Communicating Politicized Topics

Photo by Garry Knight – Public Domain/Creative Commons

From climate change to gray wolves to various environmental protection laws, fish and wildlife agencies often find themselves dealing with issues that have become politicized because of important disagreements about them.

Brad Miley of the Human Dimensions Branch of USFWS National Wildlife Refuge System explains, “Operating in a landscape of politicized environmental issues creates unique challenges for science communicators. Traditional communications strategies are often less effective in such environments.”

As Arthur Lupia writes in “Communicating Science in Politicized Environments” for the PNAS Early Edition, “Complicating matters is the fact that politicized environments often induce suspicions about science communicators’ true motives or expertise. Therefore, questions arise about whether scientists can really be trusted.”

In these politicized situations, people’s cultural values affect what they believe about scientific research, according to Dan Kahan, a Yale University law professor who wrote “Fixing the Communications Failure” in Nature, January 2010.

“People endorse whichever position reinforces their connection to others with whom they share important commitments,” writes Kahan. “The same groups who disagree on ‘cultural issues’ – abortion, same-sex marriage and school prayer – also disagree on whether climate change is real…”

This group influence is called “cultural cognition” and can cause people to interpret scientific data in a biased way, which reinforces already-held opinions. People tend to select “credible experts” with whom they share common values. “They take their cue about what they should feel, and hence believe, from the cheers and boos of the home crowd,” writes Kahan.

What Works, What Doesn’t
Photo Hollie Miyasaki

The science community should rethink how it communicates on these sensitive and politicized issues, so that the cultural implications are also considered.

“The prevailing approach is still simply to flood the public with as much sound data as possible on the assumption that truth is bound, eventually, to drown out the competitors,” writes Kahan.

Yet, as long as this data contradicts your audience’s cultural values, then this approach “is likely to harden their resistance and increase their willingness to support alternative arguments, no matter how lacking in evidence.”

When dealing with politicized issues, Kahan and Lupia recommend science communicators try these methods:

  • Present information in a way that affirms rather than threatens people’s values. “Emphasizing common interests and relative expertise can help science communicators more effectively convey their findings in politicized environments,” writes Lupia.
  • Ensure a diverse set of experts support this information. “People feel that it is safe to consider evidence with an open mind when they know that a knowledgeable member of their cultural community accepts it,” Kahan adds.
  • Look for members of different cultural groups who would make respected spokespersons on certain issues with typically skeptical audiences. An example was Pope Francis and his 2015 encyclical about climate change.
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