Discussing what matters when facts are not enough

Scientists and journalists live for facts. Our methods may be very different, but we share a deep belief that by questioning, observing and verifying, we can gain a truer sense of how the world works.

So when people question the scientific consensus on issues such as climate change, vaccine effectiveness or the safety of genetically modified organisms (SN: 2/6/16, p. 22), it’s no surprise that one of the first inclinations of journalists and scientists has been to think, hey, these doubters just don’t know the facts. Many organizations have launched fact-check operations on the premise that the skeptics are really just suffering from a fact deficit. Give them more data spelling out the correlation between increased carbon emissions and global temperature rise, the thinking goes, and they’ll get it.

But there’s considerable evidence that more data isn’t better when it comes to science skeptics (SN Online: 7/28/17). And being bombarded with facts can make people dig in even more. People who feel pressured to change their beliefs are adept at defending them. They also tend to seek out evidence that supports their world view and ignore, devalue or challenge facts that don’t. Emotion trumps fact.

It’s time for scientists to pay attention to that piece of evidence and learn how to connect with people with differing views, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe said February 18 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Austin. Her plenary lecture was titled bluntly: “When Facts Are Not Enough.”

“We live in a situation now where the fear of solutions is greater than the fear of impacts,” said Hayhoe, a professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. “Until we can turn this situation around … we are not going to make the difference we want to.”

There’s no question that the United States’ increased political polarization has made it harder to talk about science policy and find common ground, Hayhoe said. But she added that the strongest predictor of climate skepticism is not political conservatism or religious belief, but people’s fears that the government will be taking away freedom by “telling me what to do.”

This has deeply influenced how Hayhoe talks to people about climate change. She is an evangelical Christian and says she often talks at churches about her science and her faith. She doesn’t mince words about the threat to humankind that she sees looming, but she also offers a message of hope: that together we can fix this.

We’re all for finding common ground in talking about science and policy. For almost 100 years, Science News has been reporting the latest advances in science, such as this week’s cover story by reporter Laurel Hamers, “When bogs burn, the environment takes a hit,” on how the increased frequency of bog fires worldwide is becoming a surprisingly large source of air pollution and climate-warming carbon dioxide. The story is deeply researched and fact-checked, and is just the sort of evidence-based journalism we think helps support informed, thoughtful policy debate.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

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