How researchers get heard

People Like Us Do Science-Based Stuff Like This

The challenge isn't to give people more and more information. It's to give them just enough information to become one of us.
Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

Years ago my wife and I were having dinner with good friends. Soon after we sat down, one of our friends — brilliant person, an accomplished lawyer who enjoys spirited debate — started grilling me about which trash streams he should be recycling to be a good steward of the planet. (Because I worked for a conservation organization at the time, he clearly thought I had access to the answers.)

It’s complicated, I started to explain, bracing to be made fun of. But his face didn’t break into a mocking smile. Instead, I watched his grimace get tighter and tighter the longer and longer I spoke. I realized: He wasn’t trying to embarrass me. He wanted to do the right thing but didn’t have a lot of time or cognitive bandwidth to make complicated tradeoff decisions. He was one of us — but he was frustrated because I (and the green sector) couldn’t give him a simple, clean way to affirm that identity.

Yes, the world is complicated. But that complication makes it even more vital to clearly communicate what is effective action. The Seth Godin maxim about tribe building applies to science-based movements as well: People like us do stuff like this. Durable identity can be about more than feeling; it can be based in collective, unified, repeatable action that we value because evidence has demonstrated its impact.

I thought about this when friend of the list Dave Lowenstein this morning sent me the New York Times recent four-question climate quiz “Think You’re Making Good Climate Choices? Take This Mini-Quiz.” It’s based on a study that surveyed 965 Americans and Canadians and found only one of the respondents could answer even three of the four questions correctly or accurately compare the carbon tradeoffs between different actions (e.g., “the number of hamburgers that would be equivalent to a trans-Atlantic flight in terms of climate impact”).

Hilariously (to me), I got zero of the four quiz questions “correct” — although “incorrect” was, for instance, saying that the number of hamburgers was 500 instead of 278. (Close enough, I would have thought.)

Dave (who, it must be noted, nailed all four of four) wonders if the survey results “suggest that climate and energy researchers and scientists are not effectively communicating relative threat levels of various human-caused contributors to the problem.”

In the way that the quiz frames them, yes, probably, they are not. They have not communicated the climate impact of running the dryer once versus keeping an LED light bulb on for 300 hours. (Roughly equivalent in climate impact, says the quiz. I said 100 hours.)

In some cases, tradeoffs (such as driving a hybrid car versus a conventional gasoline-powered car) present a natural choice. In others (hamburgers vs. planes), the choice is meant to be educational, but it’s just confounding because it’s framed as a choice. So if I’m not flying to London this year, I can eat that steak?

And in many other cases, we just want the equivalent of dry clothes in under an hour. Just as billions in low-income countries will want more air conditioning when their cities’ wet bulb high temperatures routinely exceed 50C in a couple of years. Denial will continue to be a losing strategy.

The better communications (and environmentalist) strategy: People like us do science-based stuff like this.

The challenge isn’t to give people more and more information so they can make ever more refined tradeoffs. It’s to give them just enough information that people like us trust and follow, because they want to be one of us.

Environmentalism still hasn’t consistently given people a clear road map that says — if you care about the planet, these are the top five or 10 science-based things you should consider doing and their relative impact on climate, biodiversity, etc.

Hundreds of those lists will litter any Google search for “best ways to save the planet” — and none of them are remotely in agreement; many are nakedly promotional for their organizations; and few have data or weighting regarding true impact.

For instance: I challenge you to find one that mentions supporting better health and education for women and girls — which is the second-most effective intervention in terms of CO2 gigatons reduced on The Drawdown Project’s table of solutions for climate change. Green groups have let their marketing take over what should be a clearly science-driven product. As a result, “people like us” do things that make us feel virtuous, instead of being effective.

Also ignored: The most effective individual actions are not necessarily those that make the biggest individual impact, but those that make the biggest collective impression on your family, friends and colleagues. We still have too little science-based guidance about which actions plus which framings can maximize the social influence of our choices.

On everything from reducing food waste to changing what we eat to support planet-healthy agricultural production systems, from making the optimal energy efficiency choices to how much plastic recycling in high-income countries really matters — we need not just tradeoffs, but brutally clear guides to what to do. Effective altruism has done this for choosing effective charities and for young people seeking to choose the most socially impactful careers. It’s multilevel failure that environmentalism still has no equivalent.

People like us do science-based stuff like this. When we know what that stuff is.