The importance of understanding epistemic injustice in science communication

A view from within a forest - tall trees and greenery, with light spilling through the foliage.
An ancient old-growth redwood forest along California's northern coast. Changes to forestation on the West Coast may have downstream effects on temperatures and precipitation in the Mississippi River...

(Halley Hughes)

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Storyfest 2023

Unlock the mysteries of a real-life butterfly effect through the puzzling concept of Ecoclimate Teleconnections. Get ready to dive deep into the theory behind how we communicate complex scientific topics.

A short poem by the author and her guest. 

Ecoclimate Teleconnection is a concept that sounds abstract, but refers to something that everyone experiences. Teleconnections work like a river. The policies of people at the headwaters of a river impact the water not only in their vicinity, but downstream as well. Although the people at the mouth of the river and the end of the river may never have had contact, one tangibly affected the other. That is the core concept of teleconnections and a telecoupled world. 

My guest, Jose Soto, Ph.D., has a unique perspective. He ponders intentionally and cares deeply. He suggested that we write a poem together for this piece. Sometimes, it is equally important to talk about the ways in which we understand science, rather than the science we don’t understand.

Science is only one way of attempting to understand the world. Soto posits that people’s experiences shape how they view the world. Our worldview (or our “phenomena of reality”) then affects how we view science.  

To all listeners of this podcast, be curious. Let that curiosity guide you as we find solutions for a brighter and more inclusive future.

Full transcript below:

Soto: [00:00:00] Because it’s the cornerstone of science. “We don’t know” is the cornerstone of science. You may prove something is not wrong, but you’re never correct. You never prove something is right. It’s not wrong.

Hughes: [00:00:20] Wait, say that again? The cornerstone of science is that…

Soto: [00:00:20] We don’t know.

Hughes: [00:00:22] We don’t know. And you never truly prove something right. But you can prove that…

Soto: [00:00:27] That its temporarily not wrong.

Hughes: [00:00:30] It’s temporarily not wrong.

Soto: [00:00:30] Yes.

Hughes: [00:00:33] As a science communicator and a practitioner of science, I spend a lot of time thinking about new scientific concepts and new ways to think about science. My friend and fellow researcher, Dr. Jose Soto, joins me on a journey of exploring our curiosities in the field of science. Unlock the mysteries and insights of the butterfly effect come to life, through the puzzling concept of ecoclimate teleconnections. And along the why, get ready to dive deep into the concepts and theory behind how we communicate something so complex like teleconnections.

Soto: [00:01:12] I am very, very profoundly curious about many things, but and here’s again, I’m taking myself…

Hughes: [00:01:17] Here’s the “but.”

Soto: [00:01:18] I’m taking myself into absurdity. There is a boundedness to my curiosity in the sense that the problem of what seems to be the most important question of our organism, this aspect of climate change in the Anthropocene and what we want to be.

Hughes: [00:01:37] That is the voice of Dr. Jose Soto. He is an expert in applied economics, a creator of curious tangents and a writer of poetry. He comes from Nogales, Sonora, which is a border town 70 miles south of Tucson. He came to the University of Arizona in 2017 as an assistant professor to work on a project on ecoclimate teleconnections. Dr. Soto and I agreed on a metaphor for the mechanism of ecoclimate teleconnections. It’s like the butterfly effect. In the case of Jose’s research, the ecological conditions of one place can affect the climate of another very, very far away. They’re connected despite the distance. His work specifically looks at how much the loss of forests in the western United States would affect temperature and precipitation on agriculture in the Mississippi River Basin.

Hughes: [00:02:32] So what are Jose’s current curiosities?

Soto: [00:02:36] Curiosity about folks’ understanding of seemingly esoteric concepts or fairly new concepts if that is what this ecoclimate teleconnections are. Understanding how is it that we that we can understand that in a way that is communicable to others. To many folks from many diverse backgrounds. And not only backgrounds and cultural backgrounds, but also various points of view of intergenerational sort of understandings of questions that are complex.

Hughes: [00:03:05] What was the what was the spark that drew Jose Soto to this project in this space at this time?

Soto: [00:03:13] I stumble a lot in life. And I’ve done it so much in life that I get curious.

Hughes: [00:03:20] So your research group studying ecoclimate teleconnections is super interdisciplinary. Why is that important to you?

Soto: [00:03:28] You could start seeing problems from many points of view. There is texture to problems that could only be understood from multiple points of view.

