Public Perception On Climate Depends On Word Choices Describing It
November 8, 2012

Public Perception On Climate Depends On Word Choices Describing It

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

The words we choose to use have a big impact on how we communicate. As the 20th century Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan once said, “The medium is the message.”

A new study from a joint team of U.S. and U.K. investigators has used this idea of word choice to examine how research surrounding climate change has impacted the larger public discourse. For example, a New Jersey scientist is credited with coining the phrase ℠global warming´ over 35 years ago; however, that phrase fell out of favor in some quarters as the Bush administration, on the advice of political consultant Frank Luntz, began to emphasize the phrase ℠climate change,´ possibly as an attempt to de-emphasize the phenomenon.

According to the research team´s report in the open access journal PLOS ONE, their original hypothesis was that these keywords originally used by scientists in the course of their writing occur in “boom and bust” cycles which are then conveyed to journalists and the public.

To test this hypothesis, the investigators used Google´s Ngram tool, which scans through 5 million books in its database and shows the frequency with which an entered phrase or word, like ℠biodiversity,´ has occurred. The scientists posited that the frequency of these key phrases in published books would represent their use in society.

Based on their research, the scientists found that the use of keywords varies from year to year and decade to century, but as they do–they diffuse into greater society. They also found that there is a typical diffusion period of about 30 to 50 years, or the equivalent of one generation. Some keywords such as “adaptation,” “precipitation,” and “photosynthesis” appeared to be diffusing on a longer scale of multiple generations.

"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,” said study co-author Alexander Bentley, from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

"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,” he added.

The report pointed out that research on climate change did not tend to fall in and out of fashion, but the words used to describe its science has. It also said that the results of their analysis mirrored societal models that have been in marketing.

In their analysis of the results, the investigators outlined possibilities for future research. They posited the idea of testing for a “leveling-off” of word popularity, which would show a word has ceased to enjoy a period of extreme popularity and become more utilitarian in nature, such as DNA or isotope. This type of study, they wrote, would require an automated process that could define the “birth” of a new word.

The dawning of a new word or phrase in the context of climate change could happen in two different ways: “the time at which the logged frequency of the word grows in ten consecutive time periods” or “by an order of magnitude in a shorter time period,” according to the report.