More persuasive than stats?

Picking up on the theme of the last post, I want to come back to the question of what changes peoples’ minds? In 12th November 2021 edition of the “Oh God What Now?” podcast, there was a particularly interesting interview with the Climate Scientist, Peter Stott. Stott was asked by one of the panellists, how do you persuade people to take climate change seriously?

Stott explained that whilst data was at the core of his method, he’s never found to be particularly persuasive. Earlier in his career, the scientific community thought that the data by itself would persuade the politicians and decision makers: just explaining more clearly the impending damage would make people understand and act. Frustratingly, they were often disappointed.

The general approach was to present to policy makers with facts and figures, then explore the implications for individuals, classic big picture to detail. Now he starts with the opposite approach – a relatable story about individuals, families and communities such as the floods in Central Europe or Canadian heatwave and then moves to tying this to the big picture.

Relatable story-telling is much stronger for influencing change.

Hot Air – the inside story of the battle against climate change denial, Peter Stott, 2021

This feels a far more persuasive approach. As a species, we can be brutally indifferent to people living a long way from our shores and generations not yet born. I’d argue that scientists need to hit those emotional beats just as much as politicians canvassing for votes.

I’ve previously written about the some of the tensions between scientific adviser and politician: where are the boundaries of prediction? What happens to your credibility if your best scientific prediction is wrong? We may have issues in academia that we are very good at analysis and understanding, but not so good at instigating change.

But there’s another issue that strikes me. Starting with a human interest story and connecting it to a large phenomenon is how conspiracy theories work. Sympathetic victims > simple explanations > some massive force. There’s a huge pressure on scientists to be rigorous as hell when they join the dots. As Stott says, his work has to be based on evidence, not supposition. There has to be a credible connection linking the story, the big picture and, equally important, the story teller.


And because I may as well get the big guns in to make my case. Here’s part of Angela Merkel’s leaving address “Our democracy thrives on the ability for critical discourse and self correction. It thrives on the constant discourse of interests. It thrives on solidarity and trust and trust in facts. Where scientific facts are denied, conspiracy theories and smear campaigns are spread, resistance must be loud.” It might not be a relatable story, but I still get inspired by honesty and good rhetoric.

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