Hughes: [00:03:39] This interdisciplinary team is combining two very complex models to try to understand teleconnections. One model is an Earth systems model that predicts climate changes and variables like precipitation and temperature. The other is a partial equilibrium model that predicts land use change and economic welfare. What is complex, and perhaps strange, is that these predictive models can turn global scale changes in the west into very precise rain and temperature effects. Then another model can take those hazy predictions and spit out how that change affects each U.S. county in dollars. I’ll let him continue to explain it in a way only he can.

Soto: [00:04:20] Yes, we can produce models that are, well, estimates on economic welfare and now… How is it that we present that estimation? That is, again, a bounded calculation on the climate modeling side. And that bounded calculation is being put into a giant model that is really cool, but it translates into into something that looks very concrete, which is dollar signs of economic surplus that is going to be put into this other model of very tangible things. But they only seem like that, in terms of the dollar signs perhaps. But in order for me to present that in perhaps a survey of preferences, and (ask) “Would you understand that if we explain this to you?” How is it that we present them in the way that we are as transparent as we can (be)? So you take this sort of haziness of what I’m talking about, and then all of a sudden we have this sort of, perhaps a- what I’m anticipating- and what I’m very curious about, a cognitive dissonance between maybe trying to explain that haziness or that bounded calculation in this, although with as much caveats as we can, but also in a way that we are presenting the uncertainties.

Hughes: [00:05:26] The haziness that Jose’s referring to is the uncertainty that models have inherently. There’s a lot of error, complexity and variables that go into these kinds of models. Jose’s role in the research team is to develop a survey to better understand how people understand teleconnections. Jose is toying with the idea of being vulnerable with those he surveys and explaining that these models and even the scientists have uncertainties about their results. Even though the science may be uncertain and the concepts quite hazy and difficult to grasp, they are still essential to communicate to people. Jose’s team has narrowed down their guiding questions to the following two.

Soto: [00:06:09] But would they get it?

Hughes: [00:06:11] “It” is referring to teleconnections.

Soto: [00:06:14] And would they want the government to do something about it?

Hughes: [00:06:17] “They” is referring to the citizens of the United States.

Soto: [00:06:20] How is it that we make something of this? Something useful? There’s important questions. Perhaps the most important question, which is this sort of perhaps climate change in the Anthropocene. How is it that that this can become useful?

Hughes: [00:06:34] The two of us always bob and weave in our conversations, but end up forming compelling connections between topics. At this point, we began talking about why the creation and interpretation of this survey Jose’s creating may not be as simple as many would think.

Hughes: [00:06:51] And something I’m really digging into in my science communication comes from a phrase that you use often used in class, with the “phenomena of reality.” I I’m thinking more and more that scientists, with their hazy understandings of models, have a different understanding of the phenomena of reality. And we expect people to take the same information we have and then perceive reality the same way. I think that maybe we as scientists have an altered phenomena of reality that is somewhat shared, which is why we understand each other. I often think we also place others’ view of reality below our own and say, “Well, if you don’t understand it, because our phenomena of reality is what is what is right.” Even though we don’t really understand these models. Right? So that’s the interesting thing about the way you’re approaching these questions, because you are doing away with a little bit of the just ask it to them. And if they don’t get it, they don’t get it. It’s really interpreting other’s view of reality in their lived experience as equally valuable, just different.

Soto: [00:08:01] I stumbled into the literature of education. One of the problems that we have in trying to create an educational system that doesn’t exclude people is to not do it.

Hughes: [00:08:14] Not do what?

Soto: [00:08:15] Exclude people!

Hughes: [00:08:16] Oh! To not do it!

