WHAT TO DO WHEN SCIENTISTS PANIC BUT THE PUBLIC REMAINS CALM

HOW SCIENTISTS NEED TO GET MORE EMOTIONAL IF THEY ARE TO SAVE THE PLANET

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REPORTS THE RESULTS OF A UNIQUE EXPERIMENT CONDUCTED AT THE EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL SCIENCE FESTIVAL THAT MEASURED WHAT THE ACTUAL IMPACT OF WATCHING TWO WELL KNOWN CLIMATE CHANGE FILMS WERE ON THE PUBLIC

WHAT TO DO WHEN THE SCIENCE EXPERTS PANIC WHILE WE STAY CALM

 

DR RAJ PERSAUD REPORTS THE RESULTS OF A UNIQUE EXPERIMENT CONDUCTED AT THE EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL SCIENCE FESTIVAL IN COLLABORATION WITH PSYCHOLOGISTS PROFESSOR ADRIAN FURNHAM AND SOPHIE VON STUMM OF UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON WHICH SHOWS THAT SCIENTISTS NEED TO GET EXTRA EMOTIONAL IF THEY ARE TO BECOME MORE  PERSUASIVE

 

If you want to persuade someone of something – should you stick to cool rational evidence, or instead get them emotionally aroused? A unique experiment conducted at the Edinburgh International Science Festival appears to come up with the answer, and it’s not one scientists are going to like.

 

The scare over MMR vaccines and autism, GM Foods, recent resignations of Government advisory scientists over re-classification of illicit drugs, mobile phone masts and cancer – the tendency is usually for scientists to try and stop the public panicking and overreacting to inconclusive threats. Their usual role is bit like Michael Winner’s famous TV adverts, declaring ‘Calm down!’ to harried members of the public.

 

Fears frequently stoked by a media who sell papers or raise ratings, whenever they tout terror. 

 

But in the case of Global Warming, the very opposite seems to be the case. Climatologists declare it’s as if they inhabit a very bad dream – where they desperately try to warn politicians and public of imminent danger, yet appear unable to make any impact. They are forced to stand and watch as nightmarish catastrophe inevitably envelops. Global Warming appears perhaps a unique example of a planetary threat where the experts are actually more scared than the public.

 

The discipline of climate change is complex, as much of science inevitably is today, but are the unavoidable challenges inherent in communicating the latest research findings now more serious and urgent than ever before? On the effectiveness of science communication appears to hinge the future of the planet, so it appears that scientists must effectively commune the science to the public, or irreversible destruction of nature becomes inevitable.

 

Climatologists, flailing around for decades for an answer to the problem, hailed the 2006 release of the famous Al Gore documentary film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ as a milestone in attempts to get their message over. The film is popular with scientists because of its rigorous depiction of the data central to the argument, using a multiplicity of graphs and tables. However, whether this attempt to persuade the public of an argument at the heart of modern science actually works, remains curiously unverified.

 

In what could be a unique attempt to investigate the impact on the public of popular films which seek to persuade the public that climate change is a reality, Professor Adrian Furnham and Sophie Von Stumm, psychologists based at University College London, collaborated with Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Raj Persaud, in order to conduct a distinctive experiment investigating for the first time whether popular movies like ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ actually achieve what they set out to do, get the public to take global warming seriously.

 

The experiment randomised 60 members of the general public attending the Edinburgh International Science Festival to view either the Al Gore film or another popular current movie ‘The Age of Stupid’, to investigate the most effective methods of communicating crucial and urgent science.

 

‘The Age of Stupid’ stars famous British actor Peter Postlethwaite and is set in 2055 on an Earth destroyed by Global Warming. The film is more polemical, and relies relatively little on actual statistics, more on anecdotal accounts and personal tragedy.

 

It’s a much more emotive and less data driven work compared to ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, so which film would have the biggest impact on the public? The psychologists who devised the experiment, adapted a well known attitude to climate change psychology test to measure an individuals commitment to make future behaviour changes which could save the planet. Examples include avoiding traveling by plane and becoming more generally energy conscious and efficient.

 

The questionnaire was administered to the participants, who were unaware of the true nature of the experiment, before and after viewing the two films from start to finish.

 

The intriguing finding is that viewing ‘The Age of Stupid’ produced an average of three times as much relative shift towards making personal changes that would help save the planet, compared to ‘An Inconvenient Truth’.

 

It is notable that the Al Gore film has been reviewed very favourably in the academic literature, while ‘The Age of Stupid’, viewed as generally laudable in terms of its intentions, yet has generated, so far, much less enthusiasm from climatology research publications. This is not to say it’s regarded as in any way an inferior film, more that the colossal amount of data that Al Gore presents in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ appears to be a preferred method of getting a message across by scientists themselves.

 

Indeed, the movie is patterned around a lecture constituted of slide after slide of statistics, which remarkably resembles the kind of presentation found in Universities all over the world; the preferred method by which scientists present their arguments to each other.

 

It would appear however that the more emotional manipulation implicit in ‘The Age of Stupid’, with vivid images of babies being rescued during Hurricane Katrina, juxtaposed with panning shots of oil companies’ destruction of the planet, compared to the more dispassionate numbers driven account of ‘An inconvenient Truth’, is a great deal more effective in moving the public in the direction the scientists feel is urgently essential right now.

 

What is even more striking about the finding from the experiment conducted at the Edinburgh International Science Festival is that its not as if Al Gore is some kind of autistic white coated mumbler who stumbled in from the laboratory, he is widely regarded as one of the most slick and charismatic communicators in the world.

 

The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to him in 2007 and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”.

 

But is it possible that the widely perceived impact of Al Gore’s ‘scientific’ message is vastly overstated by the academic world, desperate for a champion of their concerns? In the ‘Power of Expectation’ experiment Von Stumm, Furnham and Persaud ran at the Science Festival, fully a quarter of all the viewers of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ scored zero on any shift at all in greater willingness to change their personal behaviour in order to save the planet. This is in striking contrast to those who viewed ‘The Age of Stupid’, a relative statistics desert in comparison with Al Gore’s presentation, where less than one tenth of these scored zero.

 

The paradox is that science is meant to be detached and unemotional, while to get their message over effectively, an affecting and moving approach appears required of scientists, is the take home message of this unique experiment.

 

It might be that the people (scientists) who have discovered our greatest modern peril are the very group most unable to persuade us of how to save ourselves, because they are the collective in our society least able or willing to deploy strong emotion in their communications.

 

It is perhaps no accident that Peter Postlethwaite and Al Gore, the key communicators in both movies, and who worldwide have probably had the most impact on audiences on this issue, are not themselves actually climate scientists.

 

It is precisely this paradox on which the future of the planet might hinge. If we rely on personal evocative experience and emotional upheaval to make the huge personal sacrifices necessary to save the planet (actually see a baby rescued from a flood), rather than rational and intellectual foresight (as embodied by a more scientific approach), it seems we have to wait until the waves are actually lapping at our front door, before we become galvanized as to what is needed to be done.

 

But by then, it’s already too late.