Let’s talk about the differences between environmentalists and scientists. They both seek the support of the general public but, at least in theory, their goals are different. For starters, environmentalists know what they want. Scientists don’t. Environmentalists want a specific outcome. Scientists seek only knowledge.

Environmentalists know they want this particular forest or that specific estuary to be protected. Their mission is to communicate with the public in a manner that will prompt people to part with time or money to help “win” the battle to protect nature. Environmentalists are waging a struggle against their opposition, which means there is a competitive element to their mission involving the hope of winning and the fear of losing.

Scientists, on the other hand, are on a quest for knowledge—a quest that in its purest form is so objective there really is no goal. For a true scientist, if chemical A cures cancer, or chemical A does not cure cancer, the result is equally satisfying. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be.

What this means is that “hope” is an important element for the environmental movement—environmentalists need to make sure it remains prominent in their “messaging” to the public. In the same way that “hope springs eternal” for every last-place baseball team, every environmental cause has to retain the element of hope no matter how daunting the opposition.

But in the science world it’s different. Scientists are assumed to be unbiased, looking at the world with a cold, clinical eye, not feeling any emotional connection to the direction of their research. They aren’t supposed to “hope” that a hawk feeds on one species of mouse more than another. They are just supposed to study the natural world and tell us what they see.

As a result, it’s logical that environmentalists would appeal to people with stories of hope—that they would present data that suggest that a rare bird species can be brought back from the brink of extinction if people support efforts to establish a nature preserve. It’s logical for environmentalists to say, “If we do this, there is cause for hope that the species will survive.”

But research scientists are in a different situation. And yet, they too need the public’s support. So how can they achieve this?

The answer is trust. People support institutions they trust. Scientists have a long record of success. They have brought us technology, cured diseases, and improved the standard of living for humanity. Rather than pointing to the future and asking the public to hope for their continued success, scientists can draw on their past record to win public trust.

Medical scientists certainly know this. People visit doctors today not in the blind hope for a cure but rather because of a trust established from decades of accumulating knowledge and eradicating disease.

Right now, the field of climate science is struggling to generate support for predictions of environmental calamity that have not yet been realized. Climate models indicate a dire future, but because the predictions are not 100 percent certain, opponents have an easy time attacking and undermining their credibility. And yet, if climate scientists were to use their past accomplishments to bolster their current claims, there would be less controversy, as it’s more difficult to undermine the credibility of established achievements.

Let’s take a look at one of the greatest climate science accomplishments of the past two decades—understanding the El Niño phenomenon. In 1998, in a questionnaire given to students on the first day of my introductory marine biology course at the University of Southern California, I asked, “What is El Niño?” Out of roughly fifty students, not a single student could answer the question.

Today, I guarantee that just about every student would immediately answer that the phenomenon refers to a year in which the weather gets wacky with massive rainfalls, mud slides, and wildfires. A significant number would be able to add further details about the ocean being exceptionally warm and fishermen catching strange fish from the south, and a few would even be able to tell you it’s caused by ocean currents slowing down. More important are the benefits of this broad knowledge to the state of California—every industry, from fishing to farming to transport, benefits from our understanding of “an El Niño year” and, especially, from the ability to predict its approach nearly a year in advance.

All of that is the result of climate science. Now imagine if a positive public relations campaign were launched, pointing this out to the general public. Think of General Electric’s old ad campaign: “GE: We bring good things to life.” Imagine something similar: “Climate science: We help make sense of your world.”

The elements for building public trust are there. The only thing lacking is the large-scale instincts to take advantage of them—to use past accomplishments to build trust rather than pointing to future threats in a gambit of hope and fear.

In a world of antiscience movements, winning the public’s support for science is more difficult than ever. It is essential that scientists recognize two things: (1) There is no more powerful form of mass communication than the telling of good stories, and (2) support for science will come not from the promise of future solutions but from telling stories about solutions achieved in the past.


Randy Olson

Randy Olson is a scientist turned filmmaker. He has made a series of humorous ocean conservation films, featuring such comic actors as Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, and the world-famous Groundlings...

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