As a scientist, my main job is to try to figure out how the world works and document my findings to the scientific community — usually in a peer-reviewed article. But I’m also obligated to communicate and explain my findings to the public and, sometimes, policy makers.

Now, I recognize that, of the myriad issues involved in policy formulation, science is but one. And just because a scientist says x does not mean a policy maker will do (or that the public will favor doing) x — economic reasons, for example, may produce a consensus to do y instead. But my implicit assumption in this information-sharing process is that people will operate as rational participants who objectively consider the scientific facts and appropriately factor them into the calculus of policy making.

But, as we’re learning more and more each day, people are not rational actors. (For an entertaining discourse on our irrationality, check out Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational.”) And that irrational bent causes a disturbingly large number of people to ignore and even reject scientific facts to their detriment.

Irrational Numbers

Clearly climate change is one of those areas, where huge swaths of the population rationalize their irrational rejection of an ever-growing body of evidence, accepted by the vast majority of scientists, that the climate is warming and that humans are a prime mover in that warming. But climate change is not alone — there’s a good deal of rejection of science concerning the safety of vaccinations and the safety of genetically modified crops, as well as a host of pseudoscientific theories from astrology to the contention (strongly held by a family member of mine who shall remain unnamed) that thinking good thoughts can turn a glass of ordinary water into “good” water with special nutritive powers.

From my perspective, if someone wants to believe in astrology, no harm, no foul. But when it comes to climate change … denial of the scientific facts may prove catastrophic.

Why are some people so apt to reject science? One of the more compelling explanations, put forward by Yale law professor Dan Kahan, posits that our cultural biases and allegiances cause us to reject some kinds of facts because they threaten our core beliefs and perceived communal interests. Perversely, it appears that providing more scientific information only causes these “deniers” to become further convinced of their irrational position.

Too Much at Stake With Climate

From my perspective, if someone wants to believe in astrology, no harm, no foul. But when it comes to climate change — where collective action is needed to address the fundamental causes and dangerous consequences can result from a failure to act — denial of the scientific facts may prove catastrophic. We can’t simply dismiss this as human beings being zany, and move on. And so a lot of thought and ink has been devoted of late to applying the “science” of science communication to move the public to act.

The Manipulation Approach

Some communication strategies that have been proffered, that I’d characterize as manipulative, come from the notion that “We don’t care why people act, only that they do. So let’s manipulate them into action.”

Sell the public on climate change policy as an economic boon, and you may see a strong backlash.

It’s a compelling notion — who cares what’s going on in people’s head so long as they slash their carbon consumption? Here are some examples and why I think they won’t quite cut the mustard.

The Bait and Switch

This approach turns on the idea that we can make progress by convincing people that acting on climate change will be good for reasons other than slowing climate change.

  • Because burning coal causes pollution that kills, we should stop it. Sound reasoning here, but easily shot down. Pollution controls can limit air-pollution-related deaths and still allow us to burn coal — something the coal industry is quick to point out. (See also here [PDF] and here [PDF].)
  • Moving to a low-carbon economy will bring energy security. Sounds great, but it turns out that with things like shale gas and oil (and coal gasification) we can achieve a good measure of energy security without giving up fossil fuels. So why, the purveyors of fossil fuel argue, give them up?
  • Moving to a low-carbon economy will create jobs and boost economic growth. This popular argument may be true in the long run but could explode in our faces in the short term. Its pitfalls: Moving to a low-carbon economy will require lots of difficult adjustments; it will create new jobs, but kill others; and consumers will almost certainly see higher energy prices for some period of time. Sell the public on climate change policy as an economic boon, and you may see a strong backlash.

Behavior Modification – Just Do It

In this approach, social psychology is used to get people to act “right.” For example, Wendee Nicole, writing in Ensia, noted that it’s possible to use games (i.e., “gamification”) to induce people to take positive steps on climate change — tap our natural desire to compete and win to bridge “the gap between knowing and doing.”

Another approach takes advantage of the Hawthorne effect – the tendency of subjects in behavioral experiments to behave differently when they believe they are being observed. For example, Daniel Schwartz of Carnegie Mellon University and co-authors reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that residents used considerably less electricity when told they were participating in a study of household electricity consumption.

We need to craft messages that get inside people’s psyche, viscerally connect with them and get them to want to act on climate change, to want to act in ways that promote a strong vital environment.

But what is the staying power of such gambits? The effort to slow climate change will take decades of consistent, ever-greater efforts to ramp down emissions. Will games and fictitious experiments induce people to act in a concerted way for years, let alone decades? Especially when they are being bombarded by so many marketing messages to consume? I expect not. Indeed, Schwartz and colleagues found that their test subjects quickly reverted to their old behavior “when the intervention ended.”

How to Change Minds

I’m convinced that, given the size of the changes needed and the time needed to effect change, manipulation won’t cut it. Ultimately, we must get minds on board. Which brings us back to the original conundrum: How to convince people who refuse to be convinced by facts?

Clearly just dispatching scientists and other talking heads is not the answer. All we are doing is appealing to people’s rational side when they are being controlled by emotional forces. To change their minds, we have got to appeal to the irrational in people. To change minds we first have to change hearts. We need to craft messages that get inside people’s psyche, viscerally connect with them and get them to want to act on climate change, to want to act in ways that promote a strong vital environment. The most effective environmental messages may prove to be those packing both a “left brain” and a “right brain” punch.

Can we do this? Of course we can. Marketers have been doing it for decades, convincing us that we need products we never needed before. I suspect that the forces aligned against climate change are doing it as well. Why shouldn’t these same tools be used to advance an environmental agenda?

I suspect that neuroscientists will be central to this effort. They’re already knee-deep into the marketing game. If it’s good enough for Coca-Cola and Chevron, why not for the environmental movement?

Artists will also be essential. After all, their work is all about connecting with people emotionally and changing perspective. And artists have been connecting us to the natural world since the first cave drawings.

Here’s my recipe: Let’s assemble a dream team of neuroscientists, artists and climate scientists, and we may not change just people’s hearts and minds but also the course of history. View Ensia homepage