Climate Change Communication and Denial

A primary issue in addressing climate change is that many people either deny its existence or deny or downplay man’s role in driving it. The usual answer is that we need more education about climate science. Cultural cognition research questions this presumption, finding that many climate change skeptics/deniers understand the underlying science as well as those who accept man’s role in climate change. These papers report research on how and when education about facts can change minds when it may only harden existing attitudes. This is new work and is evolving with time. These are links to public domain copies of the papers that can be used in class.

Kahan, Dan M., Climate Science Communication and the Measurement Problem (June 25, 2014). Advances Pol. Psych., Forthcoming. (http://ssrn.com/abstract=2459057)

This paper examines the science-of-science-communication measurement problem. In its simplest form, the problem reflects the use of externally invalid measures of the dynamics that generate cultural conflict over risk and other policy-relevant facts. But at a more fundamental level, the science-of-science-communication measurement problem inheres in the phenomena being measured themselves. The “beliefs” individuals form about a societal risk such as climate change are not of a piece; rather they reflect the distinct clusters of inferences that individuals draw as they engage information for two distinct ends: to gain access to the collective knowledge furnished by science, and to enjoy the sense of identity enabled by membership in a community defined by particular cultural commitments. The paper shows how appropriately designed “science comprehension” tests—one general, and one specific to climate change—can be used to measure individuals’ reasoning proficiency as collective-knowledge acquirers independently of their reasoning proficiency as cultural-identity protectors. Doing so reveals that there is in fact little disagreement among culturally diverse citizens on what science knows about climate change. The source of the climate-change controversy and like disputes is the contamination of education and politics with forms of cultural status competition that make it impossible for diverse citizens to express their reason as both collective-knowledge acquirers and cultural-identity protectors at the same time.

Brendan Nyhan & Jason Reifler, Displacing misinformation about events: An experimental test of causal corrections, 2 Journal of Experimental Political Science 81–93 (2015)

Misinformation can be very difficult to correct and may have lasting effects even after it is discredited. One reason for this persistence is the manner in which people make causal inferences based on available information about a given event or outcome. As a result, false information may continue to influence beliefs and attitudes even after being debunked if it is not replaced by an alternate causal explanation. We test this hypothesis using an experimental paradigm adapted from the psychology literature on the continued influence effect and find that a causal explanation for an unexplained event is significantly more effective than a denial even when the denial is backed by unusually strong evidence. This result has significant implications for how to most effectively counter misinformation about controversial events and outcomes.

DJ Flynn et al., The nature and origins of misperceptions: Understanding false and unsupported beliefs about politics, 38 Political Psychology 127–150 (2017)

Political misperceptions can distort public debate and undermine people’s ability to form meaningful opinions. Why do people often hold these false or unsupported beliefs, and why is it sometimes so difficult to convince them otherwise? We argue that political misperceptions are typically rooted in directionally motivated reasoning, which limits the effectiveness of corrective information about controversial issues and political figures. We discuss factors known to affect the prevalence of directionally motivated reasoning and assess strategies for accurately measuring misperceptions in surveys. Finally, we address the normative implications of misperceptions for democracy and suggest important topics for future research.

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