Occasionally through the history of environmental activism the scientific community has shown a clear understanding of human nature. In the late 1980s, environmentalists brilliantly grasped the power of profit incentives to create the cap-and-trade solution to solve the problem of acid rain in the northeastern United States. Within a decade of passage of the 1990 US Clean Air Act — which was built around the cap-and-trade approach — the looming crisis of acid rain had been averted. It was a powerful example of scientists finding a smart way to accommodate the shorter time horizons of human nature to achieve a long-term environmental goal.

But at other times, environmentalists have proven to have a tin ear for the public mood. A decade after the success on acid rain, climate-change activists tried to push a solution to global warming through a similar cap-and-trade mechanism, assuming the public would accept it on little more than faith because it had worked the last time. A master strategy document commissioned by the largest US philanthropic foundations in 2007, titled “Design to Win,” was drafted as a blueprint for pushing cap-and-trade on carbon emissions. But as science communications analyst Matt Nisbet pointed out, when it came to put this 50-page plan into action with a potentially reluctant public, “communication, media and public perceptions earned two sentences.”

The result was a train wreck that cost the US environmental movement hundreds of millions of dollars and accomplished virtually nothing. As of the moment, there are no climate-related bills either passed into law or in the works. “Design to Win” represented a monumental failure to grasp the need to deal with human nature. “Just the facts” might work as an operating philosophy in the science world. But the public mind is governed by a more mysterious algorithm, in which facts are only part of the equation. That cap-and-trade had worked before was not the point. Public support still had to be won over, a challenge that often demands more than just facts.

I began delivering this message to the science community in 2009 with my book Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. In it, I urged scientists to be more than mere empirical robots, regurgitating data and dry information in their communications with the public. My message included a chapter called “Don’t Be So Unlikeable,” which suggested that emotion and humour are necessary “human elements” that must be heard along with the science if a message is to take hold.

Terreweb Student Video, Species Extinction: The Domino Effect

It turned out that many scientists really don’t like to hear that. Some scientists wrote me hate e-mails, badgered me on National Public Radio appearances and even lobbied to have a major scientific institution un-invite me to a speaking engagement.

Thankfully, I got a little peace after a Nobel laureate took the mantle from me last spring and, using his stature, gave the problem of scientific communication a higher profile. At a conference organized by the National Academy of Sciences titled “The Science of Science Communication,” the keynote speaker was Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel prize in economics. Kahneman is the author of the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is, in part, about this fundamental divide between heavily technical people and the less analytical general public.

Kahneman gave a good talk, and near the end he hit the science community rather bluntly with this message of the need to be more human: “Because of emotional coherence, the source of the message is extremely important,” he told the scientists. “The source has to be liked, and the source has to be trusted, and if the scientific establishment is not trusted, then the amount of evidence really is going to have very little purchase on what is going to happen.”

Likeability and trust. These are human characteristics. If humans are to be open to receiving a scientific message, the messenger has to be liked and trusted. Scientists who stick to “just the facts” are forgetting this crucial element of the message.

Take the philanthropic foundations’ attempt to push an agenda on climate change. They made no attempt to build trust with the public. For all their resources, they spent nothing on a public relations campaign to explain what “cap-and-trade” meant, or why it should be trusted as a viable and effective way to reduce carbon emissions. There was no mass campaign to even convey the “it worked before, it can work again” line.

What should have happened was a large-scale public relations campaign, on the level of a presidential election, to convince the public to support the cap-and-trade idea. Environmentalists and presidential candidates have the same need to win over public opinion for their policies, but only presidential candidates seem to be aware of the need to build trust and likeability through communication efforts. Look at all the polling that candidates do to measure those two traits.

So how can scientists build trust and likeability? The most time-tested and powerful way known to humans is simply through the telling of well-crafted stories.

Stories are powerful and can be persuasive, which is why presidential campaigns draw so heavily on narrative form.

Of the hundreds of television commercials produced by Democrats and Republicans in the last election, there was one that turned out to have more effect than any other. It was a simple spot, which told a simple story. It featured an Indiana factory worker who recounted how one day, the workers were ordered to build a 30-foot stage to host a big speech — without being told what it was for. Three days later, three men showed up from Mitt Romney’s firm of Bain Capital to inform the workers their company had been taken over and they were all fired.

The story, paid for by a pro-Obama Political Action Committee, was told by Mike Earnest, the fired factory worker who described his feelings of devastation. “Turns out that when we built that stage it was like building my own coffin, and it just made me sick,” Earnest said simply. A compelling story, told in a straightforward, trusted way that resonated with working-class people. It soared on YouTube, and polls showed that in parts of the borderline states where the commercial aired, the level of distrust of Mitt Romney was seven points higher than in areas where it didn’t run. That is how powerful storytelling continues to be.

How to tell effective and compelling stories is what we work on in the storytelling and video-making workshops I conduct with science graduate students. Video is a language that, thanks to new technology, everyone is now learning to speak. The starting point for speaking the language of video is simply to assemble clips. But there is a further, stronger use, which is to tell stories through video.

Scientists need to meet their communication challenge. They need to reach beyond just their own community and the relatively few people who speak their language and jargon, in order to touch the wider public in ways that make them care. Science cannot afford to be smug, or assume that their research and findings will speak for themselves. The time has come to tell their stories, and the first step is to realize that they have no choice but to do so.

Photo: Shutterstock by garetsworkshop

Randy Olson is a scientist turned filmmaker. He is the writer-director of the feature films Flock of Dodos: Talking Science in an Age of Style (Tribeca ‘06, Showtime ‘07) and Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy (Outfest ‘08), and he is the author of Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. He was a tenured professor of marine biology at the University of New Hampshire.

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