There's currently a big debate in the climate change community about communication in general and the role of journalists in particular. On a thread over at Keith Kloor's blog, I left the following comment:
I think there are a lot of faulty assumptions that underlie this whole debate. Communication isn’t simply transmitting information – the information must be received, processed and filtered through the mindset and cognitive biases of each individual. The common assumption in this debate seems to be that improving the message automatically results in better “communication.” Further, some suggest that if only the appropriate “facts” were transmitted then people would be convinced to support their particular policy preferences. The fact that people don’t support those policies is used as evidence that the message is inadequate, resulting in another round of blame the messenger.
The problem, of course, is that the sender of information is only half of the equation. Further, in my opinion the sending side is less important than the receiving side when it comes to effective communication and I think the cognitive science literature supports that opinion. Journalists and scientists can always improve their messaging and narratives, but they should be cognizant that there are real limitations to what the “message” can do. The assumption that people will be convinced if they are only shown the “facts” is naive. Anyone who has tried to convince their best friend that the person they are in love with is a philandering scoundrel understands this.
Additionally, the sad fact of the matter is that a lot of people don’t trust journalists and, these days, a lot of people aren’t exposed to journalism at all, much less a journalist who specifically covers science. When journalists relay information contrary to people’s predilections and biases then distrust is only heightened. The same goes for scientists. Eviscerating each other over perceived failures in messaging does nothing to solve the real communication problem, which is on the receiving end. The number of people who are genuinely open to convincing evidence one way or another is quite small. Brink Lindsey explains this better than I can. Although he focuses on partisanship, the description is not limited to partisans (emphasis added):
It’s not just that partisans are vulnerable to believing fatuous nonsense. It’s that their beliefs, whether sensible or otherwise, about a whole range of empirical questions are determined by their political identity. There’s no epistemologically sound reason why one’s opinion about, say, the effects of gun control should predict one’s opinion about whether humans have contributed to climate change or how well Mexican immigrants are assimilating — these things have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Yet the fact is that views on these and a host of other matters are indeed highly correlated with each other. And the reason is that people start with political identities and then move to opinions about how the world works, not vice versa.
This is not something that journalists and scientists can easily overcome. Convincing people will be a long, hard slog no matter how convincing the message appears and no matter how much one believes one’s facts “speak for themselves.” If climate scientists want to convince the public, they should not make unnecessary enemies of journalists and instead consider alternative approaches.
This communication problem isn't confined to climate change, or even science in general. I experienced the challenges personally many times in the intelligence community. Even though our role in the IC is specifically mandated to inform policymakers, convincing them on an issue contrary to what they already believe is almost always a challenge. That is not their fault, and really, this problem is not anyone's "fault" since cognitive bias and mindsets are features of the human mind that we cannot change.