This story from Portland State University looks at first like another typical story of social science research on how to get finally get through to those troglodyte climate deniers turns out to be actually be interesting.
It appears that the researchers were honest enough in their study design that they came really close to seeing some truth.
“The most interesting thing to me is that liberals and conservatives are just seeing climate science from a completely different epistemic vantage point,” says Suldovsky about the results.
The study design appears open to multiple points of view instead of just push polling to get the results for which they hope.
To learn more about how liberals and conservatives differ in how they think about climate change, Suldovksy and Taylor-Rodriguez created an online survey that was completed by 1,049 Oregonians. The participants ranged from age 18 to 86 and closely mirrored the demographics of the state in terms of sex, race, age and education. There was also ample representation from different political groups; 43% of participants were moderates, 30% were liberals and 27% were conservatives.
The survey asked participants questions about how they thought about climate change, and included questions about how certain they were that climate change is happening; how complicated or complex they think climate science is; and who they rely on to give them knowledge about climate change — their own direct lived experience or experts. The survey also measured how participants prefer to engage with climate science. The researchers then used a statistical tool called multivariate regression to figure out what factors predicted engagement preferences.
Liberals appeared eager to defer to perceived authority while Conservatives appeared lean toward being natural skeptics according to the research although the study authors don’t phrase it that way, emphasis mine.
The survey showed that liberals see climate science and climate change as certain and simple. They don’t think it’s very complicated to understand, and they also don’t think it’s going to be refuted in the future. Liberals also defer to scientific experts about climate change to such an extent that they reported that they would defer to what a scientist says about climate change even if it contradicts their own experience.
“That’s a pretty bold thing to agree with,” says Suldovsky. “That was pretty shocking to me.”
By contrast, conservatives saw climate science completely differently. “They see it as far less certain and far more complex, [the latter] is super interesting because in that way conservatives are more in line with climate scientists,” says Suldovsky. Conservatives also rely more on their own direct lived experience to give them knowledge about the world and knowledge about climate change.
Engaging politically polarized publics surrounding climate science is a vital element in the effort to enact climate mitigation policy. Science communication experts have identified several models of public engagement with science, including the deficit, dialogue, participation, and lay expertise model. Existing research suggests that the deficit model in particular is a largely ineffective model of engagement for controversial science like climate change. There is very little research, however, regarding the engagement preferences of political groups, or how those preferences differ. This study assesses preferences for climate change engagement in the state of Oregon in the United States and examines the relationship between those preferences and epistemic beliefs about climate science. Overall, we find that liberals are significantly more likely than moderates or conservatives to view climate science as certain and simple and to rely on expert knowledge more than their own direct experience. By contrast, conservatives are significantly more likely than liberals or moderates to view climate science as uncertain and complex and to rely on their own direct experience over the knowledge of content experts. We also find that perceived certainty and simplicity are positive predictors of a preference for the deficit model of science communication. Implications for public engagement with climate change and suggestions for future research are discussed.