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To Persuade, or Not to Persuade? That’s A Key Question in Science Communication

by June 11, 2011

The philosophy behind Dialogue Earth is deeply rooted in a sense that our provision of information should be advocacy-free in order to maximize trustworthiness (see our history and strategy sections). That is, providing information about an issue while also urging the public to take a particular action based on this information has the real potential to erode trustworthiness, especially among those audience segments who are likely the most important: those people who are skeptical about the credibility of the information and the intentions of its source. This becomes all the more true for issues that are controversial, where I believe advocacy-driven information campaigns can deepen the societal polarization (here’s a short video I recorded explaining more about how I feel we can cut through the polarization, based on an op-ed that I penned for the Pioneer Press in April).

I recently discussed this issue in the context of an edgy hip-hop video featuring climate scientists that has become a YouTube phenomenon over the last month. In that piece, I referenced a 2010 letter to the editor in the journal Science by Bowman and colleagues that advocates for a new initiative to spread information about climate change, and that this initiative should be rooted in a nonpersuasive approach.

Digging into this issue further, it is clear that there is a debate centered on the goal of science communications. To boil things down into a few words: those calling for advocacy and persuasion by scientists cite growing disregard for science in public discourse and within policymaking, while those who urge caution suggest that mixing advocacy with the provision of science-based information jeopardizes the trust in the source of such information. By the way, a great book to read as background on the role of science in American society is “Unscientific America” by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirschenbaum.

Baruch Fischhoff’s 2007 viewpoint piece in Environmental Science & Technology is, excuse the pun, a persuasive argument in support of nonpersuasive communications. Here is a particularly insightful passage:

Nonpersuasive communication lets the science speak for itself. It recognizes that reasonable individuals may reach different conclusions—even if it is undertaken in the hope that most individuals will make similar, desired choices (e.g., commitment to energy efficiency). If it fails, then persuasive communication may be needed. However, such advocacy comes at a price, turning scientists into peddlers rather than arbiters of truth. Advocacy must be very effective to compensate for eroding scientists’ status as trusted observers and reporters.

Fischhoff is clearly aware of the pressure to adopt a persuasive approach, though I totally agree with the long-term risk:

Scientists faced with others’ advocacy may feel compelled to respond in kind. However, they can also try to become the trusted source for credible, relevant, comprehensible information by doing the best job possible of nonpersuasive communication. With long-term problems, like climate change, communication is a multiple-play game. Those who resort to advocacy might lose credibility that they will need in future rounds.

Yet, Fischhoff, who researches decision making among other topics, recognizes that there is clearly a role for advocacy and that the “missing ingredient” may well be persuasion rather than the provision of information. In other words, one needs to ask if it is information that is missing from the decision-making equation:

Anyone wary of advocacy, for reasons of principle or efficacy, should be sure that the public’s failure to take desired actions reflects its failure to understand the issues. When that determination is made, there is no substitute for analytically studying the decisions that people face and empirically studying their responses to them. However, the research record suggests [a] complex general hypothesis for predicting the success of any specific nonpersuasive communications.

On the side of scientists as advocates, Judy Meyer and colleagues argue in their 2010 Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment article “Above the din but in the fray: environmental scientists as effective advocates” that there is absolutely a role for scientists in the realm of advocacy. They cite an incontrovertible example of F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, who advocated action to eliminate CFCs for the sake of the ozone layer.

While I am still digesting the Meyer et al. piece, it seems that their main point is in support of a role for scientists in advocacy organizations. I believe that there will always be an important role for advocates to push and pull society based on deeply-held beliefs. And, I believe it is totally logical for an organization advocating on topics with a basis in science to have a great science team behind their efforts.

Ultimately, I believe the question comes down to this: do you want to be a trusted source of information for as much of society as possible, or primarily for those who have already “picked sides” and are seeking additional information to solidify their position? My vision for Dialogue Earth is that we evolve into the former, and I feel deeply that nonpersuasive communication will be at the heart of our success.

Does this mean, however, that we need to be passive in our approach? Definitely not. Much to the contrary. As highlighted by Mooney and Kirschenbaum’s book, it is a great challenge to have science-based messages heard in our fast-paced, ever-changing media and entertainment landscapes. Thus, even a nonpersuasive communication approach needs to be highly strategic and tuned in to the latest trends.


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