Donald Trump winning the United States presidential election put me into a funk about being a science communicator. It was devastating to think a country — even if it wasn’t a majority of voters — could vote in a leader who was such a blatant climate change denier. In the months that followed his inauguration, as President Trump appointed a climate change sceptic to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and budgeted to cut funding to climate change programmes run by the EPA, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it got more depressing. How could people disregard the overwhelming scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change?

Average global temperatures are increasing, icecaps are melting, sea level is rising and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent — and the main reason is the increase in carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by the fossil fuels we’ve been burning since the start of the industrial revolution. In the 12 years since I started writing about science for the New Zealand Listener, I’ve written more than 30 articles or columns about climate science or attempts to mitigate or respond to climate change. I think it’s one of the most important issues facing our planet and I want people to have access to good information about it. I’ve interviewed physicists, paleoclimatologists, meteorologists, glaciologists and other scientists studying how the climate has changed in the past, what’s happening today and what’s likely to happen in the future. I’ve also interviewed scientists and entrepreneurs working to develop new low-carbon energy sources, carbon capture systems or products that help us reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

But, as a recent article in the New Yorker pointed out, facts don’t change our minds. I have to accept that with most of my science communication efforts I’m merely providing an informative and — I hope — enjoyable read for people who are interested in science and probably share many of my views and values.

As a profession, science communication is still very young — when I started working in this field some 25 years ago, no one used the phrase. And it was only five years ago, when I started working with Rhian Salmon at Victoria University of Wellington, that I discovered science communication and public engagement with science were academic disciplines with their own theory, jargon and scholarly journals. My own engagement with the literature has encouraged me to be more critical and “reflexive” in my science communication practice. One useful thing I learned from the literature, for example, is that providing information about changing social norms (for example, more people are using active transport, most people take energy efficiency into consideration when buying a new appliance, vegetarianism is on the increase) is more likely to effect change than telling people their petrol-burning cars, old appliances and meat eating are adding to carbon emissions.

While my initial response might have been despair at the apparent futility of my discipline, what has happened in the US is much more complex and multifaceted than a failure of science communication. To some degree, I think science communicators need to accept we’re unlikely to change the mind of someone with a strong contrary point of view, whether they’re a climate change denier, an anti-vaxxer or a creationist. People have a tendency to embrace information (and seek out news sources) that support their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them — it’s called confirmation bias.

Where science communicators or people involved more widely in public engagement projects are more likely to make a difference is with open-minded audiences who are genuinely curious and have questions they want answered. In this space, there is some really exciting stuff going on in New Zealand — for example, in the projects funded by the Curious Minds programme, in public engagement projects funded by the National Science Challenges and in art-science collaborations between individual scientists and artists. If you look across these projects, visual artists, storytellers and musicians are increasingly working alongside scientists to engage audiences on science-inflected issues, by engaging with them at an emotional level in a way facts never can. At the same time, scientists and science communicators are trying to better articulate their goals and evaluate their science communication efforts in order to increase their understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Social scientists studying science communication, and the broader field known as public engagement with science, are helping us to learn what is effective and (more frequently) what isn’t.

Science communication plays key roles in encouraging students into STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and increasing general science literacy. But as a citizen deeply concerned about the impact we’re having on our planet, I’m most interested in the role science communication plays in engaging and educating audiences to make informed choices about, for example, how to spend their money, run their households and vote, so we can all live more sustainably. Big changes are needed in New Zealand and internationally if we’re going to meet the Paris Agreement targets. And if my work has made even the tiniest difference to someone so they make decisions based on a better understanding of the issues — whether it encouraged them to vote for a local councillor who championed public transport, purchase carbon offsets for an international flight or buy an electric vehicle — then I’m a little bit happy with that.

We may not be able to change the minds of the climate change deniers, but I hope that if those of us in the wider science communication community can work together more, share our successes and failures, and strive harder to communicate across disciplines— between natural scientists, social scientists, educators, artists, policy-makers and others—we can all get better at what we’re trying to do. But for now I still have more questions than answers. 

Dr Rebecca Priestley is a senior lecturer in the Science in Society Group at Victoria University of Wellington and winner of the 2016 Prime Minister' Science Communication Prize.

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