Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Climate science communication: trust begets trust

With more than 50.000 students, the University of Florence, in Italy, is a huge organization with plenty of problems. But it is also an ancient and prestigious university that, sometimes, manages to do something right. Recently, it organized an information day on climate change for its employees that was remarkably successful, showing that trust begets trust. 

Why are we failing at communicating the danger of climate change? Maybe people don't have enough information? (This is the "information deficit" model). Or maybe they have too much information? (This is called the "cultural cognition" model). Or maybe they are not getting the right information? Or there is something else that's wrong?

Without going into the details of the debate, let me tell you of an event that was an eye-opening experience for me. It made me understand that there is such a thing as an "information deficit" problem, but also that things are not as simple as that. I think that more than an information deficit, there is a "trust deficit" that blocks communication. It is not enough to tell people how things stand: we need to generate trust. And trust begets trust. But let me tell you the story.

This year, the University of Florence decided to offer to its personnel - the employees working in the administration or in services -  three "information days" on matters related to sustainability. One of these information days was dedicated to climate change and was held on Nov 9th, 2016. I was one of the organizers, so I followed the event from the beginning. 

The first point is that this was supposed to be a class; not a vacation day: there would be several talks for a total of about eight hours and we planned them as real, university-level lessons. We had climate modeling, paleoclimatology, climate negotiations, communication, mitigation, adaptation, and more. It was communication directed to non-scientists, but the speakers were all specialists in their fields and they made no attempt of sweetening the pill or of trivializing the subject.

To be honest, I wasn't sure that it would have worked. I was afraid that people would take the initiative as an excuse for a day of vacation; that they wouldn't show up, or show up and disappear shortly afterward. Or, if they were to stay, they would be bored to death and sleep throughout the day. I was even expecting that some idiot in the audience would stand up and say something like "don't you see how cold it is today? Climate change is a hoax!"

But nothing like that happened. With a certain surprise on my part, the aula magna of the University of Florence was crammed full with some two hundred people, mostly university employees, but also students and faculty members. Most of them bravely sat through the 8 hours of talks, a remarkable feat (at some moments, some of them had to stand because there were not enough seats available). And not only they sat in the room; they listened to the talks. After much experience with public talks and lessons, I can sense whether the audience is attentive or not, and they were. They were not sleeping. Actually, I detected some closed eyes, occasionally, - it is normal. But, on the whole, I would say that they were more attentive than many of my students.

We made no attempt of a formal evaluation of the results of this initiative, but I think I have sufficient informal feedback to be able to tell you that the message got through. Many people were not just interested, they were amazed. They had no idea that climate science was such a deep, wide, and fascinating field. They had never realized the extent of the threat we are facing.

For me, as I said, it was an eye-opening experience that made me re-evaluate everything I knew about scientific communication. It made me understand how remote climate science is for the people who, really, suffer from an information deficit problem. Most people who are not scientists get their information from the mainstream media (MSM) and there are two problems with that: one is that they only get snippets and glimpses, drowned in the general noise of the news. The other, perhaps more important, is that they correctly mistrust the MSM. Yet, where else can they get information from? It is truly a deadly combination: bad information from a mistrusted source: any wonder that nobody is doing anything about climate change?

And here comes the university; an institution full of problems but that's supposed to exist in order to create science and culture, not to make money. Because of this, it enjoys a certain prestige and, this time, it used it to do something right. It told to its employees, "we value you, so we offer to you our knowledge about climate science for free. We trust that you will appreciate it." And the employees responded by reciprocating the trust and appreciating this gift. Trust begets trust.

I think this experience has a general value. It agrees with a fact that is described, for instance, by Ara Norenzayan in his book "Big Gods". Simply stated, people will believe a message if (and only if) they believe the messenger. So, no wonder that people are not much moved by the messages on climate change that they receive by the MSM - not only they are receiving a garbled message, they don't believe the messenger. But when they receive the message from a trusted institution and from people who, clearly, are doing their best to inform them, then they understand. It is not a question of volume, not a question of sweetening the pill, not a question of public relation strategies. It is a question of trust.

