In the recently published paper Improving Climate Change Acceptance Among U.S. Conservatives Through Value-Based Message Targeting, (Dixon, et al, 2017) the authors describe the problem of communicating established science regarding climate change to a conservative demographic.
Conservatives have been consistently resistant to accepting that recent climate change is man made. While individual reasons for this can vary greatly, it seem that there might be a degree of motivated reasoning. Conservative are opposed to market regulation and see the regulation of carbon emissions as a vast government overreach and a possible conspiracy. Hence the need for such regulation is subject to more scrutiny than other topics.
Ignoring the broader topic here for now, the simple question is "what works"? What approach best convinces conservatives to accept the science? And can we use the information about this to formulate approaches for other polarized groups like 9/11 Truthers, Chemtrail believers, or even Flat Earth believers?
Dixon focusses on two approaches: Consensus Messaging and Message Targeting. Consensus messaging is simply the idea of informing people that there's a scientific consensus on the subject. With climate science this generally looks like the 97% thing, for example:
This can work with many people, however it does not work with people who are already skeptical of science and scientists. It's easily rebutted with counterarguments such as "so what", "most scientists are paid by the government", or "I'm with the 3%!"
That's not to say consensus messaging is not a useful tool. Most people accept that the opinion of the vast majority of a group of experts on a topic is frequently the opinion most likely to correct, so for many audiences communicating the consensus is very useful. But for the deeply polarized they already know they are against mainstream science. Showing them what they are against will often just harden their resolve based on the scale of the task, or it may have them doubt the improbable seeming (to them) one-sidedness of the consensus.
I've had experience with consensus messaging myself, being a co-author (in a fairly minor role) on the paper Quantifying expert consensus against the existence of a secret, large-scale atmospheric spraying program (Shearer, et al, 2016). This was basically a study to measure the consensus opinions of experts regarding the evidence presented in favor of the "chemtrail" conspiracy theory. We demonstrated a similar 97% consensus that nothing was going on. This was very useful in communicating the actual science to the media and the general public, but was rejected by the majority of the more deeply committed chemtrail believers for similar reasons to those listed earlier. It's quite likely that for many it strengthened their belief in a vast conspiracy, of which I inevitably would be a part of.
This doubling down on a belief in the face of conflicting information is known as the
"blowback" or "boomerang" effect. Dixon describes some research into this with regard to climate science:
So if communicating the consensus does not work for a particular group, what else should we do? Is it possible to communicate in specific, more effective manner targeting that group? Research suggests yes:
Now I'm going to skip ahead in the paper here, as this might already be starting to sound suspicious to our intended audience. "Message targeting" sounds a bit like public relations, and our free-market (or conspiratorial) audience sees government PR as propaganda, or even some kind of brainwashing. One has to be aware of the risk of an even greater form of blowback if the audience thinks of what you are doing as "messing with their mind". Dixon says:
It's something of a paradox. I do a lot of "debunking", where I find actual problems with things people claim as evidence, and then I communicate those problems to people using that evidence. To do this well I'm constantly thinking of the best approach. While I used consensus messaging, it's much more common for me to think about how I tailor my message to a particular individual. How do I best convince someone?
Now since I believe what I am communicating to be correct, I do not see what I am doing as anything other than effective communication. If I tailor my message to reach a particular group or individual, then that's simply the best way of communicating something true to that group of individual. But to the person who has not yet realized that what I am saying is correct, this targeting just looks like propaganda.
I often relate the tale of talking to a young woman at a chemtrail rally. She seemed quite friendly and reasonable. I'd asked her what her best evidence was that chemtrails were real, and she told me that it was the fact that grids of trails were seen in the sky where none were before. I started to offer a very reasonable explanation involving how there was much more regional traffic now, so hubs like Los Angeles (where we were at the time) used to be mostly inbound and outbound traffic, but now it gets more flyover traffic from shorter routes with regional jets, and hence contrails appear where there were none before.
I explained this calmly and in a friendly manner (as I do naturally), and without really thinking about it I pitched the technical level to what I thought she would quickly comprehend, and I used the local situation as example because I thought she could relate to it. I was essentially "targeting" my message because I wanted the truth to get across. She listened, and started to nod to my points. I added some slightly more technical information, possibly about reduced vertical separation minimums for planes, and she started to nod, then caught herself and said: "whoa! You're gaslighting me".
I was taken aback. "Gaslighting" refers to a way of covertly psychologically manipulating someone to make them doubt themselves - and specifically to doubt their own sanity. She'd basically seemed fine, and then suddenly reached a point where she felt herself being convinced by my reasonable local facts, which to her meant that I was using some kind of mind control technique, and hence she could simply ignore everything I'd just said, and immediately stop listening to me. Which is what she did.
So imagine if someone knew in advance that you had tailored your message to their knowledge base, their ideology, even their personality. From your perspective it's effective communication of facts. For them it's gaslighting.
So what is the message targeting for communicating climate change science to ardent believers in the free market? It's not really complicated, you just emphasise the role of the free market as a solution to the problem, rather than the cause. In a section unfortunately titled "Manipulation", Dixon explains the "message targeting" what was pitted against the "97%" message (and other approaches, like focussing on religion)
Here, as well as presenting the Free Market as "part of the solution", they also give an example of how deregulation (i.e. a more-free market) led naturally to more environmentally friendly energy production. This is shaping the message by focussing on aspects that might not matter to a general audience, but are of key importance to the specific group being targeted.
When I talk to conspiracy theorists I tend to engage in similar strategies (usually without really giving them much thought). What is important to conspiracy theorists is questioning of authority. So I emphasis that I think it's great that people question authority, and even that they question things like the official story surrounding 9/11, or (at an extreme) the official shape of the Earth. I emphasis that questioning is good, and that by questioning we can arrive at the truth of the matter. I then use that as a foundation to try to get them to question well, and more critically evaluate the offered answers.
For those believers who are involved in promoting a particular conspiracy theory - on social media and sometimes out on the streets - I try to steer them towards the idea that they can use their energy and experience for real problems. Then by real problems I explain what I mean - political corruption and graft, America's endless wars, the three million Americans in prison, worldwide poverty, education, healthcare, etc. (Here obviously I have to target a little based on what they consider to be an actual problem, which might different to what I think).
So really I'm doing the same thing as in the climate vs. free market example, except here it's facts vs. suspicion. Where they emphasis the positive role of the free markets, I emphasis the positive role of questioning authority. Where they give examples of how the free market actually leads to renewable energy, I give examples of how opposition to conspiracies can be focussed on very real issues.
The work I do is grounded in truth, that is the only way I can do it. I oppose false conspiracies because they obscure the real conspiracies; the banally evil collusions surrounding money and power. I want to get my facts across as effectively as possible. I want to change minds. So yes, I target my message, I tailor it to specific groups and individuals based on what I know about them, what they know, what they believe, how they think. But I do it with honesty, and I hope that anyone that I might tailor a message for in the future will understand that I do it not to deceive, and certainly not to gaslight, but simply to convey the truth more effectively.