Changing language influences perception of climate science
(16 November 2012)
Are words from climate science no longer as important in scientific, public and political forums as they once were? According to new research from the Tipping Points project, keywords from climate science are being used less overall and are currently on a downward trend.
In a new study from the Tipping Points project at Durham University’s Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience, published in the journal PLOS ONE, Prof Alex Bentley (University of Bristol) and Dr Philip Garnett along with colleagues from the University of Missouri, Professor Michael J. O’Brien Professor and William A. Brock, have found that usage of some of the most popular keywords from climate science have dropped in popularity significantly, which may be an important indicator for how climate science needs to be communicated more effectively for it to have a greater societal impact.
In order to examine the ‘boom and bust’ of popular terms in climate science, such as ‘global’ and ‘biodiversity’, researchers sampled a series of climate science terms from a random selection of books from the Google N-Gram database, that contains over 5 million books published in seven languages since the 1500s (about 4 percent of all published books). This massive set of data that includes word frequencies in books published up to 2008 allowed researchers to look at the evolutionary history of how frequently climate science words are used. It also helps provide insight into whether certain terms were learned socially, in other words copied by many different people, or were chosen independently of their social context.
The team found that, while there is a continual output of climate science data, there are pronounced waves in public usage of the main keywords associated with it. These waves vary in length, but the average duration is approximately a human generation (2-3 decades).
The use of climate science words has grown considerably over the years with 793,000 different climate science terms published in 1700 compared to 5.46 trillion words in 2000, which of course includes the impacts of the printing press and later digital publishing. While raw word count data alone says little about how the usage of words spread they do reveal word frequencies that are unique.
Prof Alex Bentley lead author of the study said: ‘Since the impact of climate science is so inherently linked to public acceptance – or denial – of the evidence for climate change, we suggest that our study provides a crucial first step toward gauging public response over the long term’.
Ideally, the methods we present – applied to new sources of 'big data' like Google Ngrams – can be used to prepare for changes in public opinion over the generations on matters of global importance’.
Researchers focused on the top one-word climate science terms for the period 2004-09 such as ‘adaptation’, ‘biodiversity’, ‘climate’ and ‘drought’. They were interested in how these popular climate science words diffuse socially leading to their more general use outside of scientific research. They modelled the frequency of the climate science words over time to find out how popular they were, but also how the words themselves were used because how they are picked up socially may be key for allowing them to be used by non-scientists.
Since 1900, among the climate science words sampled by researchers, the ones that have been used steadily in published books are ‘climate’, ‘diatoms’ and ‘pollen’. Some of the words like ‘biodiversity’ started and stopped at different time periods instead of gradually increasing in frequency, but others were less consistent. For example, the popularity of ‘precipitation’, ‘photosynthesis’, and ‘adaptation’ started at different times from the late 1800s to 2000.
Co-author of the study Dr Philip Garnett said: ‘These fashion waves can be modelled in a very straightforward manner, so they ought to be predictable in some sense. A simple model for word-usage trends could then be used to inform efforts for better communication of the concepts behind climate science’.
While authors of the study argue that the usage of climate science terms is determined by social learning rather than individual decision making, future research needs to further identify whether this is the case. They recommend that in order to encourage interest and support for the findings of climate change science widely, an approach that accounts for how information about climate change spreads through social learning is needed to allow the public to learn about climate change themselves in their respective communities.
The study ‘Word diffusion and climate science’ is freely available online from PLOS ONE here.