“What We Know” Climate Report From Leading Science Organization Seeks to Persuade Citizens. #FAIL.

By Tom Yulsman | March 18, 2014 6:05 pm

AAAS What We Know global warming

The “What We Know” report about climate change issued today by the august American Association for the Advancement of Science is intended to persuade ordinary people that our climate really is changing, we’re largely responsible, and we need to do something about it. Soon.

The report features clear, straight-forward language without overly complex and opaque scientific jargon.

And as the black non-image at the top of this ImaGeo post symbolizes, there is another thing that the report lacks as well: imagery.

In fact, there is not a single image in the report — not one visualization to help us understand what’s happening to our world, not a single photograph to dramatize the impact of climate change on people, not even one little graphic to show a trend in, oh, I don’t know, temperature maybe.

Okay, I exaggerate just a little. The title page does have one ambiguous photograph of someone using a surveying instrument on some ice sheet somewhere, for what reason God only knows.

And true, the “What We Know” web site includes, in addition to the report, a number of videos. One is actually mildly entertaining and effective. It features a mountain biker racing down a trail to symbolize the perilous path ahead and the need to slow down. (Our carbon emissions, of course.)

But the rest consist of talking heads (scientists telling us what they know) intercut with what broadcast journalists call “B-roll” — time lapse video of cars, smoke pouring out of stacks, a little snippet of water pouring into the New York City subway system during Hurricane Sandy —  you get the idea.

So here’s some unsolicited advice to the creators of “What We Know” from someone who thinks visual communication is actually an incredibly powerful way to communicate complex information and also connect with the heart as well as the mind: Cliché B-roll can’t change the fact that a talking head is still a talking head. Nor will people necessarily listen, let alone understand or care, simply because those talking heads happen to be scientists.

I’ve never written a post like this here at ImaGeo. I felt compelled to do it because I’m simply dumbfounded that one of the leading scientific organizations in the world decided to launch a public persuasion campaign that lacks one of the most important ways that humans beings can be persuaded: through visual communication.

Is the AAAS not aware that imagery can convey emotion far more powerfully than the written or spoken word, no matter how clear, concise, and free of jargon those words may be? Do they not know that visuals provide an incredible capacity to tell compelling, persuasive stories? Can it possibly be that they haven’t heard about the synergy made possible by the use of words and images together?

And did they not bother to read the literature on visual communication and persuasion?

To offer just one example: “Visual Persuasion,” which appeared in the journal Communication Research Trends in 1999. Here’s a relevant snippet:

…visual images in persuasive messages reduce the information processing burden, make a message more attention-getting, and reinforce message arguments. Also, it is believed that visual images have the superiority in memory over words.

If any of the people responsible for the “What We Know” report read this post, I have a suggestion for you: Try “Google.” It can be really helpful. With the search terms “visual communication and persuasion” you’ll find a lot of helpful tips there for your next campaign.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al
    • zlop

      Jet Streams move closer to the Equator during
      Winter and Ice Ages.

  • gerry

    I examined the droppings of micro fleas and based on the modeling from
    that study, i can conclude that global warming will increase in degree
    the colder the temperatures get. So when the temperatures hover around
    -30 for several days, that means that global warming is really occurring
    and to stop it we have to spend trillions of taxpayer dollars to stop
    it. I propose blast furnaces for the arctic and the antarctic in order
    to get those cold temperatures down. Also all humans must cease making
    and using ice cubes which according to my settled science model, is very
    harmful to the environment.

  • Buddy199

    http://fwrhn487tjy48uvw13uigsy9ht.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Chart.jpg

    This is probably the most compelling image regarding climate change that I’ve ever come across. It illustrates how our fundamental scientific assumptions really need to be reconsidered in order to reconcile projections with real world data.

  • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

    Tom, I would love to see a post from you of “The 10 most persuasive climate change images” whether that means photos that you find illustrative of the trend, human impact photos, or charts/graphs.

    • Buddy199

      Me too.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Wow. That is a terrific idea and cool challenge! I’ll take it on. But it will take me awhile. In part because I have a day job other than ImaGeo. But I’ll do it. Stay tuned.

    • Joe Witte

      That would be Max Boykoff:
      2.) Saffron J. O’Neill , Maxwell Boykoff , Simon Niemeyer , Sophie A. Day (2012). On the use of imagery for climate change engagement. Global Environmental Change.

      on salience and efficacy for affective imagery:

      “1. salience (‘this image makes me feel climate change is important’).”
      “2. efficacy (‘this image makes me feel I can do something about climate change’).”

