Science-Journalism Market Model: Beware!

Scientific Blogging has just published a very disturbing article, which toys with the idea of establishing a monetary relationship between science journalists and scientists by using a retailer-wholesaler analogy. I presume the author is strictly referring to the physical sciences. The idea may sound absurd but it is not without a precedent. One only needs to turn to the so-called ‘social sciences’, where the idea has been implemented and operational for decades. Erosion of trust in ‘science’ is probably the least of evils in this scenario.

Climate Change Risk Communication: Apathy or Denial?

I came across this online publication by Peter M. Sandman, psychologist and communication specialist, which mildly raised my (apathetic) eyebrow after weeks of following an exasperatingly dull ‘communication campaign’ in the blogosphere on whether the climate change debate is dead in the aftermath of Copenhagen 2009 and this winter’s record low temperatures.

That the debate is dead is an extraordinary fanciful statement on the part of skeptics who, ironically, are the ones kindling it in the first place. What seems evident, however, is that both the skeptics and the activists in this field are in desperate need of reinventing their vocabulary.

In this light, Mr. Sandman’s article is well worth reading, even if I don’t buy his “denial” theory. His basic argument is that an effective communication campaign should distinguish between an apathetic audience and an audience that is said to be, in the parlance of psychology, in denial. Writes Sandman: “By ‘global warming denial’ I don’t mean the claims of people who aren’t upset about climate change and aggressively insist that it isn’t real or isn’t serious. I’m focusing on people so upset (or hopeless) about climate change they can’t bear to think about it: people “in denial,” not “deniers.” Who are these people, Mr. Sandman? A few concrete examples will suffice.

The gist of the argument is that advocacy, based on the precautionary principle is lost on the poor people in denial. They need a stronger and bitterer medicine, namely “crisis communication”: “Precaution advocacy is designed for audiences whose outrage is too low. But the outrage of people who are in or near denial isn’t too low; it’s so high they’re having trouble bearing it. The correct risk communication paradigm for them isn’t precaution advocacy; it is crisis communication”.

When I read this I couldn’t help but think (and smile) of Mencken’s aphorism that democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and they deserve to get it good and hard.

It’s not the arrogance of Mr. Sandman that bothers, rather his patronizingly prescriptive sales pitch. If only he could just be satisfied with offering a diagnosis!

All that said, if you can suffer through having your opinion about climate change psychoanalyzed, the article links to a host of resources on risk communication (in and outside the context of climate change) that could be of interest to both activists and skeptics. Depending on whether one is interested in an offensive or defensive (communication) strategy, it is a resource full of tips on how to encode the message as well as how to decode it, should one be of a more paranoid disposition. My personal approach is precautionary.