The difficulties of communicating climate change

Professor Melissa Lane of Princeton discusses Aristotle in argument for bridging gap between scientists and citizens in Mudd lecture

Maria Rachal

Communication between climate change scientists and everyday citizens could benefit from an Aristotelian approach, Professor Melissa S. Lane said during W&L’s most recent Mudd Center talk.

Lane’s lecture, entitled “The Democratic Ethics of Communicating Climate Change: Insights from Aristotle,” was held in Northen Auditorium Oct. 8.

Lane is the Class of 1943 Professor of Politics at Princeton University, where she is also an associated faculty member in the classics and philosophy departments. She has conducted research at King’s College, Cambridge, and has written a number of publications in the past few years, such as “The Birth of Politics: Eight Greek and Roman Political Ideas and Why They Matter” and “Eco-Republic: What the Ancients Can Teach Us about Ethics, Virtue, and Sustainable Living.”

Lane’s talk is the second in this year’s “The Ethics of Citizenship” series, sponsored by Washington and Lee’s Roger Mudd Center for Ethics.

Lane described the ethics of climate change communication through a social psychological lens as well as from a philosophical perspective, noting the shortcomings of both approaches.

She said that all climate change scientists face ethical dilemmas when presenting their research to the public. Scientific fields traditionally require hard facts and data as the basis of reasoning, and conventional thought suggests that opinion defiles scientific credibility, Lane said.

But if scientists fail to describe the implications of climate change in real terms or estimate the extent of future problems, the practicality of their research can fall on deaf ears.

If scientists present the impacts of climate change as far off, Lane said, citizens will remain unmotivated. If scientists present the impacts of climate change as immediate threats, then citizens will become paralyzed.

According to Lane, a scientist must consider the ethical code of science as well as his or her ethical responsibility to make their findings accessible and assessable to the public.

Lane said that studies show that citizens often perceive scientists to be “competent but cold,” meaning they trust their research, but do not trust their motives and believe that scientists set agendas or try to guide specific policies.

Lane connected her point of view to Aristotle by discussing the Greek philosopher’s three pillars of communication: logos, ethos and pathos. “Logos” implies logic and proof, “ethos” implies credibility and trust and “pathos” implies values and emotions.

Lane said she believes that communication between scientists and citizens currently encompasses some but not all of these characteristics.

“Being able to communicate with an audience effectively is quite difficult to achieve, but Lane provided deep insight of various possibilities in which it can be attempted,” Muskaan Soni, ‘19, said.

Lane acknowledged that capturing Aristotle’s ideals of logos, ethos and pathos is a very challenging balance to maintain, but that by working through clear models, even the least scientifically-educated citizens can be encouraged to draw conclusions of their own.