      “We found that imagery of climate impacts promotes feelings of salience, but undermines self-efficacy, and
      that imagery of energy futures imagery promotes self-efficacy.”

      “Communications strategies should assess the purpose of their messages, considering these findings regarding salience
      and efficacy in this study, and choose to employ images accordingly.”

      “3.1. Which imagery is salient?
      “…the flood aerial view photograph consistently ranked as the image making climate change seem most important (Table 1). Common reasoning for highly ranking was that the immediate impact of climate change was obvious, personal, and threatening.” See article’s supplemental or ‘image list’ for other salient images.

      3.2. Which imagery promotes self-efficacy?

      “A group of images depicting energy futures are most efficacious.”
      “The solar panels, wind farm, electric car, home insulation, traffic jam and fuel pump images were often grouped together by participants as (often highly) efficacious images. Participants reasoned that these images provided examples of how they could personally undertake (or were already undertaking) meaningful mitigative actions through their energy choices.

  • John Zulauf

    Good communication does require the full gamut of tools, and imagery can trigger compelling, emotional connections… and that’s my problem with it. Fundamentally, it is subconscious manipulation. As a culture we have been slickly marketed to our whole lives, and I wonder if we even know how to separate the manipulation from the objective realities. The issues crosses all political boundaries. Narratives are created with compelling visual images and memetic icons from Willie Horton to Polar Bears. Those that have the budget or editorial power to construct and promote a specific view of reality.

    I don’t have a problem with compelling imagery. I just fear that as a culture we don’t seem to have the tools or inclination to process independently from those who create the narratives. I worry that I hear too much “harrumph” and not enough “shenanigans”.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Richard Rozanski

    I agree with Tom’s proposition. But I couldn’t help laughing when I checked out the paper that he referenced on Visual Communication. You guessed it: not a single visual image of any kind.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com William Masters

    I find it funny, “we” are causing the warming they say, scientists supposedly. Yet the earth started warming 45,000 years ago at the height of the last Ice Age. We caused that to happen eh? And the famous Hockey Stick chart showing this, great increase in waming on earth. It starts the count in 1850, three years before the end of the Little Ice Age (1350 – 1853). And let me not forget to mention the last 60 years of the Little Ice Age are known as the “Mauder Minimum”, a period in which the human race saw the coldest temperatures ever recorded by man. According to New York and London newspapers at the time, the Thames river and the East River in New York froze completely solid.
    When we extend the Hockey stick modle back to include the Medieval Warming Period (850 – 1250), and the Little Ice Age, then there is no warming at all.

  • Joe Witte

    Tom, here’s one place to start:

    Saffron J. O’Neill , Maxwell Boykoff , Simon Niemeyer , Sophie A. Day (2012). On the use of imagery for climate change engagement. Global Environmental Change.

    Affective salient and efficacious imagery: perhaps two images are required?

    on salience and efficacy for affective imagery:

    “1. salience (‘this image makes me feel climate change is important’).”

    “2. efficacy (‘this image makes me feel I can do something about climate change’).”

    “We found that imagery of climate impacts promotes feelings of salience, but undermines self-efficacy, and

    that imagery of energy futures imagery promotes self-efficacy.”

    “Communications strategies should assess the purpose of their messages, considering these findings regarding salience

    and efficacy in this study, and choose to employ images accordingly.”

    “3.1. Which imagery is salient?

    “…the flood aerial view photograph consistently ranked as the image making climate change seem most important (Table 1). Common reasoning for highly ranking was that the immediate impact of climate change was obvious, personal, and threatening.” See article or ‘image list’ for other salient images.

    3.2. Which imagery promotes self-efficacy?

    “A group of images depicting energy futures are most efficacious.”

    “The solar panels, wind farm, electric car, home insulation, traffic jam and fuel pump images were often grouped together by participants as (often highly) efficacious images. Participants reasoned that these images provided examples of how they could personally undertake (or were already undertaking) meaningful mitigative actions through their energy choices.
    (3). Leiserowitz and others:

    “… (Americans) risk perceptions of climate change: it is considered a distant threat, of limited

    personal importance.

    “Affect, the positive or negative evaluation of an object, idea, or mental image, has been shown to

    powerfully influence individual processing of information and decision-making.”

    That’s: Saffron J. O’Neill , Maxwell Boykoff , Simon Niemeyer , Sophie A. Day (2012). On the use of imagery for climate change engagement. Global Environmental Change.

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ImaGeo

ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.

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