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When Americans understand how much scientists agree on climate change they want to do something about it

  • 21 Nov 2011, 11:00
  • Bárbara Mendes-Jorge

Source: www.skepticalscience.com

Well, that's according to a   new study [£] published in the journal Nature Climate Change  titled 'Support for climate policy and societal action are linked to perceptions about scientific agreement'.

Ding and colleagues wanted to look at people's beliefs about scientists' views, and how these are linked to support for climate change policies. They conducted an online survey of a nationally representative sample of 751 US adults. Only 34% of respondents believed that there was a consensus (i.e. when asked about perceived consensus, they answered 'most scientists think global warming is happening').

The authors found that people who believed in the consensus were more likely to agree strongly with four statements - that it is real, human caused, serious and solvable - and were more likely to support climate change mitigation policies and believe that society needs to do more to address global warming.

The researchers argue that their findings suggest US citizens do not process information in accordance with pre-existing beliefs. Such 'Motivated Reasoning' can influence people's rejection or acceptance of scientific evidence, but the researchers suggest that people's beliefs about climate change are strongly based on what they perceive to be scientists' views.

This conclusion echoes a previous information processing study which found that people's levels of concern about global warming increased after they were told that scientists had definite evidence on its impacts. There is a near-unanimity amongst climate scientists that global average temperature has increased since pre-industrial times, with the vast majority agreeing that human activity been a significant causal factor.

The study's authors suggest:

"The myth of widespread disagreement among climate scientists over whether global warming is happening has little to no basis in the truth, and it emerged, at least in part, as the result of a concerted effort to deceive the public."

Ding and colleagues argue that the best way to correct this misperception is to repeatedly assert the correct information, because in time repeated assertions become more familiar and therefore more likely to be true.

They also caution on the 'familiarity backfire effect' whereby repeating a myth actually reinforces it. Skeptical Science blogged about this last week, offering the following advice for debunkers of bad scientific arguments:

"Communicate your core fact in the headline. Your debunking should begin with emphasis on the facts, not the myth. Your goal is to increase people's familiarity with the facts."

Skeptical Science also note that " there is no consensus" is one of the arguments used by climate change skeptics in order to skew the debate, and there are examples of broadcasters with significant reach who promote uncertainty and inaccurate scientific information. This is an interesting paper, but tackling misperceptions may be far more difficult than suggested by the authors.

 

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