They’ve already gotten the memo! What the public (Rs & Ds) think “climate scientists believe”

I’ve explained in a couple of posts why I think experimental evidence in support of “messaging” scientific consensus is externally invalid and why real-world instances of this “messaging” strategy can be expected to reinforce polarization.

But here is some new evidence (from a new paper, which I’ll post this week) that critically examines the premise of the “message 97%” strategy: namely, that political polarization over climate change is caused by a misapprehension of the weight of opinion among climate scientists.

It isn’t.


That’s what members of the U.S. general public, defined in terms of their political outlooks (based on their score in relation to the mean on a continuous scale running “left” to “right”), “believe” about human-caused global warming.

Old news.

But here are a set of items that indicate what they think “climate scientists believe” (each statement except the first was preceded with that clause):

Got it?

Overwhelming majorities of both Republicans and Democrats are convinced that “climate scientists believe” that  CO2 emissions cause the temperature of the atmosphere to go up—probably the most basic fact scientific proposition about climate change.

In addition, overwhelming majorities of both Republicans and think that “climate scientists believe” that human-caused climate change poses all manner of danger to people and the environment.

Thus, they correctly think that “climate scientists believe” that “human-caused global warming will result in flooding of many coastal regions.”

But they also incorrectly think that “climate scientists believe” that the melting of the North Pole ice cap will cause flooding.

Healthy majorities of both Republicans and Democrats correctly think that “climate scientists believe” that global warming increased in the first decade of this century—but mistakenly think that “climate scientists believe” that human-caused climate change “will increase the risk of skin cancer” as well.

Again, these are the responses of the same nationally representative sample of respondents who were highly polarized on the question whether human-caused climate change is happening.

Here’s what’s going on:

1.  Items measuring “belief in human caused global warming” & the equivalent do not measure perceptions of “what people know,” including what they think “climate scientists believe.”

“Belief in human-caused global  warming” items measure “who one is, what side one is on” in an ugly and highly illiberal form of cultural status competition, one being fueled by the idioms of contempt that the most conspicuous spokespeople on both sides use.

As I’ve explained, the responses that individuals give to such items in surveys are as strong an indicator of their political identity as items that solicit self-reported liberal-conservative ideology and political-party self-identification.

What individuals know—or think they know—about climate science is a different matter.  To measure it, one has to figure out how to ask a question that is not understood by survey respondents as “who are you, whose side are you on.”

Consider, in this regard, the parallel with “belief” in evolution.  When asked whether they believe in evolution, members of the US general population split 50-50, based not on understanding of evolution or science comprehension generally but on the centrality of religion to their cultural identities.

But when one frames the question as what scientists understand the evidence to be on evolution, then the division disappears.  A question worded that way enables relatively religious individuals to indicate what they know about science without having to express a position that denigrates their identities.

Same here: ask “what do climate scientists believe,” and the parties who polarize on the identity-expressive question “do you believe in global warming? do you? do you?” and you can see that there is in fact bipartisan agreement about what climate scientists think!

2.  Different impressions of what “climate scientists believe” clearly aren’t the cause of polarization on global warming.

The differences between Republicans and Democrats on “what climate scientists believe” ‘is trivial.  It doesn’t come close to explaining the magnitude and depth of the division on “human-caused global warming.”

Otherwise, the debate between Democrats and Republicans would be only over how much to spend to develop new nanotechnology sun screens to protect Americans from the epidemic of skin cancer that all recognize is looming.

Why did anyone ever think otherwise — that the problem was simply not enough people had been told yet that there is scientific consensus on human-caused climate change?

Because it was plausible to believe that, for a while, given the correlation between responses to  items asking survey respondents “do you believe in human-caused climate change” and ones asking them whether they believed“scientific consensus” was consistent or inconsistent with the position they held.

There was always a competing explanation: that survey items on “scientific consensus”—because they are not constructed to disentangle knowledge and identity—were in fact measuring the same thing as the “what do you believe about global warming” questions: namely, who are you, whose side are you on.

A decade’s worth of real-world evidence on the impact of “messaging” consensus has now rendered the former position wholly untenable.

And now here’s some new survey evidence—items constructed to separate the “who are you, whose side are you on” question from “what do you know” question—that is much more consistent with the alternative hypothesis, and with the real world and experimental data that support that explanation.

Climate scientists update their models after ten years of evidence suggest one or another parameter of their models was not right.

Climate science communicators must be willing to do the same—or else they are not genuinely being guided by science in their craft.

3.  Members of the public already get that climate scientists think that we face a huge problem.

The data I’ve presented obviously don’t suggest that members of the public know very much about what scientists believe.  They are in fact as likely to be wrong about that as right.

However encouraging it is to see that they understand  CO2 is a “greenhouse gas,” it is painful to realize that they think  CO2 will kill the plants inside a greenhouse.

But the mistakes are all in the same direction: in favor of the answer that “climate scientists believe” global warming poses a huge risk for the environment and human beings in particular.

Basically, items like these are indicators of a latent (unobserved) disposition to attribute to climate scientists the position “we are screwed if we don’t do something.”

That might not be a nuanced and discerning enough view to get you an “A” on a high school “climate science” exam.

But if civic knowledge consists in recognizing the policy significance of what science knows (melting polar ice causes sea level rise) as opposed to various technical details (e.g., that the North Pole ice cap is a big ice cube floating in the Arctic sea & thus won’t displace ocean water when it melts), then there is already more than enough civic understanding to motivate political responsiveness

The problem—what’s blocking this civic knowledge from being translated into action—is something else.  That’s what science communicators and others need to work on.

4. Consensus “messaging” campaigns don’t address the problem—except to the extent that predictably partisan forms of them make things worse.

If there is already a strong, bi-partisan disposition to view climate science as saying “we are in deep shit trouble, folks,” then “messaging” that doesn’t tell people anything they don’t already know.

The reason that ordinary citizens are polarized on doing something about climate change is that such policies have become infused with cultural meanings that signify each group’s contempt for the other.

Climate change, as Al Gore says, is a “struggle for the soul of America”—and as long as it remains so, people will resist an outcome that says they and people they look up to are “stupid and evil.”

Disentangling climate science from cultural status conflict must be the key objective.

“Messaging” scientific consensus doesn’t do that. On the contrary, it just adds another assaultive idiom – “97% AGREEEEEEE, MORON!!!” –to the already abundant stock of tropes one side uses to express how much contempt it has for its opponent in an ugly, senseless cultural status competition.

5.  Is there any alternative interpretation of these data?


Someone could say, reasonably, that asking people what they think “climate scientists believe” is different from measuring whether those people themselves believe what they climate scientists have concluded.

don’t think that’s a convincing explanation for the discrepancy between the bipartisan consensus on the “what do climate scientists believe?” items and the “do you believe in human-caused global warming?” items.

As I’ve explained, I think the two are measuring different things, and—sadly, the question that is posed by the “climate change debate” is measuring what the latter items do: who you are, what side are you on?

We need to change the way politics frames the question — so that it measures what we know, including what we collectively are fully capable of recognizing as science’s best understanding of the evidence.

But the point is that even if someone thinks the best explanation for the data is that “Republicans distrust scientists”–another issue that depends on making valid measurements of public opinion— then obviously “messaging” consensus is a not a responsive strategy.

Of course, the even bigger point is this: climate-science communicators will get nowhere if they accept interpretations of bits and pieces of evidence that are manifestly inconsistent with the evidence as a whole.

Leave a Comment