Picking up from my last post on communicating with policymakers, the first session on Wednesday morning was on science literacy (or rather, lack of it) in America. The session was packed full of interesting projects.

Frank Niepold from NOAA kicked off the session, presenting the results from an NSF-led study on climate literacy. They have developed some draft goals for a national strategy, and a very nice booklet. The NOAA Climate Program Office has pointers to a useful set of additional material, and there is a fuller account of the development of this initiative in the AAAS interview with Frank. An interesting point was that literacy in this initiative means actionable stuff – a sufficient understanding of climate change to result in behavioural change. The brochures are interesting and useful, but it looks like they’ve got a long way to go to make it actionable.

Connie Roser-Renouf then presented a brilliant 15 minute summary of the fascinating study Global Warming’s Six Americas: An Audience Segmentation Analysis. The study sampled 2129 people from 40,000 respondents in a nationwide survey. Latent class analysis was used to cluster people according to their beliefs, attitudes, etc. [I like this tidbit: 2% of respondents said they’d never heard of global warming]. I already posted a little about this on Sunday, but I find the study sufficiently fascinating that it’s worth looking at in more depth.

Six Americas study, figure 2

Remember, the size of the circles represent the proportion of each group in the sample, and the six groups were identified by cluster analysis on a range of attitudes. Quite clearly the vast majority of respondents understand that global warming is happening, with the dismissives being a notable outlier.

Six Americas Study, figure 12

Interesting that a majority also understand that it will be harmful to people in the US (i.e. not polar bears, not people in other countries), and pretty soon too, although there is a big difference in understanding the urgency across the different groups.

The next graph was interesting, partly because of the vast differences across the groups, but also, as Connie pointed out, because the disengaged group answered 100% “don’t know” and this never happens in social science research (which leads me to speculate that these clusters aren’t like normal social groupings with very fuzzy boundaries, but are more like religious groups, with explicitly affirmed belief sets):

Six Americas Figure 11

But of course, the scientific literacy question is about how well people understand the causes of climate change. The interesting thing about figure 8 is that many respondents wrote in an additional response mode (“caused by both human activities and natural changes”) which wasn’t in the questionnaire. If it had been, it’s likely that more people would have selected this response, and it’s arguably the most accurate scientifically, if you take a broad view of earth system processes:

Six Americas Figure 8

However, there’s a significant number of people in all groups who believe there is a lot of disagreement among scientists (they should come to the AGU meeting, and see if they can find any scientists who who think that human-induced global warming is not happening!):

Six Americas, Figure 9

But note that there is a widespread trust in scientists as a source of information (even the dismissives don’t go so far as to actively distrust scientists):

6 Americas, figure 35

There was strong support for making global warming a priority for the US, but some interesting disagreement about suitable policy responses. For example, very mushy support for cap-and-trade:

Six Americas, figure 22

But very strong support for rebates on purchasing solar panels and fuel-efficient vehicles:

Six Americas, figure 21

As far as climate science literacy is concerned, the question is how to reach the groups other than the alarmed and concerned. These are the people who don’t visit science museums, and who don’t seek out opportunities to learn about the science.

The next talk, by Steven Newton of the National Centre for Science Education, was equally fascinating. NCSE is one of the leading organizations fighting the creationists in their attempts to displace the teaching of evolution in schools (and host of Project Steve, of which I’m Steve #859). Steven presented an analysis of how creationists reacted to the story of the CRU emails over the last few weeks. He’s been monitoring the discussion boards at the Discovery Institute, a group who support the idea of intelligent design, avoid making overt biblical references and prefer to portray themselves as a scientific group. First, since the story broke, there have been doubled the normal number of posts on their blog, with some very strong language: “toxic leftist-atheist ideology”. “a cabal”, “reaction of Darwinist and of global warming scientists to even the most mild skepticism is remarkably vicious”. “there will be an accounting”, “massive defunding of organized science”. This is interesting, because it is exactly what they say about evolution!