Soto: [00:08:20] So this is a mechanism DBIR, design based implementation researchm is mechanism to “not do it.” So in there, they identify one of the biggest hurdles. They’re kind of trying to educate people from backgrounds that are not represented in the historical institutions that were developing under the context of exclusion. When you’re trying to do that, there’s something called “epistemic injustice.” Discarding somebody’s entire background without even noticing. Maybe a professor that is teaching a class, I don’t know, in forestry. Maybe that professor would be teaching the class and that would have like a perhaps a Quechua or what they call an Inca student, a student from Quechua communities in maybe Peru, what they call Peru now. And they see reality is a deity, nature as a deity. They call it Pachamama. Suppose that student isn’t there and the student wants to share something, and they phrase it in the way of a deity. “Oh Pachamama and…” suppose they say that and immediately the professor would say, “That is a comment that is not appropriate for this class because it’s not a class on theology, it’s a class tree rings or something. And that person then perhaps feels that their entire background was discarded. It muffles their curiosity. And maybe that person was really sharing something that was profoundly insightful and appropriate, but phrased in a way that that’s the language they use. Maybe that they have a relationship with the environment that is different. That little comment that might have been sort of nonchalant by the professor, trying to keep to the curricula and to the syllabus. But the one person perhaps that said that and whose background was kind of discarded in this Pachamama way, that person is deeply impacted, perhaps in at least how it’s impacting the field of education from the little bit that I know. This DBIR stuff, the design based implementation research, it starts from understanding that we have inherent biases and when we go and engage with people from other backgrounds other than our own. They are scientists too, in that the questions need to start being developed from what they are scientifically understanding, in their way of understanding their surroundings. Maybe it could be a like an inner city, sort of low income community, or it could be a sort of a someone from a native, the original peoples of somewhere. But they have their own scientific ways, you know, and that is really cool.

Hughes: [00:10:42] It really is exactly what you’re getting at in why it’s not just so easy to ask these questions in a survey.

Hughes: [00:10:51] This idea about the concept of science and how we interpret it keep bouncing around between the two of us. We begin to wonder why ecoclimate teleconnections are so complex in the first place and why all science communication beyond this topic is so difficult.

Hughes: [00:11:07] I think as a science communicator, I was recently talking about how most people’s view of the concept Of science is Different than scientists because a lot of non-scientists there, their science education stopped very early. And the science that they’re learning is thousands of years old. Things that have been studied for a very long time seem settled. When in fact science is anything but settled. And there are so many things that we don’t know and so many things we are unsure about, but we end up communicating everything but our own uncertainty. I don’t know why science needs to have this facade of of truth behind it. When we are communicating to each other as scientists, we will fully admit what we don’t know.

Soto: [00:11:54] That totally resonates with me because I posit that humans are very intelligent. Yeah, if we approach them, maybe the folks that don’t have formal education, if we approach them like they are otherwise, they get it. They see what you were saying.

Hughes: [00:12:10] What would you say is your message to others about what you’ve learned?

Soto: [00:12:14] It’s a call to science, a call to mass education. And that I think, should be driven by the curiosities of the people that are going to be affected most in their way of thinking of themselves in the future, in time and space, which are the young people. All the humbleness that the folks that are maybe pontificating and to be be led by the younger generations that are that are seeing this in clearer ways.

Hughes: [00:12:38] I think it’s beautiful. I think that we can continue, not even ‘continue’ because it’s almost novel… We can communicate science as unsettled and it won’t lose authority. Like, I feel like maybe scientists are afraid that as soon as we lose that appeal to authority, that people won’t believe in science. But I almost think it’s the opposite, where because we seem so bulletproof, when it is called into question and proved wrong, it’s almost like the concept of science is proved wrong, as opposed to just the natural process.

Soto: [00:13:12] And I suspect you’re correct about it in a very, very keen way. Because, again, you know, if you’re presenting something that is right in language like, “This is right,” when it was actually-.

Hughes: [00:13:25] “There’s no other interpretation.”

Soto: [00:13:25] Yes, that’s right. And for highly intelligent beings, the sentient beings of our species, of our organism, this is a very, very difficult moment of the most important question in human history about the Anthropocene. If their perceptive of that, they catch on because they’re very smart. So I think your absolutely-  your critique is spot on. I mean, I need to reflect a lot in this conversation.

Hughes: [00:13:48] Curiosity is beatiful.

Soto: [00:13:49] Oh, yeah. It’s amazing.

Hughes: [00:13:51] Through the process of learning about a complex scientific topic, we learned about how we can think about science itself. We learned that everyone is a scientist and it is critical that our education systems recognize that. Science isn’t useful unless it’s communicable. To underestimate the layperson’s importance in understanding would be fatal. Jose and I’s combined curiosity in this impromptu conversation revealed that before we think of solutions, we must think of who is making these solutions, how we representing them, and why they would be important to those they affect. Jose is a deeply curious and interesting scientist and person. We look forward to the results of his research coming out soon.

Hughes: [00:14:35] Jose Soto’s solutions?

Soto: [00:14:36] Oh no, no, no.

Hughes: [00:14:38] Humbleness. Mass education.

Soto: [00:14:41] No no no solutions. Curiosity. Bounded curiosities.

Hughes: [00:14:47] Bounded curiosities.

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