11 June 2010

The Noisy 11%

Posted by Dan Satterfield

There was an article in the New York Times this week that surprised a lot of people. I was happy to see it but not really that surprised.

It was a poll that asked the following questions:

Poll from Stanford University. Click to see the entire paper.

Yup, 75% of the scientific sample believe that the planet is getting warmer and humans are the cause.

Considering what you hear on TV and especially on talk radio in America, that may seem very high. I suspect that most of the climate researchers and meteorologists I know would think the numbers are way too high as well.

I believe the polling data is pretty accurate. Here’s why.

What People Really Think

There was a fascinating report produced last year by Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change along with Ed Maibach and Connie Roser-Renouf  of George Mason Universisty. It was a scientific sampling of American opinions on climate change. Click the report cover to read it but stay with me for a minute or two first.

The report breaks down American beliefs on climate change into 6 basic groups. The 6th group is called the dismissives. They make up about 11% of the population. The image below from the report sums them up.

The dismissive 11%.

What Makes Science Deniers Tick

Here is more about this group from the study:

The Dismissive are distinguished by their certainty that global warming is not occurring. They have thought about the issue agood deal and consider themselves well-informed. They are quite certain that even if it is occurring, it is not caused by human activities. They believe scientists are in disagreement on the issue, and quite a few believe that there is a consensus among scientists that global warming is not occurring.

In areas where religion and science conflict, the Dismissive hold traditional religious beliefs more strongly than any other segment: Less than a quarter (23%) believe in human evolution, compared to 47 percent nationally. Almost two-thirds believe the world was created in six days (62%), compared to 54 percent nationally.

They also rely on a highly specialized media diet that deviates from population averages on almost every program and genre measured: They are less likely than average to watch national nightly news on (or use the websites of ) CBS, ABC, or NBC, or to watch or listen to CNN, local TV news, NPR, daytime talk shows, soap operas, prime-time dramas, sitcoms, or any content with a perceived liberal bias (Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Keith Olbermann, or MSNBC). Conversely, they are much more likely than average to watch Fox News, Hannity & Colmes, or Bill O’Reilly, and to listen to Rush Limbaugh.

Here is the most interesting fact.

They are more likely than average to speak up about their beliefs.

The Squeeky Wheel Gets The Press

These are the people that send emails to climate scientists calling them criminals and some of these people are responsible for junk science internet blogs. These are the web sites that try to look scientific while in reality are run almost exclusively by people who have no understanding of or background in basic science.

Their views on science are nothing less than shocking. Apparently most have convinced themselves that scientists mainly disagree with the IPCC when the reality is that there is overwhelming agreement. They also disagree with the basic tenants of Earth sciences that have been settled facts for almost a century.

The study does not say so, but based on my interaction with this group online and elsewhere, they are very angry and I think afraid.

I’m Right and The World’s Scientists Are All Wrong

Research seems to show members of this group become more certain of their beliefs if you show them science that says they are wrong. I have long since known there is nothing I can say that will persuade them to modify their opinions even slightly. Why?

Their opinions are based on a political interpretation not a scientific one.

Last but not least, their actual scientific literacy seems to be almost zero. This makes it nearly impossible to communicate science to this group.

They get a lot of attention by the media because they make a lot of noise but there aren’t really very many of them. That’s why I was not surprised to see the results of the survey. The real number may be about 16% according to some recent research and that would fit better with the results of the Stanford poll.

It’s Not The Science- It’s Politics

What this poll really says is that most of the people who are persuadable by scientific evidence have been persuaded. At least to some degree. There are a lot of people out there who are still confused about what they see and hear about the issue and the science.

It’s for the curious and confused that many climate researchers and others with a background in science should write about the science of climate change. We are currently conducting the most dangerous experiment humans could devise. We are fundamentally altering the composition of our thin atmosphere and playing with the planet’s thermostat. This is not just my opinion but that of virtually every scientist who is doing research in the fields of Earth Science.

Something That May Surprise You

25 years ago, it was thought that our climate always changed slowly over thousands of years. The ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica have shown how wrong this is. It was a stunning finding. This is why two important ice cores are being drilled right now.

More on that very soon.