How researchers get heard

Is Your Information Valuable to Me?

What makes information valuable? As producers and consumers of the stuff, we should have a precise answer to this question. Too often we don’t.

Yusuke Kuwayama of Resources for the Future (RFF) just published a little gem of an essay called “Value of Science 105: Three Principles of the Value of Information.” (It’s part of a framework on the RFF site researchers can use to quantify the socioeconomic benefits of their work.) To be valuable, Kuwayama writes, new information must do two things:

  1. Lead to a meaningful reduction in uncertainty; and
  2. Feed into an actionable decision in a high-stakes situation.

Kuwayama offers the example of an expensive asteroid prediction system — one that provides highly accurate information about a high-stakes situation. But the information only valuable if it can feed into a decision, such as “which asteroid impact avoidance measure do we deploy?” If we don’t have such measures, or a MacGyver around to jerry-rig one, the information might be many things, but it isn’t valuable.

After reading Kuwayama’s essay, I realized what I dislike about so much climate science communication: It’s disempowering rather than empowering. The situation is very high-stakes, but the information rarely leads to a meaningful reduction in uncertainty or helps inform an actionable decision for the audience.

For instance, ”heat waves kill more Americans than hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes put together.” Interesting? Certainly. Frightening? A bit, especially if you live in a heat island and don’t have air conditioning. But for whom is that information valuable? An emergency manager or a utility planner. Not the general public, unless we’re predicting the rise of mass disaster activism.

Every heat wave elicits the same complaints from climate change scholars and scientists: The media isn’t putting climate change front and center in its coverage. Now, they’re certainly correct, at least when we stop reading The Atlantic and start watching what normal people watch. For instance, less than 4% of local news stories in Colorado last week on the heat wave there mentioned climate change. Media Matters reported that broadcast TV news linked the heat wave in the US West to climate change in 27% of segments — which turned out to be a huge improvement over previous years. (H/T: Samantha Montano’s Disasterology newsletter.)

But what kind of information about the climate change-heat wave connection would be valuable for people to have? And is the media equipped to give it to them?

This James Temple article for MIT Technology Review on how electricity grids in the US Pacific Northwest have been built for the climate of the past rather than the future might be a model. It lists the changes utilities need to make to energy distribution as well as generation and storage systems to meet the needs of a growing population in an altered climate. Again, though, the action list is for utilities, not you and I — unless we become community advocates for utility reform. (We can always dream.)

What’s so odd about the call for more coverage of climate change during heat waves is that research has repeatedly failed to demonstrate strong linkages between a) weather itself and media coverage of weather and b) shifts in people’s attitudes toward climate change:

  • Marlon et al. (2021) found that increases in hot dry day exposure was the only kind of weather experience that had even a modest influence on people’s perceived experience of climate change.
  • In a survey aggregation of more than 400,000 surveys in 170 polls taken from 1999 to 2017, Berquist and Warshaw (2019) found that “climate concern is modestly responsive to changes in state-level temperatures…but a warming climate, on its own, is unlikely to yield a consensus in the mass public about the threat posed by climate change.”
  • Carmichael and Brulle (2017) found that, in 74 surveys taken between 2001-13, the most important factors affecting US public concern about the threat of climate change were cues from elites, movement advocacy efforts, weather and structural economic factors, with political mobilization by elites and advocacy groups critical and media coverage “largely a function of elite cues and economic factors,” the authors write. (Carmichael and Brulle added bluntly that “promulgation to the public of scientific information on climate change has no effect.” Ouch.)

Given the above, we shouldn’t be surprised that belief in the reality of climate change (around 70%), that it is human-caused (around 60%) and climate views in the United States in 2008 and 2020 are virtually identical, according to surveys held by the Yale Program on Climate Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. The significant deviation is by party affiliation, where Democrat belief that climate change is human-caused has risen around 10 percentage points while Republican belief in the same has fallen slightly and political independent belief has fallen 10 percentage points. Essentially, if you trust Yale’s polling, attitudes have gotten slightly more polarized around climate change, but not dramatically so. They’re basically where they were 13 years ago.

Takeaway: I’m not arguing for climate change science not to be covered or communicated. I’m arguing that it — and research in general — be covered and communicated in ways that remove uncertainty and empower, not paralyze. That we frame and aim our information for those who can actually use it to make a decision in a high-stakes context. And that this phase of “creating value” in information is one conventional research communications leaves untouched far too often.