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When science communication backfires


Recently, while grabbing drinks with friends, I met someone new and struck up a conversation. After hearing that my dissertation work concerns climate change, they decided to share their thoughts on my research interests.

Well, I don’t believe in climate change.

I thought, the science is clear, maybe this person just doesn’t know all the facts. Maybe, if I explain to them how greenhouse gases work, or how rising temperatures correspond to higher CO2 emissions, then they’ll decide to agree with the scientific consensus: human activity is warming the planet. I even attempted to explain the methods scientists use to understand some of these cause and effect relationships.

In brief, I got nowhere. In fact, that person may have walked away from the conversation even more convinced that scientists are fabricating global warming.

I’m not saying this because I have poor science-communication-self-esteem. The truth is, by assuming I could change the mind of a “science-skeptic” by supplying them with more facts, I was likely to make that person even more convinced of their original position. Termed the “boomerang effect” by social psychologists, this phenomenon presents a difficult problem for scientists trying to reach recalcitrant audiences: simply providing incontrovertible evidence may actually backfire.

The boomerang effect

Boomerang effects are well-documented psychological phenomena, and not just limited to science communication. For example, people drink more with warnings on alcohol beverages, litter more with anti-littering campaigns, and even donate less to impoverished children when asked. Explanations put forth by social psychologists for these effects include:

  1. Psychological reactance. This is when a person perceives a threat to their freedom (in my case, their freedom to not believe in climate change) and restores that freedom by choosing the position opposite of the one being pushed onto them.
  2. Cognitive dissonance. According to cognitive dissonance theory, people are discomforted when holding more than one contradictory belief. For example, you believe climate scientists do legitimate work, but you don’t understand how winter can still be so cold if global warming were real. In order to resolve that dissonance, people reject the new information, and turn more strongly to their original position.

However frustrating this unintended consequence may be for people organizing these positive efforts, the boomerang effect is a pervasive aspect of human nature.

In a 2011 study investigating this effect in climate change communication, people with Republican dispositions were likely to experience the boomerang effect when presented with strategies for climate change mitigation policies. Politics are only becoming more polarized, and this spills into science communication: when the Republican subjects were presented with science-based information, partisan differences were only amplified.

Overlooking this effect can be a big problem for scientists: they must incorporate new data and information in order to draw conclusions for scientific research. Unfortunately, many scientists take a similar approach when conducting science communication- that they must fill an “information deficit” with comprehensive, informative scientific facts. The research shows this model of communication is ineffective across party lines, however.

So, are we just out of luck then?

If there were a magical, easy way to get everyone to believe in science and scientists, we would be in a different world than we live in today. Sadly, effective science communication is hard, especially when trying to reach those resisting the message. And as long as Democratic and Republican party leaders continue to push for opposite ends, climate change remains a matter of extreme political polarization.

The same 2011 study suggests a strategy that may help reduce the boomerang effect: rather than focusing on the implications of climate change far away, discuss the local effects. When talking about the implications of global warming, focusing on the implications for your audience’s particular region is crucial, or else the message will most likely “boomerang” right back in your face. For example, if you’re talking to a local group somewhere in Georgia about climate change, you may be more successful by concentrating on the implications of a warming climate on Georgia and its people.

When debating climate, talking about effects far away, like in the Arctic, may be more likely to backfire. Image source.

When it came to the stranger at the bar, I didn’t stand a chance of convincing them that climate change is real and caused by people: I attempted to change their minds by assuming they had an information deficit, and I didn’t attempt to connect the climate’s effects to their own backyard. This is a perfect recipe for the boomerang effect. As many of us go home to differently-minded family members for vacation, it’s worth keeping in mind that if you choose to engage in a climate debate, you may be better off just focusing on its effects at home.

Header photo source

About the author

Hilde Oliver is a PhD candidate in the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Georgia, where she studies polar marine ecosystems. While not doing research, Hilde enjoys Korean food, yoga, and learning languages. Hilde currently serves as an Associate Editor for the Athens Science Observer and is on the Athens Science Café Programming Board. Follow her on Twitter @polar_plankton or shoot her an email at hildeoliver@uga.edu. More from Hilde Oliver.

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