Will people who are culturally predisposed to reject human-caused climate change *believe* "97% consensus" social marketing campaign messages? Nope.
I’ve done a couple of posts recently on the latest CCP/APPC study on climate-science literacy.
The goal of the study was to contribute to development of a successor to “OCSI_1.0,” the “Ordinary Climate Science Intelligence” assessment (Kahan 2015). Like OCSI_1.0, OCSI_2.0 is intended to disentangle what ordinary members of the public “know” about climate science from their identity-expressive cultural predispositions, which is what items relating to “belief” in human-caused climate change measure.
In previous posts, I shared data, first, on the relationship between perceptions of scientific consensus, partisanship, and science comprehension; and second on the specific beliefs that members of the public, regardless of partisanship, hold about what climate scientists have established.
As pointed out in the last post, people with opposing cultural outlooks overwhelmingly agree about what “climate scientists think” on numerous specific propositions relating to the causes and consequences of human-caused climate change.
E.g., ordinary Americans—“liberal” and “conservative”—overwhelmingly agree that “climate scientists” have concluded that “human-caused global warming will result in flooding of many coastal regions.” True enough.
But they also agree, overwhelmingly, that climate scientists have concluded that “the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide associated with the burning of fossil fuels will increase the risk of skin cancer in human beings” and stifle “photosynthesis by plants.” Um, no.
These responses suggest that ordinary members of the public (again, regardless of their political orientation and regardless of whether they “believe” in climate change) get the basic gist of the weight of the evidence on human-caused global warming—viz., that our situation is dire—but have a pretty weak grasp of the details.
These items are patterned on science-literacy ones used to unconfound knowledge of evolutionary science from the identity-expressive answers people give to survey items on “belief” in human evolution. By attributing propositions to “climate scientists,” these questions don’t connote the sort of personal assent or agreement implied by “climate change belief items.”
Such questions thus avoid forcing respondents to choose between revealing what they “know” and expressing “who they are” as members of cultural groups whose identity is associated with pro- or con- attitudes toward assertions that human-caused climate change is putting society at risk.
The question “is there scientific consensus on climate change,” in contrast, doesn’t avoid forcing respondents to choose between revealing what they know and expressing who they are.
Accordingly, being perceived to hold beliefs at odds with the best available scientific evidence marks one out as an idiot. A familiar idiom in the discourse of contempt, the accusation that one’s cultural group (definite in terms of political outlooks, religiosity, etc.) is “anti-science” is a profound insult.
Thus, for someone who holds a cultural identity expressed by climate skepticism, a survey item equivalent to “true or false—there’s expert scientific consensus that human beings are causing global warming” is tantamount to the statement “well, you and everyone you respect are genuine morons—isn’t that so?”
People with that identity predictably answer no, there isn’t scientific consensus on global warming—because that question, unlike more particular ones relating to what “climate scientists believe,” measures who they are, not what they know (or think they know) about science’s understanding of the impact of human activity on climate change.
Messaging "scientific consensus" actually reinforces the partisan branding of positions on climate change, and thus frustrates efforts to promote public engagement with the best available evidence on how climate change is threatening their well-being.
Or that’s how I understood the best available evidence before conducting this study.
But maybe I’m wrong. If I am, I’d want to know that; and I’d want others to know it, too, particularly insofar as I’ve made my findings in the past known and have reason to think that people making practical decisions—important ones—might well be relying on them.
So in addition to collecting data on what people “believe” about human-caused global warming and on what they perceive climate scientists to believe, we showed study subjects (members of a large, nationally representative sample) an example of the kind materials featured in “97% consensus” social-marketing campaigns.
Specifically, we showed them this graphic, which was prepared for the AAAS by researchers who advised them that disseminating it would help to “increase acceptance of human caused climate change.”
We then simply asked those who had been shown the AAAS message “do you believe the statement '97% of climate scientists have concluded that human activity is causing global climate change' ”?
Overall, only 55% of the subjects said “yes.”
That would be a great showing for a candidate in the New Hampshire presidential primary. But my guess is that AAAS, the nation’s premier membership association for scientists, would not be very happy to learn that 45% of those who were told what the organization has to say about the weight of scientific opinion on one of the most consequential science issues of our day indicated that they thought AAAS wasn't giving them the straight facts.
What’s more, we know that the percentage of people who already believe in human-caused climate change is about 55%, and that the issue is one characterized by extreme political polarization.
So it's pretty obvious that if one is genuinely trying to gauge the potential effectiveness of this “messaging strategy,” one should assess what impact it will have on people whose political outlooks predispose them not to believe in human-caused climate change.
Here’s the answer:
Basically, the more conservative a person is, the less likely that individual is to believe the AAAS's magical "science communication" pie chart.
Unsurprisingly, this resistance to accepting the AAAS “message” is most intense among white male conservatives, the group in which denial of climate change is strongest (McCright & Dunlap 2012).
Or really just to make things simple, the only people inclined to believe the science communication being "socially marketed" in this way are those who are already inclined to believe (and almost certainly already do believe) in human-caused climate change.
Could this really be a surprise? By now, nearly a decade after the first $300 million "consensus" marketing campaign, those who reject climate change are surely very experienced at discounting the credibility of those who are "marketing" this "message."
Now, remember, these are the same respondents who, regardless of their political outlooks, overwhelmingly agree with propositions attributing to “climate scientists” all manner of dire prediction, true or false, about the impact of human-caused climate change.
There's a straightforward explanation for these opposing reactions.
People understand agreeing with fine-grained, particular test items to convey their familiarity with what climate scientists are saying.
They understand accepting “97% consensus messaging” as assenting to the charge that they and others who share their cultural identity are cretins, morons—socially incompetent actors worthy of ridicule.
Far from promoting acceptance of scientific consensus by persons with this identity, the contempt exuded by this form of "messaging" reinforces the resonances that make climate skepticism such a potent symbol of commitment to their group.
It’s patently ridiculous to think that “97% messaging” will change the minds of rather than antagonize these individuals, who make up the bulk of the climate-skeptical population.
Indeed, the probability that a conservative Republican who rejects human-caused climate change will believe the AAAS message is lower than the probability that he or she will already believe that there’s scientific consensus on climate change.
This “message” was one designed by social marketers who produced research that they characterize as showing that 97% consensus messaging “increased belief in climate change” in a U.S. general population sample.
Except that’s not what the researchers’ studies found. The "97% message" increased study subjects' estimates of the precise numerical percentage of climate scientists who subscribe to the consensus position. But the researchers did not find an increase in the proportion of study subjects who said they themselves "believe" human activity is causing climate change.
Empirical research is indeed essential to promoting constructive public engagement with scientific consensus on climate change.
But studies can do that only if researchers report all of their findings, and describe their results in a straightforward and non-misleading way.
When, in contrast, science communication researchers treat their own studies as a form of “messaging,” they only mislead and confuse people who need their help.
McCright, A.M. & Dunlap, R.E. Bringing ideology in: the conservative white male effect on worry about environmental problems in the USA. J Risk Res, 1-16 (2012).