Steven argues that it’s clearly denialism. These people don’t think that science as a methodology works (in part, because it refused to acknowledge the role of a supernatural agency). They reject the methods of science (e.g. radiometric dating for evolution; computer modeling for global warming). They reject the data (e.g. observable evolution; observable climate data). They have very fixed mindsets (e.g. “no evidence will prove evolution”; “no evidence will prove global warming”). And they believe in a conspiracy (e.g. the “establishment” hiding the truth; stifling dissent).

This analysis leads to questions about how schools treat climate change, given this is now so contentious for evolution, and a concern that climate science education will become a battleground in the way that evolution did. Only 30 states have standards for teaching global warming in schools, and these are mostly focussed on impacts, not causes. Out of the 30 different statewide standards, only 7 mention fossil fuels, 8 mention mitigation, 17 mention mechanisms, and none mention sea level rise (and I’ll bet none mention ocean acidification either).

Some of these states have clauses that explicitly link topics such as evolution and global warming. For example, the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) allows teachers to bring into the curriculum materials not generally approved, including “on topics of evolution, global warming, human cloning, …”. In Texas, the law mandates that textbooks must promote a free market approach (which would make discussion of cap-and-trade difficult), and textbooks must “Analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming”. The wording here is crucial – it’s about views on the existence of global warming, not the details of the science.

Next up, Dennis Bartels, the executive director of the Exploratorium in San Francisco, talked about the role of science museums in improving climate literacy. He pointed out that it’s hard to explain to kids and adults about climate change – the topic is so complex. One problem is math literacy. Calculus is a capstone course in most high schools, but you need some basic calculus to understand the key concepts of emissions and concentrations of greenhouse gases, so it can’t be taught well in the high school curriculum. Also, kids aren’t ever exposed to thinking about systems. Adults are still invested in the myth that science is about truth, rather than understanding that science is a process. Hence, the public don’t get it, and are especially put off by the typical back and forth you get with the “received wisdom” approach (e.g. “Coffee is good for you”, then “coffee is bad for you”, and eventually “those damn scientists don’t know what they’re doing”).

Science centres that have tackled climate change have tended to fall into a proselytization mode, rather than teaching science as a process. The Exploratorium is exploring ways of overcoming this. For example, they’ve run workshops to bring the scientists who do polar expeditions together for a week, getting them to show and tell how they do their research, and then repackaging this for science centres across the country. The aim is to tell the story of how the science is done. Most of the best work in science centres isn’t the exhibits, it’s mediated sessions and live presentations. This contributes to getting people to think for themselves (rather than telling them what to think).

Another approach is to get people to think through how they know what they know. For example, ask people how they know that the earth is round. Did you directly observe it? Run and experiment to show it? Learn it in school? Get it from some authority? Then compare answers with others, and come to realise that most of what you know about the world you get from others (not through direct experience/experimentation). The role of trusted sources of scientific expertise is taken for granted for some areas of science, but not for others. You can then challenge people to think about why this is.

In the question session, somebody asked how do you reach out to people who don’t come to museums (e.g. the dismissive and disengaged)? Dennis’ answer pointed to the European cafe scientifique idea – after the soccer game, do an hour of science in a cafe.

Tom Bowman, a graphic designer, talked about how we translate scientific conclusions about risk for the public. His approach is to identify key misconceptions, and then re-adapt key graphic figures (eg from IPCC) to address them. Then, test these with difference audiences (he gave a long list of business conferences, public lectures, informal science institutions where he has done this).

Key misunderstandings seem to be (esp from Connie’s talk) about the immediacy of impacts (both in time and scale), the scale of the mitigation required, whether viable solutions exist, and whether we make effective choices. Hence, Tom suggested to start not by explaining the greenhouse effect, but by focussing on the point at which people make decisions about risk. For example, Limit + Odds = Emissions Trajectory (i.e. figure out what temperature change limit you’ve comfortable with, and what odds of meeting it you’d like, and design emissions trajectories accordingly). Then from there work out options and tradeoffs.

