Starving bears and snowballs: talking science in a time of denial

Republican senator james inhofe mocks theories of climate change by throwing a snowball.

Republican Senator James Inhofe mocks theories of climate change by throwing a snowball.

A starving polar bear. A US Senator with a snowball. Images of the opposing sides of the issue of climate change. 

Given the recent dire prediction from the International Panel on Climate Change, the question of “who to believe” has never been more pressing – which means it is now more important than ever to find ways of accurately and persuasively communicating science.

A trio of papers and an accompanying editorial published in PLOS Biology as a special collection entitled “Confronting Climate Change in the Age of Denial” seeks to explore the best ways to do this, using insight from both the natural and social sciences.

The effective communication of scientific knowledge revolves, it turns out, around stories and timescales.

In the first article, the authors, experts in science communications, Michael Dahlstrom from Iowa State University and Dietram Scheufele from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, both in the US, argue that we must exert the utmost care in telling the stories of science.

Narrative, or storytelling, is a way of communicating information that helps us to see larger phenomena through the eyes of an individual with whom we can intellectually and emotionally identify. But it also helps us to evaluate information. 

There is even evidence to suggest that our brains store our experience in narrative form and it may be “the default mode of human thought”. As Liza Gross of the Public Library of Science, San Francisco, US and senior editor for PLOS Biology notes in her editorial, in the 1970s the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga identified a region of the brain he called ‘the interpreter’, which tries to “fit everything into a story, even filling in missing gaps, in a deep-seated need to create order from chaos.”

The problem is, as Dahlstrom and Scheufele say, that “a narrative way of thinking is a distinctly unscientific way of knowledge production because it focuses on particular instances rather than considering the full range of possibilities”. In other words, we’re geared to be sensitive to anecdote but, as one paper waggishly put it, “the plural of the word anecdote is not data”. In important regards this reduces scientific storytelling to the same level as the narratives from other competing non-scientific groups.

Even worse, using stories to impart scientific knowledge might be unsuccessful, says Gross, “since increased scientific literacy does not lead to greater acceptance of science.”

“Hence, the paradox comes into focus,” write Dahlstrom and Scheufele, “storytelling can meaningfully engage audiences and make scientific information relevant while simultaneously encouraging a narrative way of thinking that places scientific stories on a similar level to any other plausible story that may or may not support scientific truth.” 

It’s a real problem, yet we can’t cede the potent art of storytelling to climate deniers and their ilk. 

How then to escape the paradox?

Rather than try to communicate the findings of science through narrative, we should attempt to tell stories “constructed toward the goal of engaging audiences to understand the process and credibility of scientific reasoning”. Stories that tell us of the use of scientific method to generate new insights and overcome problems could “show the process of science through an individual’s experience”.

The narrative of reason and method might be the most potent story science has.

Snowball-throwing senators and polar bears together encapsulate the visual war over climate change.

Snowball-throwing senators and polar bears together encapsulate the visual war over climate change.

In the second paper, psychologists Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol and Lorraine Whitmarsh of Cardiff University in the UK turn their attention to the visual equivalents of the anecdote – photographs and videos. After all, a picture tells a thousand words.

Emaciated and forlorn polar bears (Ursus maritimus) have become the iconic face of anthropogenic global warming as ice sheets retreat, taking with them the bears’ hunting grounds. Similarly, the sight of Republican Senator James Inhofe hefting a snowball on the floor of the US Senate has come to represent the farcical, yet all-too-persuasive, face of climate change denial. For those au fait with the issues, Inhofe’s antics demonstrate a clear misunderstanding of what climate change is. 

Yet the portrait of the plight of the polar bear is equally misleading.

In 2017 a photograph of a starving polar bear taken by Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen, went viral and was championed by many as a glimpse of a climate change-affected future. Climate skeptics circulated snaps of healthy bears in response, and the images launched competing narratives.

The image was so heavily pushed by those concerned about the future effects of climate change and the media, that the authors claimed to have “lost control of the narrative” and the editors of National Geographic admitted that they “went too far in drawing a definitive connection between climate change and a particular starving polar bear”. 

Lewandowsky and Whitmarsh agree: although the risk posed to polar bear populations by a warming climate is all too real, “it does not follow that any particular polar bear in distress is a victim of climate change.”

And this is the problem.

Climate change, almost more than any other phenomenon, is most clearly captured in the aggregation of large volumes of long-term data, with a minimum requirement of 17 years’ worth needed to detect a trend. But photographs or videos reduce global warming to the story of an individual, to an anecdote, which is thoroughly unscientific, as Dahlstrom and Scheufele have pointed out. 

Yet it is just such photographs that arouse the necessary emotions to help us understand the risks of climate change. There is a body of evidence to suggest that the continued popularity of climate denial narratives might in part be due to a failure to communicate information regarding climate change risk in a way that engages the public’s emotions in a productive way. Global warming is often seen as distant and irrelevant.

Again, thus, a paradox emerges. The public responds emotionally to visual anecdotes, yet they don’t accurately capture the underlying logic of science.

Lewandowsky and Whitmarsh argue that images and videos are powerful ways to arouse an emotional response, but that these triggers must be scientifically legitimate. 

Images must capture the long-term trends, not attempt to emotionally manipulate based on visual anecdote. Instead of lone polar bears, they suggest images of retreating glaciers as a key visual that truly captures the data. 

Similarly, photographs that depict the consequences of climate change, such as coastal soil salination in Bangladesh or the Alaskan village of Kivalina, which may be forced to relocate as the oceans rise, are legitimate ways to trigger the emotions and thus help people to understand the risk climate change genuinely poses. These are pictures that can truthfully tell a thousand words.

And buried in there amongst the discussion of communicative tactics, does lie the truth. There are real effects on arctic mammal populations and these creatures are the barometers of the arctic environment. The health of these populations, thus, is one of the key truths that need to be communicated to the public to understand the reality of climate change.

In the final paper of the collection, the biological oceanographer Sue Moore of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, Office of Science and Technology, in the US and the marine mammal biologist Randall Reeves of Okapi Wildlife Associates in Canada, try to establish the clearest metrics by which the resilience of these populations to a changing climate can be assessed. 

“Marine mammals are ecosystem sentinels, capable of reflecting ocean variability through changes in their ecology and body condition,” they argue. 

Thus, understanding arctic marine mammals such as the polar bears, bowhead whales and walruses is key to understanding the state of the environment. Moore and Reeves suggest a simplified and rapid assessment of resilience, which they define as the capacity “to adapt to ecosystem alterations caused by rapid warming.” 

To measure resilience, they propose an aggregate of characteristics: population size, a measure of range (whether the population is local or migratory and to what extent), whether the organism can adapt its behaviour to new condition, and whether the health of the mammals is resistant to stress and disease.

Such information could help set the record straight, providing an accurate picture of the state of the arctic to science communicators and in turn, the public. If communicated carefully and thoughtfully it might also help to frame better policy reactions to a warming world.

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