"They already got the memo" part 2: More data on the *public consensus* on what "climate scientists think" about human-caused global warming
Yesterday I shared some data on the extent to which ordinary members of the public are politically polarized both on human-caused global warming and on the nature of scientific consensus relating to the same.
I said I was surprised b/c although there was plenty of polarization on both questions, there was less over whether “expert climate scientists” agree that human behavior is causing the earth’s temperature to rise.
In other studies CCP and others have done, those two questions—are humans causing global warming? do scientists believe that?—generate answers that are more or less interchangeable with one another.
Indeed, the answers tend to be so highly correlated that it’s absurd to treat them as measuring separate things at all. Rather, they behave—as all manner of facts relating to a putative societal risk tend to do—as indicators of a latent or unobserved affective stance: basically a generic pro- or con-attitude, toward the assertion that humans are causing climate change.
In addition, the polarization diminished as subjects’ “Ordinary Science Intelligence” assessment scores increased—because as conservative respondents became more proficient in their capacity to make sense of science by this measure, they become likely to acknowledge that “expert climate scientists” agree that human activity is heating the planet.
That’s super interesting. Usually when a societal risk becomes entangled in antagonistic cultural meanings, reasoning proficiency (measured with various types of critical reasoning assessments) magnifies polarization relating to any empirical issues relating to it.
I see this as evidence that perceptions of “scientific consensus” are starting to become detached from the general identity-defining affective orientation that people with different cultural commitments have on climate change. Or to put it differently, beliefs about scientific consensus are now a less reliable indicator of that identity.
But let’s not get carried away: there was still a huge amount of polarization on whether there is scientific consensus on human-caused climate change.
Today I want to share with this site’s loyal 14 billion regular subscribers and whoever else is tuning in what ordinary members of the public think climate scientists have concluded on more specific questions relating to human-caused climate change.
The study (featured in Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem) was in fact in the nature of a follow up of an earlier CCP-APPC one that produced the “Ordinary Climate Science Intelligence” assessment, or OCSI_1.0.
The goal of OCSI_1.0 was to disentangle the measurement of “who people are”—the responses toward climate change that evince the affective stance toward climate change characteristic of their cultural group—from “what they know” about climate science.
That basic mission was successfully accomplished. Nevertheless, the assessment instrument, OSI_1.0, was itself only so-so. There wasn’t any particular reason to see the kind of climate-science comprehension it measured as all that relevant to ordinary people’s lives. In addition, the instrument’s measurement precision was concentrated at the high-score end of the distribution.
The current study is part of the effort to develop OSI_2.0, which will have more interesting items and also power to discern differences across a larger portion of the range of knowledge levels within the general population.
Well here is how 600 subjects U.S. adults drawn from a nationally representative panel) responded to some of the OSI_2.0 candidate items.
For me, these are the key points:
First, there’s barely any partisan disagreement over what climate scientists believe about the specific causes and consequences of human-caused climate change.
Sure, there’s some daylight between the response of the left-leaning and right-leaning respondents. But the differences are trivial compared to the ones in these same respondents’ beliefs about both the existence of climate change and the nature of scientific consensus.
There is “bipartisan” public consensus in perceptions of what climate scientists “know,” with minor differences only in the intensity with which respondents of opposing outlooks hold those particular impressions.
Second, ordinary members of the public, regardless of what they "believe" about human-caused climate change, know pitifully little about the basic causes and consequences of global warming.
Yes, a substantial majority of respondents, of diverse political views, know that climate scientists understand CO2 emissions to be warming the planet, and that climate scientists expect rising temperatures to result in flooding in many regions.
But they also mistakenly believe that, “according to climate scientists, the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide associated with the burning of fossil fuels will increase the risk of leukemia” and “skin cancer in human beings, and “reduce photosynthesis by plants.”
They think, incorrectly, that climate scientists have determined that “a warmer climate over the next few decades will increase water evaporation, which will lead to an overall decrease of global sea levels.”
“Republican” and “Democrat” alike, ordinary members of the public also mistakenly attribute to “climate scientists” the proposition that “human-caused global warming has increased the number of tornadoes in recent decades,” a claim that Bill Nye “science guy” believes but that actual climate scientists don’t, and in fact regularly criticize advocates for leaping up to assert every time a tornado kills dozens of people in one of the plains states.
Third, the overwhelming majority of ordinary citizens, regardless of their political persuasions, already recognize and agree that climate scientists have concluded that global warming is putting human beings in grave danger.
The candidate OSI_2.0 items (only a portion of which are featured here) form two scales.
When one counts up the number of correct responses, OSI_2.0 measures how much people genuinely know about the basic causes and consequences of human-caused global warming. You can figure out that by scoring.
Alternatively, when one counts up the number of responses, correct or incorrect, that evince a perception of the risks that human-caused climate change poses, OSI_2.0 measures how dreaded climate change is as a societal risk.
No matter what they “believe” about human-caused climate change, very few people do well on the first, knowledge-based scale.
And no matter what they “believe” about human-caused climate change, the vast majority of them score extremely high on the second, dreadedness scale.
None of this should come as a surprise. This is exactly the state of affairs revealed by OSI_1.0.
Now in fact, one might think that it’s perfectly fine that ordinary citizens score higher on the “climate change dredadedness” scale than they do on the “climate change science comprehension” one. Ordinary citizens only need to know the essential gist of what climate scientists are telling them--that global warming; it’s those who ordinary citizens charge with crafting effective solutions who have to get all the details straight.
The problem though is that democratic political discourse over climate change (in most but not all places) doesn’t measure either what ordinary people know or what they feel about climate change.
It measures what the item on “belief in” climate change does: who they are, whose side they are on, in an ugly, pointless, cultural status competition being orchestrated by professional conflict entrepreneurs.
The “science communication problem” for climate change is how to steer the national discussion away from the myriad actors-- all of them--whose style of discourse creates these antagonistic social meanings.
“97% consensus” social marketing campaigns (studies with only partially and misleadingly reported results notwithstanding) aren’t telling ordinary Americans on either side of the “climate change debate” anything they haven't already heard & indeed accepted: that climate scientists believe human-caused global warming is putting them in a position of extreme peril.
All the "social marketing" of "scientific consensus" does is augment the toxic idioms of contempt that are poisoning our science communication environment.
It's precisely because of the assaultive, culturally partisan resonances that this "message" conveys that the question "is there scientific consensus on global warming?," like the question "are humans causing global warming?," measures who people are and not what they know about climate change risks.
More on that “tomorrow.”