12 December 2017

Consensus Matters- The Research Says So!

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Those of us in science communication can be forgiven for thinking that everyone knows that agreement among scientists on climate change is extremely high. (It’s around 97-99% and the 1-3% who disagree have substantially less experience/publications in the field than the consensus group.)

The Hard Truth
The hard reality though is that most Americans have no idea the consensus is that strong and it makes one think that if we could just get that message out, that people would take the threat more seriously. I’ve often replied to the “it’s a hoax/fraud etc.” emails and social media posts with a snarky reply of my own: “What do you know that every major scientific body on Earth doesn’t?” I’m under no illusions that this will change the mind of the sender since they are likely stating a political belief rather than something based on science (see gateway beliefs). The response is intended for the audience who may not have paid any attention to the subject and really has no idea what they think about it. (In other words, never argue with crazy, unless there’s an audience!)

Mistake or Not

Previous research indicated that the higher the education level of skeptics the more hardened their opinion. Thus, educating folks on the science would not really do much good, and telling people that 98% of experts in the field were in agreement would make little difference. I always suspected this is not true and it turns out that I was right.

My friend Ed Maibach usually tells me my ideas on public perception of science are wrong and has the data to back it up, so when he sent me this press release about their new research at the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication I was intrigued!

Read the summary for yourself below:
(My highlighting below)

“In other words, we found that communicating a simple fact about the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change did not reinforce political polarization. Quite the opposite: communicating the scientific consensus helped neutralize partisan motivated reasoning and bridge the conservative-liberal divide, at least on this key fact. These findings proved robust across ideology and education levels and build on our prior work illustrating that perceived scientific consensus acts as a “gateway” to other key beliefs about climate change (Ding et al., 2011; van der Linden et al., 2015).
Additional graphs, information, and results can be found in the study’s Supplementary Information.”

The article is available here to those with a subscription to Nature Human Behaviour. If you would like to request a copy, please send an email to climatechange@yale.edu, with the Subject Line: Request Scientific Agreement Paper.

My takeaway is that we need to mention the overwhelming consensus constantly. I am reminded of two excellent books that are relevant here by Tom Nichols and Joe Romm. Must reads.