The scientific veneer of IPCC visuals


While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is continuously improving its communication, visualisation has taken a back seat to more pressing issues. The consequence is a set of IPCC imagery where our understanding of perception remains empirically unchallenged. The visual design (defined in this study as the method, technique, and style used to create a visual) directly affects perception and yet, we know very little about how people intuitively respond to visuals depicting climate science. This study examines the perception of four images from the IPCC summary report for policymakers and two open sourced infographics. Using a group-administered study we found the visual design to have a significant impact on a novice readers ability to associate relevant words with an image. While the visuals part of the summary for policymakers educed a sense of confidence, a well-designed infographic left readers feeling less confident. The veneer of legitimacy associated with IPCC visuals is because they look scientific, whereas infographic images were found to look less serious. We acknowledge the accessibility of an infographic but urge IPCC authors to use it with caution, as any negative impact on scientific credibility is an unwanted feature in IPCC communication.

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Correspondence to Rosemarie McMahon.

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McMahon, R., Stauffacher, M. & Knutti, R. The scientific veneer of IPCC visuals. Climatic Change 138, 369–381 (2016).

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  • Visual Stimulus
  • Climate Science
  • Visual Design
  • Scientific Credibility
  • Friedmans ANOVA