Talking Science with Non-Scientists in the Anthropocene

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I have been talking with my students about how we talk about science, particularly as non-scientists. After all, whether or not they understood the fine details of climate science, energized students from our campus and area high schools, like many students in your communities, showed up for local Climate Strikes in September, certainly persuaded by scientific claims. In class, we discussed Greta Thunberg’s ethos-shifting claim before Congress: “I don’t want you to listen to me; I want you to listen to the scientists.” Some aspects of climate change are in-our-face evident, such as the fires ravaging California. Other aspects require the non-scientists among us to trust the experts, as in the new analysis of satellite data that has resulted in even more dire calculations of coastal flooding predictions for 2050.


In writing classes that focus on claims, evidence, and persuasion, it is worth lingering with our students on the problem of how and why non-experts (which is to say, most of us) are persuaded, or not, by experts. Since science is on my students’ minds, I am going to recommend a few readings that have sparked helpful discussion in my classrooms about claims, evidence, and persuasion in science writing intended for the general public. I would appreciate hearing your recommendations, too.


In Andrew J. Hoffman’s essay, “The Full Scope,” from his book, How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate (2015), he describes his own uncomfortable experiences holding discussions with climate-change skeptics who sometimes shut down because they anticipate judgment and condescension from scientific experts. Hoffman argues that these conversations would be better served if we stop focusing on the extremes in the debate and instead aim for consensus-building with those in the middle who are at least open to discussion. Rather than assuming that more data will persuade skeptics, Hoffman suggests understanding where skeptics are coming from and listening for the other issues climate change discussions might trigger. Then, we can frame our responses around these concerns, such as health, national security, economic competition, or another issue. This advice might be timely before we all spend time with family members over the winter holidays!


Psychologist Robert Gifford’s essay, “Dragons of Inaction: Psychological Barriers that Limit Climate Change Mitigation and Adaption” (201..., enumerates and explains the many psychological barriers that keep us from changing our behaviors in response to climate science. Like Hoffman, Gifford seeks to help us understand the nature of resistance, from optimism bias to financial investments to social comparison (among the many “dragons” to slay). Recognizing these barriers — and the ways they are often nested — is essential, Gifford argues, for devising responses that address these worries and empower people to see the value in doing the admittedly hard work of behavior-change. 


Journalist Dahr Jamail’s book, The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption (2019), takes a different approach. Jamail’s concern is not analyzing the rhetoric of climate science debates but, rather, modeling the ethos of an effective citizen-learner. In his eloquent chapter, “The Fate of the Forests,” Jamail demonstrates the ways ordinary citizens often bear witness to climate change in our very own front yards but just as often fail to grasp the import of what we are seeing. His accessible interviews with scientists model an interdisciplinary approach to asking questions and framing answers. This entire chapter speaks to Hoffman’s hope for building consensus and Gifford’s reminder that resistance to climate data takes many forms. 


Should the writing classroom be the place to discuss climate change? Given the polarized nature of the public debate, the skills students are learning with your guidance about effective persuasion, and the reminders from our students that they will live with the consequences of these conversations, I am convinced that the answer is yes.

Photo Credit: April Lidinsky

About the Author
April Lidinsky (PhD, Literatures in English, Rutgers) is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Indiana University South Bend. She has published and delivered numerous conference papers on writing pedagogy, women's autobiography, and creative nonfiction, and has contributed to several textbooks on writing. She has served as acting director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame and has won several awards for her teaching and research including the 2015 Indiana University South Bend Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2017 Indiana University South Bend Eldon F. Lundquist Award for excellence in teaching and scholarly achievement, and the All-Indiana University 2017 Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.