USAToday: Scientists Misreading the Polls on Climate Change

Dan Vergano of USA Today has an important column out this weekend. Vergano, I believe, is the first major journalist to call into question the now dominant narrative that "ClimateGate" has powerfully damaged public trust in scientists.

In the column, he quotes Stanford professor Jon Krosnick with the following apt observation. As Vergano writes:

What's really happening, suggests polling expert Jon Krosnick of Stanford University, is "scientists are over-reacting. It's another funny instance of scientists ignoring science."

The science that Krosnick is referring to are the multiple polling indicators relative to public trust in scientists which shows only slight shifts in public trust from a year or two years ago and more generally, principles and theory from the field of political communication research. Here's how I explained these factors at a panel a few weeks back at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government:

...without more formal analysis, it is difficult to say what the impact of ClimateGate has been on American public opinion. There is the question of how much attention Americans paid to news coverage of the controversy, especially in competition with other issues at the time. Also, from what we know from public opinion research generally, for those who did follow the event, the most likely impact is a reinforcement of the views of audiences already deeply dismissive of the issue.

Multiple recent surveys--specifically those from Pew, ABC News, and Yale/George Mason--do show that public concern and acceptance of climate science are down from 2008, even among Democrats. Yet other factors likely influencing public opinion include the performance of the economy; perceptions of cooler weather at the local level; and widespread dissatisfaction and distrust of government and the media [though as the Yale/George Mason survey finds, public trust in climate scientists remains very high at roughly ¾ of Americans].

I will weigh back in with more on this topic next week. It's a topic I think is very important to explore. In the meantime, definitely check out Vergano's column and more of Krosnick's explanation. Much of the misinterpretation of ClimateGate's impact on the public connects more broadly to a paper I am currently working on with my colleague John Besley, that reviews the emerging research on how scientists as a group perceive the public and public communication; journalists and the media; and the policymaking process respectively.

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Below are text of the remarks that I opened with at the Harvard panel last week on "The Public Divide over Climate Change: Science, Skeptics and the Media." To listen to audio of the panel, find links to news coverage, and read a detailed discussion of the panel, go to this post. A little more…
At a briefing on Capitol Hill yesterday, Stanford University communication professor Jon Krosnick presented the best analysis to date estimating the impact of "ClimateGate" on public perceptions of climate change and of climate scientists. Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment, where…
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"...without more formal analysis, it is difficult to say what the impact of ClimateGate has been on American public opinion." The writer can't be serious. ClimateGate has been conspicuously ignored by the national media. That's why "it is difficult to say what the impact ... has been on American public opinion."

By John A. Jauregui (not verified) on 05 Mar 2010 #permalink

"the Yale/George Mason survey finds public trust in climate scientists remains very high at roughly ¾ of Americans"

And yet a high percentage of Americans doesn't appear to believe their results. If, for the sake of argument, we take the Yale/George Mason results at face value, it seems therefore that the American public is unaware to a great extent of what those results are. They might trust climate scientists, but I'm guessing most Americans don't pay much attention at all to discussions of climate science even in the mainstream media, and don't understand what little they hear very well. If they hear vague mutterings about a raging scientific controversy over whether global warming is real or not, they don't look into it any more and simply go with their first impression that the question isn't settled - not being aware that the voices on the "nay" side are a small but loud fringe with little scientific backing.

Contrary to the constant thesis of your blog, Matt, I don't know how much more scientists can do about this. The amount of warrgarrrble noise in the mediasphere, and the monetary clout and political power of the denialist side, are both vast. I increasingly fear that breaking through both of these barriers to let the public know what's really going on with the science might be just plain too difficult to pull off at this point.

They call me "Mr. Sunshine."

This sounds like clutching at straws. The poll cited in the Vergaro article shows that, even while continuing to trust science in general, a lot of people simply don't think climate change is all that important relative to other problems. i.e. even while maintaining a generally favorable attitude towards science, people are not willing to accept everything scientists say, especially when, as with climate change, a lot of scientists have allowed themselves to slide into militant political advocacy. Seems pretty sensible.