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Could Personality Differences Help Explain the Reality Gap on Climate Change?

(Carl Gustav Jung)

For a long time, I’ve been writing and speaking on the problem of science communication, particularly with respect to the issue of climate change. I also train scientists to communicate, and have worked with hundreds of them so far—so it’s fair to say I’ve noticed some patterns. (Including “death by Powerpoint,” as one critic of Al Gore’s ongoing “Climate Reality Project” rather unfairly puts it.)

Meanwhile, I’m also doing more and more research on the psychological reasons behind why Americans disagree about scientific facts, and other facts—and what to do about that. (See here for a promising solution.) Understanding the root causes of these clashes over what’s true is a very pressing matter right now, especially as Gore tries to convince the public about the climate “reality” that is unfolding. We desperately need to sway people about the “facts,” but what if we’re not going about it the right way? Indeed, what if our deep seated instincts about how to do this are wrong?

So I was almost, in a way, subconsciously waiting and expecting for this study to come out—and the journal Climatic Change has now obliged. In it, C. Susan Weiler of Whitman College and her colleagues study the personalities of some 200 climate researchers, using the Jungian Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and then compare them to the general public. Sure enough, there are some significant differences—differences of the sort that seem likely to help fuel communication problems.

Now, first of all, some caveats. The authors admit there are criticisms of the Myers-Briggs approach, and frankly, I’m surprised that they did not use the “Big Five” or “Five Factor” personality scale, which, in my understanding, is widely accepted in psychology. I’m also puzzled by one of the conclusions the authors reach based on their results–which honestly, I am having a very hard time squaring with what I know of scientists.

But still, there are overlaps between these personality scales, and the new data are suggestive.

So here are the results: Weiler et al find that the scientists in their sample differ significantly from the public on three out of four Myers-Briggs dimensions. Roughly speaking, scientists do not differ from the public on the Intraversion-Extraversion dimension. (I found this mildly surprising.) But they do tend more toward Intuition than Sensing, compared with the public; more towards Thinking than Feeling, compared with the public; and more towards Judging than Perceiving, compared with the public.

The first two differences make sense to me. Intuition is characterized by “focus on theories,” “ask ‘why’ questions,” “look for patterns and possibilities.” Sensing, by contrast, means “focus on experience” and “Prefer practical, plain language to symbols, metaphors, theories, and abstractions.” The authors suggest this may make average Americans less likely than climate scientists to respond to distant threats about climate change (e.g., to polar bears), and much more responsive to what they perceive around them (i.e., weather).

The second dimension also makes sense to me: Thinkers “present information using cause-and-effect reasoning,” are analytical, and “need to know ‘why.’” Yup, those are our scientists. Feelers are “empathetic,” “connect with people,” “use personal situations, stories and examples to communicate.”

To me this particular gap really, really, really makes science communication difficult.

But I have some problems with what Weiler et al infer about the last dimension, Judging versus Perceiving. They write:

Compared to the United States population, Ph.D. climate scientists also exhibited a strong preference for Judging on the final dichotomy (Fig. 1). This suggests that on average, climate change researchers will prefer to reach a decision or come to closure and ‘move on’ to the next step more quickly than the general population. The general population, with a higher proportion of Perceivers, is more likely to see room for doubt, or want to take more time to explore possible alternatives, especially when outcomes are not likely to be positive. When presenting climate change to the general public, it is important for researchers to confirm what information is still unknown and what areas are still being studied. [Ital added] In this regard, Ward (2008) suggested that “scientists should talk with reporters during the research stage, and not simply when their findings are published in a journal. Sometimes the process of research is what can engage an audience.” As others have pointed out, balancing simplified statements of certainty with more complex statements that reflect the full range of uncertainties associated with climate change is an inherent challenge when communicating with the general public [Ital added] (Moser and Dilling 2004), and one that must be addressed.

I am not going to challenge the study’s data (though note my caveats about personality tests), but the extrapolation about what to do about them [in italics] seems very problematic to me. And I think that Al Gore would agree.

In my experience, scientists are vastly more comfortable with uncertainty than average folks, and they communicate far too much of it, rather than too little. (Just go read any IPCC Summary for Policymakers.)

What’s more, if scientists were really high on the “need for closure” then we’d have a lot of trouble getting them to change their minds and consider new evidence. Huh? That’s what the scientific method is all about.

I’m not saying the data are wrong—it may be that I’m describing the learned norms of the scientific community (nurture), rather than the baseline personalities of those who opt to be researchers (nature). However, I will note that with another scientific controversy, the evolution battle, we have evidence suggesting that those who deny evolution, the anti-evolutionists, are high on need for closure, i.e., closed-mindedness. It is they who do not like the uncertainty that they perceive to follow from the scientific account.

Caveats aside, what can we take away from this approach?

My bottom line is that it is promising. I’m sure there are significant personality gaps between the average scientist and the average American (it would be shocking if there were not), and that these do indeed impair communication. So this study was long overdue.

However, there should be more research, and the Five Factor/Big Five test ought to be used too. And we should reserve judgment about the last conclusion above—that scientists need to give the public more uncertainty. Yikes. Isn’t that tantamount to falling into the same “sowing doubt” strategy that Al Gore right now is trying to defeat?

I’m sure Fox News would love it, though.

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