And here lies the problem: we have squandered so much of the trust that the public had in its sources of information that we live squarely in an "Empire of Lies". Will we ever be able to restore trust? Perhaps not impossible, but very, very difficult. Still, what the University of Florence did was a step in the right direction. Maybe it can be replicated and then, who knows?

I would like to thank all those who participated in this information day as speakers or organizers, in alphabetic order. 

Adele Bertini
Marco Bindi
Francesca Bigi
Federico Brocchieri
Stefano Caserini
Gianfranco Cellai
Sara Falsini
Alessandro Galli
Giovanni Pratesi
Luca Toschi 


  1. Congratulations, to achieve the outcome you describe took some great organization. I make another simple observation- society is highly stratified- those working in intellectual fields are so very far ahead in comprehending, based on such a large foundational knowledge and sophistication in dealing with their subject, it seems to me this would be very difficult to replicate with a`lay' audience.

  2. Heartening Ugo!
    I am inclined to distrust crybaby's reasoning. I remember your discussions with Roma friends. These shrewd people tend to know whom to trust.


  3. An advantage of such an event could also be that people get a sense of the depth of climate research. In the media they only show the tip of the iceberg and do not tell about the thousands of studies this one they report on builds on.

    Even in climate friendly Germany, when people hear I am a climatologist they so often ask me whether it is real. Not like a climate "sceptic" would, but grateful to get a first hand account. It gives the impression they trust some random guy claiming to be climate scientist more than the press. That is quite sad and unfortunately also warranted if you see how much nonsense is spread by the mass media. Although in Germany the main story line is normally okay, only some details are nearly always wrong.

  4. Ugo,

    Thanks for the blog on trust in communication.

    I am not sure I know who was listening
    or who was speaking,
    what was said, and
    how much each person was moved
    in their beliefs/knowledge
    and motivation to address a problem.

    I don’t know what actions were advocated or
    how these actions were connected
    to a change in conditions now or in the future

    I agree trust plays a major role. However,
    I would like you to consider several more trust issues
    in getting people to understand and attend to
    a complex problem like climate change
    which is only a small part in
    Unwinding the Human Predicament

    We both agree that
    the temporal and abstract aspects
    greatly increase our challenges in this task.
    So let me throw three ideas into your discussion.

    1) Trust in experts is weak

    When two experts report opposite content on an issue
    the listener has no more ability to tell which expert is correct
    than he has of telling which of two watches
    he is wearing, they read different times times,
    is correct.

    2) Trust in peers can be strong.

    Two grandmothers are discussing a ballot issue across
    a fence. One is going to vote for it
    and the other against it.
    Each is trying to convince the other that
    their vote improves their well being,
    which they both measure the same way.

    Trust in this case is based on overlap of commonly held
    knowledge and beliefs that exist outside of
    the discussion topic.

    3) Trust in personal calculations is very strong

    Assume you live in a world where 2+2 equals 5.
    That is in a fifth grade class the teacher has told you
    that 2+2 = 5 and if the question comes up on a
    test at the end of the week, if you answered 5 you get it right.

    The knowledge is not numeric it is like
    bipbidy bobpidy boo
    In the test if you are asked what follows
    "bipbidy bobpidy" your correct answer is “boo."

    Now out in the play ground there is a discussion
    and in the discussion
    four 1’s added to gather is 4
    two 1’s plus two 1” is four.

    The student who does his own math cannot go back to
    believing that 2+2 = 5.

    This is why I suggest that to hold a new belief
    a person must do their own math.
    The math conclusion is not easily
    reversed because it is grounded in
    the person’s mathematical framework.

  5. Going from a trusting child to a disillusioned old man, trust will be as hard to rebuild as global warming will be to fix. Just the high volume of cultural noise makes thinking difficult. It is good to hear people's reactions to your message. I would like to think substance trumps hyperbole, except we did just elect Trump.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)