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Will the March for Science increase public support for science or entrench polarisation ?

By Chris Shaw on April 21, 2017

First published in the Huffington post 

The upcoming March for Science, on 22 April, looks set to generate an international public discourse on the role of science in society, making this a unique opportunity to communicate a message about the value of science that will be seen and heard by millions of people.

As an organisation we applaud effective efforts to raise public engagement with climate science but it’s important to consider what sort of message will come across and how best to shift public opinion in the direction hoped for by organisers.

Bringing science out of it’s academic bubble and into the public discourse so that people can see and hear from the people in lab coats and behind data sets is vital to rebuild trust and understanding across society. Indeed the March for Science website notes that science is primarily a social process, an ‘enterprise carried out by people… not an abstract process that happens independent of culture and community.’ Therefore an important goal of the march is to reach out to the public. And the good news is that despite recent talk of people having had enough of experts, the march takes place at a time when trust in scientists remains high throughout the world. A survey from 2016, for example, found that Americans are more likely to have “a great deal of confidence” in leaders of the scientific community than in leaders of any group except the military.

So a key challenge for the march is to build on this trust and widen it across scientific issues and society, particularly to those communities who more readily accept the voices and messages that undermine science. A key constituency for the US march is therefore Republicans as it is largely a response to President Trump’s decision to reduce funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and research into climate change. Correspondingly the March for Science is being linked by campaigners to the People’s Climate March the following week. Consequently there is a risk that the march will be seen not as a general show of solidarity for science, but rather as a protest by ‘politicised’ environmental and climate scientists unless there is a conscious effort to overcome this.

I use the word risk because our experience, from years of work combining academic research with real world practice in public engagement, tells us that the march, if it is only associated with environmental science and climate change, could end up entrenching the political polarization around climate science. However, there are steps that the organisers of the march could take to minimise that risk. One option for connecting with diverse sections of the public is by using messengers who aren’t the usual suspects, whether scientists from different disciplines or even leaders from faith communities and other influential opinion formers.

Secondly it is important to use a verbal and visual vocabulary which reaches beyond the usual suspects associated with protests. So less graphs and science speak and more stories and soundbites that people can relate to.

We would also recommend the organisers look to include representatives who can offer perspectives which speak to the values and concerns of centre-right voters, because attitudes to climate science are determined by a complex array of interacting issues, of which the scientific evidence is but one part. Research by psychologists from Yale University found that members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest. In other words, the more scientifically literate Republicans were more likely to reject the climate science than the least scientifically literate Republicans. So it is entirely plausible that a person could understand, enjoy and support science, and still back President Trump’s decision to cut funding into climate change research.

In addition research into the science of science communication also suggests that the desire to communicate a simple and clear message about public support for science may be in tension with the multiple ways people feel about different elements of science. This is an issue which, as this article reports, the organisers themselves have been struggling with, attesting to the fact that science is not a single uniform activity, but – just like the society of which it is a part – made up of competing interests, concerns and values. Denying that ambivalence, in favour of ‘you are either with us or against us’ sentiments, can look like the kind of top down approach to science communication which has been discredited for quite some time. Instead, a talking with, rather than talking to approach in which both sides listen to each other is a more productive way of building trust and engagement between science and society.

Understandably, scientists are often wary of activists who pursue communication campaigns based on little or no evidence. In this case, it seems as if the organisers are practicing what they preach, and have included communication experts in the planning committee. Whilst scientists remain highly trusted by the majority of the public, trust is difficult to earn and easy to lose. In this polarised atmosphere, it is more important than ever that science communication is informed by the evidence and experience of those with the relevant expertise. It looks like the March for Science has taken on board many of insights emerging from research into science communication. It will be interesting to see how the world’s media respond to this global celebration of the role science plays in human progress.

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Credit: Aurora

By Dr Christopher Shaw

Chris was part of Climate Outreach’s research team from 2015 – 2023. In that role, he focused on ensuring climate communication practice is informed by a robust and up-to-date evidence base, combining new research with the existing literature to provide communicators with accessible resources to support their work. Chris’s work was driven by a belief that successful climate policies are ones that are shaped by the voices, concerns and aspirations of the people who live their lives outside of the policy and campaigning bubble. Chris completed his doctoral thesis as a mature student in 2011 at the University of Sussex, on the communication of climate risk, a theme he continues to publish on. 

In his previous lives Chris worked as a Geography teacher and then in marketing, always with the ultimate aim of learning how to engage people with climate change risks. Between completing his doctoral studies and starting work at Climate Outreach, Chris held research posts at the University of Sussex and the University of Oxford. Outside of office hours Chris can normally be found either smashing his tennis racket on the ground in frustration at yet another defeat, or wandering aimlessly on the South Downs and blaming inaccurate Ordnance Survey maps for being lost.

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