Thursday, January 9, 2014

What if complexity can actually be helpful in science communication and engagement?

What if the ways that we commonly think of communicating science, for example, by simplifying, messaging, and framing, don't work as well in issue areas where prolonged conflict is present? What if, instead, complexity and nuance might be helpful in such situations? This may seem counter to my recent "how to" on publicizing research, but begins to speak to the difference between "buzz generation" and change-making I mentioned there.

I have written a bit about conflict in science engagement (giving some context here and focusing on internal conflict here, as well as a paper that is here) and tend to focus on tools scientists and practitioners can use to work with it. At the same time, because I work on environmental issues, I am interested in exploring environmental conflict as it is more commonly conceived of. This is mostly just a thought exercise at this point as I am not an expert on societal conflict -- I am more interested in what using this lens reveals about challenges in science communication and engagement.

From what I have seen, conflict tends to be most studied in a few specific environmental arenas -- around human/wildlife conflict, the question of whether environmental problems are themselves increasing human conflict, and the many legal cases on things like endangered species and environmental cleanup efforts. But, there are many more aspects to explore and in my research over the past several years, I have found that the work of Peter Coleman of Columbia University and the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity resonates with my own experiences. Coleman works on intractable conflict, which can be defined in various ways but is, in general, long-term, chronic, polarized, and not easily approached using common conflict resolution approaches like mediation. Some of the best known examples would be the conflict between Israel and Palestine, or in Northern Ireland, but Coleman argues that these kinds of conflicts happen all the time in situations that involve everything from local communities to family systems.

The longer I watch some environmental issues play out, the more I think they are taking on the nature of these kinds of intractable conflicts - long and drawn out, polarized, largely immune to tactics like negotiation. Climate change is one example that jumps to mind, another might be water resource issues in arid places, like California, where I live and work. Fisheries would be another. In all these areas there is some movement, but I think most people would agree it's not been a lot for the effort that has been put into it.

I am less interested in labeling these kinds of conflicts in some permanent way -- I'm not sure that's helpful -- than I am in simply exploring what taking this perspective has to offer. For me, one of the most interesting things about thinking of some environmental conflicts as intractable is that it changes the kinds of solutions that might be considered useful. For example, Coleman's work has led him to focus on "dynamical conflict resolution." There is a lot to read on the topic if you are interested and a good starting point is here. But, in really general terms, the idea is that because one of the challenges with intractable conflicts is that things become incredibly polarized -- there is only black and white, wrong and right, us and them, etc. -- one of the solutions for working with it is to reintroduce nuance and complexity into the situation to begin to "break open" the two opposing perspectives.

The idea of purposefully introducing, or even simply allowing, nuance and complexity, or discussions of the meaning of information, into a science communication or engagement approach is a bit counter-intuitive. As scientists and practitioners, much of the training that we get in terms of communication outside academic circles is about simplification and streamlining, distilling complexity down to a couple key points to be repeated over and over, focusing on more accurate information as a solution. It may work well a lot of the time. But what if that kind of approach heightens conflict in certain situations?

It seems worthwhile to take a step back and think about whether complexity, whether in information or emotion, might at times actually be helpful in science engagement, particularly where ongoing conflict is present. And, if that is the case, what kinds of skills and capacities do scientists and practitioners need to be more comfortable and effective in their engagement work?

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