Polls taken over the last few months are showing an increased skepticism among Americans about global warming despite the fact that scientific reports have remained consistent. While the media mayhem and misinformation concerning Climategate and this winter's severe snowstorms across most of the country have likely played a part in the confusion, new research is proving that the psychology of climate change belief may run much deeper than previously thought.
"People tend to conform their factual beliefs to ones that are consistent with their cultural outlook, their world view," social scientist Don Braman told National Public Radio. Braman is a scholar at George Washington University and part of The Cultural Cognition Project, which has been conducting experiments about how individuals interpret facts differently.
Those experiments are revealing that when it comes to belief in contested political issues like global warming, a person's values matter much more than the facts. Or, in other words, values are the lens through which facts are interpreted. "It doesn't matter whether you show them negative or positive information, they reject the information that is contrary to what they would like to believe, and they glom onto the positive information," said Braman.
For instance, in one experiment participants were asked to describe their cultural beliefs regarding new technology, authority and free enterprise. Those who embraced these things were labeled as the "individualistic" group, while those who were suspicious of them were labeled as "communitarians." Once grouped separately, they were then presented with a list of topics from which to opine; a list which included topics as varied as nanotechnology, the death penalty, and of course global warming.
"These two groups start to polarize as soon as you start to describe some of the potential benefits and harms," said Braman.
To get at the heart of the big rift, social scientists have identified at least two different psychological litmus tests any new fact must pass before it gets assigned a positive or negative belief by either group. First, a fact must jive with an individual's previously held beliefs, and second, a fact must be presented from a source deemed trustworthy.
For instance, people labeled in the "individualistic" group tended to favor nuclear power as a viable solution to the energy crisis. When they were given a report which offered nuclear power as a solution to the climate crisis, they were more likely to consider global warming a serious problem. On the other hand, since communitarians distrusted nuclear power, they were less likely to see global warming as a concern when nuclear power was the only proposed solutuon. In other words, both groups evaluated the issue of global warming differently depending on previously held beliefs.
Furthermore, participants were handed their reports on the variety of topics by different people ranging from a rumpled and bearded expert to a crisply business-like one. Both groups tended to be persuaded more when the message came from someone they considered to be more like them.
So, it turns out that frustrated climate scientists may have something to learn from social scientists, at least when it comes to presenting their data to the public. "The goal can't be to create a kind of psychological house of mirrors so that people end up seeing exactly what you want," argues Braman. "The goal has to be to create an environment that allows them to be open-minded."
Publishing more scientific data is only part of the battle. Getting through to stubborn, confused American audiences will require a more delicate — dare say, political — touch than many scientists have been practicing.