Americans are inherently skeptical, and American adults lead the world in science literacy, so those two things combine to show up in debates about climate change and other sciences.  

When you are literate and skeptical it is easy to know just enough to be wrong, when it comes to climate or nuclear energy, vaccines, and agriculture. The difference between the first one and the latter three is the political demographic that is skeptical about them. Politics infects everything.

That is why the each side paints issues they embrace in black and white; you can't be skeptical, you either accept what they accept or you are a denier.

Science does not work that way, though. If I ask a biologist if global warming is happening right now most often they will say so in absolute terms but if I ask a biologist if a weedkiller like atrazine can cause cancer, even though the pathway in plants it acts on does not even exist in humans, they are more likely to have a 2,000 word answer, four 'on the other hand' qualifiers, ending with that they don't believe it causes cancer but nothing is certain. They don't have expert knowledge of climate science and that makes it easier to speak in absolutes even though the science on the weedkiller/cancer issue is actually settled.(1)

An interesting survey in Oregon highlighted this issue; the short version of what they found is that conservatives - well, conservative for Oregon(2) - are more skeptical of climate change but when unpacked their views on the science are right in line with...climate scientists.

This is counter-intuitive, right? Not really. The more you know, the more likely you are to see the bigger picture - and flaws.(3) The more you instead believe, the more likely you are to abdicate your thinking to experts. You will take scientists on faith like religious people do priests. One of the authors grew up in a culture that didn't believe in evolution or climate change, so they are sympathetic to the idea that there are often values issues involved. Coastal liberals aren't going to share the values of the rural midwest, so condescension about evolution when they don't know any more about adaptive radiation than religious farmers and just have faith in science rather than a Bible is not superior thinking.

More liberals see climate science and climate change as, in the words of the authors, "certain and simple."  It is not complex ("bro, do you even science?"), models of today will never need to be reconsidered in the future, and they trust climate scientists absolutely. This is a sharp turn from other areas, where liberals have beatified "lived experience" to such an extent that often no data matters and people can claim expertise despite having none.

The authors then used multivariate regression to try and anticipate what factors 'predicted engagement preferences' - what might and might not work to get more people to accept science, instead of treating science as something culturally subjective. Farmers, for example, can be asked if they have seen consistent changes in weather patterns since they were kids. That is all anecdotal, of course, but the goal is not to get people to call anecdotes science(4), it is to get them to get out of the political bubble and to look at science through a different lens than they get from Fox News or CNN.

So what won't work? If your goal is outreach rather than ridicule, assuming people are stupid is always a spectacular failure. Assuming they are just uninformed is also hit and miss. That is called deficit thinking and is the idea that you have a lack of knowledge and some of my data will fix it. Women laugh (or not) about experiencing this all of the time, in the guise of mansplaining. Standing outside a Whole Foods with a white paper on the safety of all American food won't do any good - they will know right away you are a scientist and think Monsanto bought you off.(5)

While some people are stupid and uninformed, and that will never change, there are what I call 'sincere skeptics' out there. Treating every question or concern as science denial is as ridiculous as liberal people who know vaccines work but who still wear masks because they don't want people to think they're Republicans. Yet corporate science communication often does just that sort of populist theater. They will dunk on anyone concerned about a vaccine when they literally demanded that government government create more regulations that slow down approval of every drug of the last 20 years because Big Pharma and corporate scientists could not be trusted to produce safe products. Journalists repeat every nonsensical 'endocrine disruptor' and 'miracle vegetable improves longevity' and 'bees are dying' claim in press releases from activists in their political tribe while hiding behind the rationale that 'it is news' or they are discussing the supposed controversy.(6)

The conclusions the authors of the paper advocate - tailoring the approach to the demographic you are meeting - may also work for other areas of science denial, like energy or food. Texas embraced alternative energy and ended up with a whole lot of people without power. California routinely suffers brownouts because they regulate utilities heavily while denying power generation that works to exist within the state, like hydroelectric and nuclear and natural gas. Asking if poor people should have affordable, energy available energy the same way the rich do is smarter than calling them Luddites because they think natural gas and nuclear are as bad as coal and solar is ready to power everything now.

For food, maybe asking people if they know anyone poor who has a hard time feeding their family would help. They probably don't, they shop at Whole Foods and that is virtue signaling wealth, liberalism, and anti-science mentalities, but we know that demographic at least aspirationally claims to care about poor people. So if aspiration becomes motivation, maybe they won't donate to the $2 billion in activist groups that are trying to tear down science. 

It isn't a direct victory, but it would still be an important one.


(1) American political conservatives are more likely to be skeptical of climate change, but the difference between that and progressive denials of vaccines, medicine, and natural gas or nuclear energy is in behavior. A liberal who thinks GMOs will give them cancer will only buy food that claims to be made using "organic" toxic pesticides but a conservative who denies climate change will still recycle and conserve energy no differently than liberals.  

(2) It is not as simple as it sounds to identify someone as conservative, versus what they might claim. The survey was 1,049 residents of Oregon, ages 18 to 86, but 43% identified as moderate, which in Oregon will be liberal. Liberals were 30%, which means they were instead Portlandia-type progressives, and 27% were conservatives. We can take the 27% as real since no liberal would identify that way, and only true conservatives would, since you'll likely get pig blood thrown on you if you wear a Reagan t-shirt instead of a Che Guevara one.

(3) How many people think it would be dreamy to hang out with Celebrity X? The ex-spouse and former personal assistant of Celebrity X may disagree.

(4) The IPCC did just that, weirdly, in repeating an offhand claim that the Himalayas might soon be gone. With that, and 'hide the decline', it is fun to imagine what the left would do to GMOs and vaccines and nuclear power if such travesties by scientists occurred.

(5) Organic food activists and their trade groups like US Right To Know insist Monsanto is in a Vast Science Conspiracy and controls everything, including 150,000 biologists, and yet Exxon alone has 20X of the revenue of what Monsanto had and somehow could not buy off 10,000 climate scientists? The activism movement requires suspension of disbelief that way. Conspiracy theories and hatred of science are why the organic movement is also dominated by vaccine deniers.

(6) When I give talks on science communication, I tell scientists to answer questions like they are sitting at a bar. Not like they are Spock in a Star Trek episode. I encourage them to assume a lack of vocabulary about science, not a lack of intelligence. That is how we can be trusted guides for the public. Journalists like Chris Cuomo, who hawks alternative medicine for COVID-19 while advising his brother on how to Gaslight the women the Governor of New York has harassed, can make vaccine hesitancy or denial about being Republican, but all of those things are why he got famous. Most scientists are doing outreach on their own time, and they want to be heard. If you can reach four people rather than two, that is the way to go. If you just want to high-five other Democrats and talk about how you are the Party of Science, you haven't read this far anyway.