Take, for example, the table in the IPCC report on emissions scenarios – to a graphic designer, this is a disaster – if the footnotes are as big as the figure, you’ve failed. So what are the alternatives? Tom’s designed a graphic with a thermometer (with the earth as the bulb), on which he plots difference scenarios (I can’t find the graphic online, but this is similar). Points on the thermometer can then be used to show impacts at that level of global warming. This graphic has worked so well that everyone he has presented it to wants a copy (er, add me to the list, Tom).

However, sometimes things don’t work out. He also tried to map peak year emissions onto the thermometer. This doesn’t work so well, so instead he’s using the trillionth tonne analysis, and then the “ski slope” figure from the Copenhagen diagnosis:

Emissions pathways to give 67% chance of limiting global warming to 2ºC

Emissions pathways to give 67% chance of limiting global warming to 2ºC

Tom’s still working on the graphics for this and hopes to have full set by February, looking for ways to test them out.

Finally, talking about making climate science accessible, Diane Fisher presented NASA’s Climate Kids website, which is hosted by NASA’s webby award-winning Eyes on the Earth site. A key challenge is to get kids thinking about this subject right at the beginning of the educational process. In designing the site, they had some debate on whether to do the “most scientists agree” approach. In the end, they decided to take the “this is the way it is” approach, which certainly reduces the potential to confuse. But there’s a difficult balance between telling kids how things are, and scaring them to death. A key principle for ClimateKids was to make sure to give them positive things to do, even if it’s just simple stuff like reusable water bottles and riding your bike. More interestingly, the site also covers some ideas about career choices, for longer term action. I like this: get them to grow up to be scientists.


  1. > [ClimateKids] “the site also covers some ideas about career choices, for longer term action.”

    I think that’s the biggest&best thing to get across. “The world is going to need your help.”
    And even now, their voices have a moral authority that ours don’t.

  2. Pingback: The Third Bit » Blog Archive » What People Think About Global Climate Change

  3. I don’t understand the last graph — the highest reductions push the peak emissions out farthest?

    [No, other way round. The later we peak, the steeper the reductions have to be. Total area under the curve is what matters, because it is cumulative emissions that drive temperature change. – Steve]

  4. Gotcha, they really wanted to put time on the X-axis which screws up the normal “Y-thing as a function of X-thing” graph.

  5. Pingback: AGU Day 3: Science not getting heard | Serendipity

  6. You will doubtless be aware, but visitors to this blog may not, that on 28-30th September 2009, there was a conference.
    The Environmental Change Institute International Climate Conference
    Implications of a global climate change of 4+ degrees for people, ecosystems and the earth-system.

    Two degrees of warming is considered ‘dangerous’. But looking at our current business as usual CO2 emissions trajectory, the predictions for various emissions scenarios, a warming of 4 degrees is considered a real possibility, perhaps more.

    The presentations are available at http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/4degrees/downloads/abstractbook.pdf
    There are also presentations downloadable as mp3 files and pdfs

    A video that put this in a nutshell

    A REALLY Inconvenient Truth: Dan Miller

    Warning! Not for children or anyone taking Prozac or similar medication. My children aren’t old enough to be told the implications.

  7. Promoting anti-science is anti-American. The US needs a strong science base for future prosperity. But in the future the US won’t be able to rely upon recruiting scientists from abroad, there will be fierce competition from China and India. In-fact as the US economy declines, there will be a brain-drain. But with the anti-science being promoted, more and more youngsters will be turned-off science. So those who tell lies for money should be called-out as liars and traitors to the American Ideal.
    It’s about time that lying about scientists and science was excluded from freedom of speech.
    I’d put the likes of Inhofe in jail for anti-Americanism.

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