretend to be a Climate Scientist, I do understand and readily accept the arguments that you refer to. However, if you are trying to influence someone with little scientific understanding and cannot understand the complexity of the wider argument then you do have to get to the basis of it, and that is CO2 is a significant greenhouse gas amongst others; we are burning fossil fuels and putting more CO2 into the atmosphere; infrared light from the sun warms the CO2 molecule and hence the planet; and that warming will cause Climate Change due to the increased trubulence in the atmosphere and ocean that the warming will cause. This is basic science. It's just as true for the globe as it is in the Lab or from scientific theory. Consequences of this basic science lead to the complex arguments like melting ice caps, retreating glaciers, increasing global temperature with or without analyses of El Nino La Nina and oscillation indices, more severe weather, etc. etc.  that you refer to.

    If someone doesn't even admit that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and pumping more into the atmosphere warms the planet, then there is probably not much point trying to convince them anyway. It is probably better to challenge them by asking them directly whether they believe CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and to how many ppm we should allow it to rise to before we do something about stopping it. At the very least you will know whether you are dealing with a scientific illiterate or not.

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  22. mancan18,

    I fully support striving to help others better understand of the basics. However, some of those people may challenge the basics about CO2 because they are aware of the "lack of significant warming of the global average surface temperatures since 1998 even though CO2 has continued to increase". That is when you need to be prepared to explain the added points I mentioned. There are many good presentations of those added points in the artricles posted on this site.

    There are also discussions about the "sensitivity" of the global average surface temperature to increasing CO2 levels, how much impact a doubling of the CO2 levels would create. Some people may prefer to believe that no more warming will occur even if signifcant amounts of additional CO2 are released because the increased CO2 since 1998 has not increased the annual global average surface temperature. I know that the averages of each decade continue to go up. And I know many other good explanations for the observed global average temperatures in 1998 and since then. What I shared should help you explain why what they prefer to believe is unbelievable.

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