The Last Experiment

Feature / by David Zax /

It’s up to social science to make us act in an environmentally conscious way. But can we trick ourselves into saving ourselves?

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But is this too little, too late? Baruch Fischhoff, for one, is discouraged. Fischhoff, a decision scientist at Carnegie Mellon, plays something of the brooding cousin to the likes of Thaler, Weber, Ho, and Leiserowitz — who calls Fischhoff “one of the true pioneers in risk perception and decision making.” His is a discouragement born of a long era in the wilderness: After all, Fischhoff was one of the first to perceive social science’s potential role in combating global warming. He co-wrote a paper about it in 1983.

“I’ve been saying this for 30 years,” says Fischhoff. “I’ve struck out.”

Fischhoff admits that some good work is being done though. The folks at CRED are at the top of their professions, he says, and there are other scattered departments and groups whose names —  Michigan’s “Environmental Psychology Lab,” Arizona’s “Decision Center for a Desert City” — hint at the modest fruits born of their social/environmental scientific collaboration. But these contributions, while increasingly strong, have been long in coming, and are not commensurate with the problem, says Fischhoff. Worse still, vital resources have been wasted, he says, “on a debate over whether climate change is happening and how bad it is. Basically, that battle was won 15 years ago,” but hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on it nonetheless.

Ironically, the very problems these social scientists are identifying plague the scientific and policy communities themselves. That includes poor communication. Economists and psychologists “don’t talk as much as we should,” Ho confesses, when first hearing of Leiserowitz’s research. And Leiserowitz, for his part, says that the socialscience community has put together “nothing as sophisticated or coordinated as what the natural scientists have done.” Natural scientists have the IPCC, but the social scientists occasionally have conferences Leiserowitz calls “one-off, singleafternoon kind of things.”

And there’s a second thing social scientists might learn from their own research: how to market themselves to a particularly stubborn audience. Social science may be able to save the world from climate change, but only if there’s a change of heart — not just among the public, but among natural scientists and engineers. “I see more social scientists interested in public-policy issues and a growing awareness by natural scientists that it cannot be improvised.” But, Fischhoff says of natural scientists, “many of them do not believe in the social sciences. They grudgingly see that people matter, but they are not willing to share power with social sciences, or to entertain the thought that their own message is not the right one and that you need to include the social scientists in a strategic way.” (Thomas Dietz, one of those social scientists, says it is his impression that “holdouts” among the natural scientists of the sort Fischhoff identifies are “increasingly rare and anachronistic.”)

“One needs social science at the absolute center of the strategic decisions being made in this area. It has to be on an equal footing with the natural sciences, with engineering, with economic analyses,” Fischhoff argues. “If it’s at the end, then it’s too late to shape the policies in ways that will have any meaningful impact.” To fix this, Fischhoff envisions an NIH-like social-science corps, a “substantial institution that would provide social-sciences resources for people willing to take these issues seriously.” If legitimate and properly funded, it could finally attract more top scientists, the kind of people who are “more concerned with making this work than publishing another limited disciplinary paper,” as he puts it.

Though it’s too early to tell, the sleeping giant of government funding may be stirring. Social scientists increasingly play a role in projects funded by NOAA, and a major forthcoming National Academies study called “America’s Climate Choices” will be led, in part, by social scientists. A recent report from the National Research Council observed that the US Climate Change Science Program “is hindered by its limited research into the social sciences,” as a press release mildly put it, “…and the separation of natural and social sciences research.” Social science spending has never risen above 3 percent of the program’s budget.

The international scene is no cheerier. Roland Scholz, for instance, at the Institute for Environmental Decisions in Zurich, says that “social sciences are not seen as an important contributor” to solutions in Switzerland, a situation they sometimes invite, since so many social scientists are “overly theory oriented and avoid coping with real-world problems.” He counts Fischhoff and Weber among “the few exceptions” to this rule.

Lorraine Whitmarsh, a social scientist with the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, says that the situation is not much different in England. Granted, she says, natural science may be more expensive to conduct than social science in general, but the wild funding disparity also seems symptomatic of a greater public faith in the natural sciences, which generate “techno-fixes as solutions,” she says. The Tyndall Centre, which has received considerable government funding, is something of an exception — fully half its researchers, Whitmarsh estimates, are social scientists. But Whitmarsh says that a recent committee assembled to advise the government on climate-change legislation has no sociologists or psychologists. A sort of British Leiserowitz, Whitmarsh focuses on social psychology and has demonstrated that the British public suffers from many of the same points of confusion as its American counterpart.

Nicholas Pidgeon, a professor of psychology at Cardiff University in Wales, finds patchy support for social climate science as well, though institutions such as the Economic and Social Research Council and the London School of Economics do provide support. But it is not enough, he says, particularly regarding efforts to change behavior. At the recent UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, Pidgeon says, the physical scientists acknowledged that social science is needed for mitigation and adaptation, but such thinking is still not mainstream.

Lack of money and respect are not the only things hampering social science as it seeks to save the world. Fischhoff also assigns blame to the field itself: Too much of the psychological literature has cast the public in the role of the fool, he says, and the “public is not given credibility for its inherent competence.” He confesses to having contributed, at times, to this sort of literature himself. “Biases are intriguing; they make great stories,” he says. “But people generally do reasonable things if they’re given half the chance.”

One of Leiserowitz’s central findings confirms some of the “inherent competence” of the public that Fischhoff sees. For all the public’s shortcuts and biases, for all its psychological barriers to action, and for all its points of confusion, one fact remains: Most Americans are, in fact, worried about climate change. “A very large majority of the American public thinks global warming is happening, that it’s a serious problem, and they want somebody to do something about it,” says Leiserowitz. “They just don’t know what that something is.” If natural scientists know what we should be doing, only social scientists can determine how we’ll get it done.

Originally published April 22, 2009

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Tags climate governance policy social science

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