Big Gap between What Scientists Say and Americans Think about Climate Change

On controversial topics such as climate change, a significant number of Americans do not use science to inform their views. Instead, they use political orientation and ideology.

There is good and bad news for climate scientists. The good news: Most Americans (79%) say that science and scientists are invaluable.

The bad news: On controversial topics such as climate change, a significant number of Americans do not use science to inform their views. Instead, they use political orientation and ideology, which are reflected in their level of education, to decide whether humans are driving planetary warming.

This comes from a public opinion poll released yesterday by Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The poll captured a significant split between what scientists and the general public believe on climate change.

In 2014, the vast majority (87 percent) of scientists said that human activity is driving global warming, and yet only half the American public ascribed to that view. And 77 percent of scientists said climate change is a very serious problem. In comparison, only 33 percent of the general public said it was a very serious problem in a 2013 poll.

Opinion Differences Between Public and Scientists

The gap has not lessened since 2009, when Pew last did this poll. Back then, 84% of scientists and 49% of the public said human activity drives warming.

When ideology trumps science
Social scientists such as Dan Kahan, a professor of psychology at Yale University, have noted that asking people about their climate beliefs can be tricky since ideology can guide people’s answers (ClimateWire, July 24, 2014).  So, when the pollsters questioned people differently, asking whether there is solid evidence the Earth is getting warmer, 72% of people said it was, up from 57% in 2009. Only 25% said the Earth is not getting warmer, up from 11% in 2009.

Only 3% of people were still undecided, which means most people have made up their minds already on the climate. Of the people who agreed the Earth is warming, about half (46%) said it is caused by human activity.

The increased belief in climate change was reflected last week in the Senate, when 98 senators from both parties voted that climate change is real and not a hoax. Only one, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), voted otherwise. Going on the record on their beliefs was a historic step for Republicans who have otherwise insisted that “they are not scientists” when questioned on climate change.

But about half the senators still maintained that climate change is not driven by human activity (E&ENews PM, Jan. 21). That vote was along partisan lines.

Among the public, too, climate beliefs correlate with ideology, the Pew pollsters noted. People who vote Republican are less likely to believe in climate change than people who vote Democratic.

Belief in ‘silly things’ is not OK
Teaching scientists how to communicate with the public on controversial science is a key priority for AAAS, Leshner said. He prescribed small group interactions, particularly ones that include religious leaders to reach people across ideological borders. Whether this will be effective is not yet known (ClimateWire, Nov. 25, 2014).

Other than climate change, AAAS is also trying to educate people on genetically modified crops, evolution, vaccination, the Big Bang and other controversial topics where science loses out.

It is important to bring people around to scientists’ way of thinking, not for scientists’  because science can help people and policymakers make informed decisions, Leshner said. It is not OK for a percentage of the people to believe “silly things,” he said.

“That diminishes our ability to contribute to the betterment of humankind,” he said. “We need to have what science is showing be represented accurately and for people to at least have that in their toolbox when they make their own decisions

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