How researchers get heard
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Change Doesn’t Take Everyone

“How do you convince people that climate change is real?”

That’s the beginning of a short piece recently published in Ensia by the physician and academic Laalitha Surapaneni — one that I’m rereading on this MLK Day here in the United States for its broader relevance on ideas, data, persuasion and action.

Surapaneni’s answer: don’t bother convincing the skeptics.

Here’s the passage in her piece that convinced me:

Well, if we don’t convince everyone that climate change is real, how do we fix it? A common misconception is that to create change, everyone needs to act. However, the data show otherwise. According to the Washington Post, a Gallup Poll in 1961 showed only 28% of respondents in a U.S. survey approved of the lunch counter sit-ins and freedom buses during the Civil Rights movement. Only 57% supported same-sex marriage when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in its favor in 2015. Erica Chenoweth from Harvard University analyzed hundreds of nonviolent campaigns over the course of a century. She found that it takes only around 3.5% of the population actively participating in civil protests to cause real political change.

In other words, the efficient move now is to take the time and energy we want to expend on convincing deniers and use it instead to assemble the critical mass to turn the tide.

With a few exceptions — speaking truth to leaders in power and helping loved ones recognize the magnitude of the threat — we need to shift our way of approaching climate communication from changing minds to giving people already on board concrete tasks on which to take action.

In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Surapaneni likened effective climate communications to talking with smokers about quitting — it takes a long time for smokers to go from the “precontemplative stage” (in which they’re not even thinking about quitting smoking) to action. This is a waste of time, she argues.

Instead, if you’re in America, for instance, Surapaneni says: focus on the 47% of Americans (according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication report “Global Warming’s Six Americas”) who are “concerned” or “cautious” about climate change, but who haven’t yet taken action. The climate action group calls this 47% “passive allies” (graphic below from via Ensia):

Takeaway: In communicating with non-specialists, your job as a researcher isn’t to convince everyone. Especially those who disagree with you.

Your job is to find the audiences that are already more or less on board with your point of view but don’t know what to do, and give them new ways of framing problems as well as solutions and actions.

It’s why your content for them should be 20% diagnosis and 80% solution and calls-to-action.

It’s why sparring with trolls is a distraction. It’s why trying to repair the social trust crisis on your own is pointless.

It’s why you can build authority most effectively with people already open to having experts answer their questions