Updates From the Field: Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival

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October 16th, 2014

“All of the professions that traffic in the dissemination of what’s known by science, should use science to help their crafts to evolve to be exactly what they want them to be.”–Dan Kahan, Yale University.

The Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival held its third biennial Science Media Awards and Symposium at public media outlet WBGH in Boston from September 17-19. Among the plenary sessions on Thursday, September 18 was a panel on the science of science communication moderated by Katie Carpenter, producer at Everwild Media, that included Dan Kahan, Professor of Law and Psychology, who also leads the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale University; Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University; and Carl Zimmer, author and columnist for The New York Times. In a fascinating dialogue, the panelists described and compared their experiences in science communication from the perspectives of social science research, science journalism, and the history of science. They also discussed how scientists and those who seek to communicate with public audiences about research and its implications for society might better address phenomena such as cultural identity, controversy, and the perception of the uncertainty of science as they craft their messages and tell their stories.

Originally a geologist by training, Professor Oreskes has been focusing her more recent work on how scientists gather and judge evidence and how they come to consensus, and on the relationship between research and who is funding it. (She discovered, for example, that the critical evidence that enabled scientists to reopen the debate on continental drift was funded by military research during the Cold War.) She opened the session with a brief, compelling preview of a forthcoming film treatment of her book Merchants of Doubt that will be released in November by Sony Pictures. The book and film explore the deliberate attempts by various interests to create an atmosphere of (false) controversy around issues such as climate change. While researching a chapter on deep ocean circulation for an earlier book on plate tectonics, Oreskes read papers by Roger Revelle from the 1950s that predicted global warming and recommended further study. In the process she found that the science on anthropogenic climate change was much older and more settled than even she realized and that the media had been increasingly misrepresenting the “debate” as being scientific, when it was actually political.

Dan Kahan then described working with Katie Carpenter and others to advise the Southeast Florida Climate Compact on how to create messaging that disentangles scientific knowledge needed to address the effects of climate change from deeply-felt cultural or political identities that often influence one’s belief about whether climate change is human-caused or not. Kahan’s approach draws on related research he has conducted on teaching evolution that reveals that there is no correlation between whether one believes or disbelieves in the theory and one’s comprehension of the mechanisms of genetic variance, random mutation and natural selection. He asserted that if after performing well in a biology class a student still doesn’t believe in the theory of evolution, it does not indicate that there is a problem with the science education. He and his colleagues have found that if a course is structured in such a way that one must believe in the theory in order to understand it that it puts a student whose identity might include a sense of religiosity, for example, in the position of “having to choose between what they know and who they are.”

Kahan et al.’s work in Florida, however, is demonstrating that regardless of ideology, citizens living in areas where they are already experiencing the effects of climate change can understand and apply the relevant science and will advocate for and support adaptive measures if the communication around the issue doesn’t evoke their sense of belonging to a group that doesn’t accept the scientific consensus about why it is happening. Kahan ended by suggesting to the audience that we systematically investigate our hypotheses about why some science communication and education strategies don’t reach or impact as many people as we believe they could. As we create our television programs, exhibits, games, or websites are we unconsciously designing in elements that ask audiences to choose between who they are and what they know?

Using an approach familiar to many documentary filmmakers and science center exhibit designers, Carl Zimmer draws on his intuition about, and experience with what he believes will be compelling and relevant to his readers. His pieces explore and explain natural phenomena at the heart of challenging concepts such as evolution and genetically modified organisms that might otherwise be unapproachable to public audiences. Examples include stories like the discovery of a fossil of a whale with full-blown legs that walked, or how coffee leaves evolved to contain the caffeine that contaminates soil to thwart competing plants while lacing its nectar with enough “buzz” to make insects remember to return to the flower and spread its pollen. As a journalist whose columns appear widely, Zimmer communicates science in a space where his audiences can comment publicly, as they often do when his stories touch on these and other controversial topics. Zimmer also reads e-mail and tracks analytics to know which stories seem to be working for whom and in which contexts. He concluded by reflecting on a slide that both he and Kahan presented displaying Randy Olson’s graph of the data on Americans’ acceptance of global climate change over the past two years. Noting that the bar hadn’t moved significantly in that time in spite of numerous new reports and the “debate” in the media around them, he asked the panel and audience what meaning we should make of such data. Are we bad communicators? Are we aiming at the wrong target? Or perhaps we shouldn’t be paying any attention to these types of polls?

The Q & A that followed began with a stem cell researcher asking how those who do science communication think about questions like “When does life begin?” and others that evoke in their audiences the perception of the uncertainty of science. The panel generally agreed that scientists and communicators should be clear about which questions science can answer and which are more appropriate for disciplines like philosophy. That said, Dr. Oreskes pointed out science is not the only discipline that changes its views over time, citing the example that in the Middle Ages the Catholic Church officially held the belief that life began with quickening.

A lively dialogue ensued about the tendency for scientists and communicators to too often “take the bait” of those who cast uncertainty in science pejoratively, and hence invest time and energy defending and refuting at the expense of engaging in real scientific debate on important issues. Oreskes shared the example of a scientific conference she had recently attended where there were 128 sessions that addressed uncertainty in some way, and only seven on carbon capture and storage. Kahan observed that there is a point when the debate itself can become the signal (vs. the “noise”), obscuring the content and perpetuating a negative perception of uncertainty. Zimmer added that even storytelling becomes problematic when journalists start from the assumption that “there are [at least] two sides to every story,” and hence report points of view on topics that are disproportionately in the minority, creating what one audience member referred to as “false equivalencies” of opposing arguments.

The session ended with one scientist’s observation that the “doing of science” has changed significantly since researchers began writing about findings that have not yet been debated within their discipline. By publishing their preliminary results on the web, she noted that scientists sometimes lead consumers of such information in confusing directions. In response Dr. Oreskes agreed that press offices at universities or labs will sometimes exaggerate the significance of a single study in order to bring attention and prestige to faculty and scientists, which is then picked up on and disseminated by the media. This obscures the fact that scientific knowledge in any area is built on a whole corpus of work. Professor Kahan suggested that a hypothesis that could also be tested is whether the “spectacle” of scientists debating each other is what misleads people about the scientific process or whether it’s non-scientists (e.g., political figures) arguing about what scientists believe that creates the sense that science can’t make up its mind. Or is it both? Perhaps, he posited, this new transparency is contributing to a positive perception of the dynamic, provisional nature of scientific knowledge. The panelists all agreed that scientists have a role to play in improving the science communication environment writ large by thinking about such questions in empirical ways. This dynamic, provocative discussion contributed to a call during the symposium closing session for more evidence-based sessions like it in the future.