The Limits of Science Communication?
A DISCUSSION OFMental Models for Scientists Communicating With the Public
There is little doubt that scientists struggle with effectively communicating the results of their research, particularly when it conflicts with strongly held mental models, as in the case of climate change. Significant effort and resources have been put into programs that support science communication and engaging with communities, with most universities now offering courses around these topics.
However, in “Mental Models for Scientists Communicating With the Public” (Issues, Winter 2023), Kara Morgan and Baruch Fischhoff draw a distinction between simple, unilateral science communication and bilateral risk communication. The authors argue that risk communication is a prerequisite for effective science communication, and outline an engagement process for eliciting goals and mental models from target audiences. This iterative process centers on developing a series of influence diagrams to document stakeholder concerns relative to research outcomes. The process involves convening focus groups and a seemingly intensive schedule of interactive meetings between scientists and target audiences. Ultimately, Morgan and Fischhoff argue that, in general, scientists do not possess the relevant skill set to accomplish any of these activities.
I suspect this is not actually true, given the emphasis on research translation and science communication now prevalent across many graduate programs. It also appears that following the well-established process documented by the authors is likely to be effective when scientists and researchers have the opportunity to engage directly with target audiences and stakeholders. The concern is that the ability to have this kind of interactive engagement represents an atypical situation in the context of most science communication, and is not scalable to the target audience of greatest concern, the general public, or to the global risks of most concern.
Many independent analyses conclude that we now face significant existential and systemic environmental risks as a consequence of human economic activity. We risk exceeding planetary boundaries, that is, the biophysical capacity of the planet to support life as we have come to know. The kinds of large-scale issues that have emerged—biodiversity loss, climate change, varying pressures on global south versus north, and environmental and social inequities—would seem to require science and risk communication at a global scale, and across diverse but biased audiences, without the luxury of establishing personal relationships among researchers and stakeholders.
Understanding the mental models that shape audience perceptions is clearly important. Survey-based research reveals, for example, that in the United States there are distinct archetypal biases that inform how scientific information will be received. One biased mental model relating to climate change is based on the belief that it is not real, or that it is not caused by human activity. This stems from a number of biases, including confirmation bias, in which people seek information that confirms their preexisting beliefs, and the availability heuristic, in which people overestimate the likelihood of events based on how easily they come to mind.
The mental model that denies climate change is not supported by scientific evidence, which overwhelmingly shows that climate change not only is occurring, but is caused by human activities such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation. It is also harmful because it can lead people to resist efforts to address climate change, which will have serious consequences for the environment and ecological and human health.
I am curious what the authors would recommend for the risk and science communication around these kinds of issues, which increasingly dominate public discourse, and for which solutions will require integrated, systems solutions to address and for which conventional and traditional models of risk communication are unlikely to suffice.
Katherine von Stackelberg
Department of Environmental Health
Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health