Scientific reports on climate change are leading Americans to adopt more firm beliefs and support government action on the matter – but these results are fragile, a new study suggests.
Scientists have found that these exact beliefs quickly fade away and can erode when people are exposed to skeptical relationships about climate change.
“It’s not that the US public does not respond to scientific reports when exposed to them,” said Thomas Wood, associate professor of political science at Ohio State University.
“But even factually correct scientific reports drift away from the human frame of reference very quickly.”
The study will be published on June 24, 2022 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Wood conducted the study with Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College and Ethan Porter of George Washington University.
The results showed that accurate scientific reports didn’t just convince the Democrats – Republicans and people who initially rejected man-made climate change, they also changed their minds by reading thorough articles.
The study involved 2,898 online participants who took part in the four waves of the experiment in the fall of 2020.
In the first wave, everyone read genuine articles in popular media that provided information that reflected the scientific consensus on climate change.
In the second and third waves of the experiment, they read either another scientific article, an opinion article that was skeptical of climate science, an article discussing the guerrilla debate on climate change, or an article on another topic.
In the fourth wave, participants were simply asked about their beliefs about climate change science and their political attitudes.
To assess the scientific understanding of participants, after each wave, scientists asked if they believed (rightly) that climate change was happening and had a human cause. To measure their attitudes, the researchers asked participants if they were in favor of government action on climate change and if they were in favor of renewable energy.
Wood said it was significant that accurate reporting had a positive impact on all groups, including Republicans and those who initially rejected climate change. But what was even more encouraging was that it influenced attitudes.
“Scientific information has not only changed people’s understanding of the facts, it has also changed their political preferences,” he said.
“It made them think that climate change was an urgent government concern that the government should do more of.”
However, the results showed that the positive effects on people’s beliefs were short-lived. These effects largely disappeared in the later waves of the study.
In addition, views that were skeptical about the scientific consensus on climate change have reversed the gains in accuracy achieved with scientific coverage.
Articles depicting guerrilla conflicts had no measurable impact on people’s beliefs and attitudes.
Overall, the results suggest that the media play a key role in Americans’ beliefs and attitudes on scientific issues such as climate change.
“We were struck by how susceptible the people in our study were to what they read about climate change in our study. But what they learned disappeared very quickly, “said Wood.
The research findings run counter to the imperative of the media to only report what’s new.
“What we found suggests that people need to hear the same relevant news about climate change over and over again. If they hear it only once, it passes very quickly, ”said Wood.
“The news media is not designed to function that way.”
This research is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.