Reasonable doubts about the science of climate change doubts

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In the United States, climate change has become a partisan issue: Democrats and liberals are likely to accept that human-caused climate change is occurring, while Republicans and conservatives are apt to doubt or deny this. But the reasons for this divide might not be what people assume, according to a new paper by political scientists at Northwestern University.

Over the past decade, lots of climate change communication research has focused on directional motivated reasoning: the idea that people reject evidence related to climate change because it challenges their existing beliefs, or threatens their sense of cultural or partisan belonging.

In the new study, published yesterday in Nature Climate Change, James Druckman and Mary McGrath reviewed previously published climate communication research. They found the evidence that climate change doubters engage in directional motivated reasoning isn’t actually very strong.

Instead, the results of many studies about climate change beliefs are equally consistent with the idea that people are motivated by accuracy. That is, they want to form accurate beliefs – but may have varying levels of trust in scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or other sources of climate information.

(One point that’s worth being clear about here: the researchers are interested in the attitudes of the general public, not those of elites that disseminate climate-denial messages. They’re not addressing the motivations of the merchants of doubt, but rather those being marketed to.)

The problem is that the design of many climate communication studies makes it very difficult to tease apart directional motivated reasoning from accuracy-motivated reasoning.

For example, a climate change doubter who engages in directionally motivated reasoning may reject a scientific report on the topic while giving credence to a news article calling climate change a hoax because she wants to maintain her belief. An accuracy-motivated person may do the same thing because she distrusts the organization that put out the scientific report and trusts the news source. They both wind up doubting climate change, but through distinct processes.

“If someone has low confidence in the credibility of the information, that information will be discounted and will carry little weight—but we cannot infer anything about the individual’s motivation from this evaluation,” the researchers write.

This isn’t just semantics. And it isn’t just some kind of pablum about assuming the best of people’s motivations. Instead, getting a clear understanding of how climate doubters come to their beliefs has major implications for how best to change their minds.

Many people who study or work in science communication believe climate doubters are engaging in directional motivated reasoning, so they’ve focused on how to counteract it. But if people are motivated instead by a search for truth, you don’t need to change their motivation – you just need to provide information from a source they consider credible.

Most people in the scientific community, not surprisingly, find scientific sources very credible. So they tend to assume that anyone who rejects a scientific source is doing so out of motivations other than truth-seeking. But less than half of Americans have a great deal of confidence in scientists.

“A critical point is that what science communicators view as credible, or likely to lead to an accurate belief (a scientific consensus statement, for example) may not be what many of their audience members consider credible,” the researchers write.

There are two options to respond to this: Work to increase people’s trust in science, which has been shown to be difficult. Or, figure out what type of information people find credible, and provide that. For example, people may rely on religious teachings or leaders, or evidence about what other members of their community do, to guide their beliefs.

Questioning the conventional wisdom about why people reject climate change opens up the possibility of more effective climate communication, the researchers argue. It also provides an opportunity for researchers to interrogate their own beliefs and check their own errors in logic. “Observing whether belief outcomes match scientific consensus does not necessarily provide insight into the process,” the researchers write.

Source: Druckman J.N. and M.C. McGrath. “The evidence for motivated reasoning in climate change preference formation.” Nature Climate Change 2019.

Image: Alex Proimos via Flickr.

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