How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Greta’s New (Old) Rules

I don’t know if Greta Thunberg is going to change the world.

I know that she and her fellow under-20 climate activists have already changed research communications.

But I don’t know if it’s for the better.

Greta Thunberg argues that politicians and private-sector leaders — Davos and UNGA types — need to “listen to the science.”

She vets her speeches with scientists.

She’s angry. Impatient and dismissive. A bit self-righteous. She’s quick to deploy shaming as a rhetorical weapon, and doesn’t particularly seem interested in dialogue. She talks almost entirely in terms of moral duty and apocalypse and privation, not the economic benefits of climate action.

This is the way we used to talk about climate science and the need for climate action — by insisting on the primacy of science, that scientific findings trumped all other social factors, and by shouting down as idiots or misinformed anyone who disagreed.

The way we use to talk, before we understood (through experience, and through science communication research) that these tactics backfire with a number of different audiences, especially in the United States.

Max Boykoff, who directs the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado Boulder and who wrote the recent book Creative (Climate) Communication, summed up the new #climatecomm rules this past July in a Scientific American article entitled “How to Talk Effectively about Climate Change”:

– Find common ground on climate change.

– Emphasize how climate change affects us here and now, in our everyday lives.

– Focus on benefits of climate change engagement.

– Creatively empower people to take meaningful and purposeful action.

– “Smarten up” communications about climate change to match the demands of a 21st-century communications environment.

Boykoff goes on to say:

I also argue that an expanded approach involves processes of listening and adapting rather than winning and argument or talking people into something. Authentically considering other points of view fosters meaningful exchanges and enhances possibilities for finding common ground. Facts established through scientific ways of knowing about climate change are important, but they are not enough. We therefore need to enlarge considerations of how knowledge influences actions, through experiential, emotional, visceral, tactile, tangible, affective and aesthetic ways of learning and knowing about climate change…As a result, these approaches can then more effectively recapture what may be seen to be a “missing middle ground” on climate change in the public arena.

This cottony, capacious language and mindset is now de rigueur among research communicators (if still a bit wobbly in execution). It’s more directly summed up by an Ask Umbra column in Grist — “Your next bar conversation is about climate change. Here’s how to do it.” — with research-based rules of thumb such as “Assume the best” (about your audience); “Combatting misinformation with more facts doesn’t work”; “Reach people on a personal level by appealing to the things they already care about”; and “Stop complaining!”

Even those of us who admire Greta Thunberg have to admit: she’s not following any of these rules.

So were they not rules in the first place?

Or were they only rules for scientists, not for other messengers of the science? Does Greta Thunberg — by virtue of her youth, her bluntness and her obvious willingness to take public action, including large exemplary sacrifices (sailing across the Atlantic to UNGA) — put herself in the position of “trusted ambassador of science” that many scientists can’t achieve?

My concern is that researchers will see Thunberg’s success and say: Screw listening — let’s go back to declaiming and hectoring and acting as if our findings should be the last word.

Isn’t that partly how we got into this mess over the death of expertise in the first place?

Or has Greta Thunberg changed the rules?

Data point: my wife and I had friends over for dinner the other night, and the unlikeliest of them to say such a thing said “I’m driving to work only one day a week because of Greta.”

Not “Greta Thunberg.” Just “Greta.”