How Words Affect Climate Change Perception

view of Earth and cloud cover
Perception of climate change may be influenced by the frequency that climate-science words appear in the popular literature. (Image credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation)

Like fashion fads, climate-science words rise and fall in popularity, finds a new study.

And how frequently these scientific words, such as biodiversity and paleoclimate, filter out of journals and into the popular lexicon may influence public perception of climate science, the researchers add.

The study showed that over the past 200 years, the appearance of key climate-science terms in the public vocabulary has followed "boom and bust" cycles. Given the resistance that climate change faces from some sectors of the public, understanding how cycles of word usage affect public views on the reality of climate change could offer insight into improving science communication, the study suggests.    

Michael O'Brien, dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri, and colleagues mined Google's online book database to track the frequency of keywords related to climate change. Google's "Ngram" database contains more than 5 million books published in seven languages since the 1500s, amounting to about 4 percent of all books ever published worldwide.

O'Brien's team analyzed how often climate-science words have appeared in the popular literature since 1900. The researchers used the frequency of the most commonly occurring English word, "the," as a baseline reference point. Usage of words such as "climate," "diatoms" and "pollen" remained relatively constant. By contrast, words like "biodiversity" (the amount of variation in types of organisms within a given area) and "paleoclimate" (the prehistoric climate, usually measured by ice cores, tree rings and pollen in sediments) peaked in use in a wavelike manner, entering the public lexicon at different times before leveling off.

The results show that the use of scientific terms in books for the general public fits a well-known model — specifically, one originally used to describe how new products get adopted in the marketplace.

The researchers "remind us that communication is a social process, for science as for any other human activity," environmental consultant Henry Huntington, of Huntington Consulting in Eagle River, Alaska, told LiveScience in an email.

"Scientists need to understand better how their ideas are conveyed to and taken up by the general public, so that we can engage more effectively in public discourse," added Huntington, who was not involved in the study. [The Reality of Climate Change: 10 Myths Busted]

Several of the words studied appear to have joined the common parlance over a period of 30 to 50 years, about the length of a human generation. Others seem to have taken several generations to trickle into the public discourse. The movement of words related to climate change into and out of public usage could be linked to the acceptance of climate science by society, O'Brien and his team propose.

"We suggest that some of the core vocabulary of climate science becomes passé in public usage, even as the scientific activity may remain steady," the researchers wrote in the study published Nov. 7, 2012 in the journal PLOS ONE.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.