Studies of how people perceive climate science paint a depressing picture—one in which ideology overwhelms evidence. Not only does opinion about the science break down along ideological lines, but knowledge of science seems to make matters worse, accentuating the partisan divide.
Those studies have always been somewhat dissatisfying, though, as they leave little room for anyone to dispassionately evaluate the evidence or voice trust in the researchers who have.
A study done by Matthew Motta of the University of Minnesota delves in to how people might escape ideological blinders. Motta found that people with a long-term interest in science tend to trust scientific authorities like NASA and the IPCC when it comes to climate, regardless of what their political persuasions may be. It’s the latest result that indicates that a “scientific curiosity” can get people past their ideology.
Trust in science
Motta took advantage of a unique resource: the Longitudinal Study of American Youth, which has been tracking over 3,000 US citizens since the 1980s (long enough that it’s had to rebrand itself the Longitudinal Study of American Life). Back in 1987, when its participants were 12-14 years old, the study used questions to assess its subjects’ quantitative reasoning abilities (a proxy for scientific ability) and basic science knowledge. But they were also asked about how interested they were in scientific issues.
More recently, Motta added questions to a follow-up survey that asked the same people about how much they trusted scientific information on climate change coming from a number of institutions: state-level agencies, NASA and NOAA, academic researchers, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Overall, these organizations were trusted at similar levels.
Motta then looked for correlations between science interest and knowledge during youth and current trust in sources of scientific information. Scientific knowledge at 12-14 had no significant correlations with trust, while scientific ability slightly increased the trust in only one of the groups. In contrast, interest in science was correlated with increased trust in every single source of information that Motta asked about.
Interest in science was tracked continuously in follow-up surveys through the years, allowing Motta to estimate the impact of this interest in trust on climate-science organizations. Cumulatively, it was quite large, accounting for nearly a 15-percent increase in trust. And, depending on the organization, about a third to a half of that trust arises because of the persistent influence of the interest in science expressed by people in their early teens.
Curiosity > ideology
The most striking result, however, came when Motta looked at whether the participants self-identified as liberal or conservative. Increased scientific knowledge was associated with enhanced trust in scientific organization, but only among liberals. In contrast, the influence of interest in science was completely independent of ideology—it increased trust among both conservatives and liberals.
Motta isn’t the first to find this sort of effect. In a paper published earlier this year, a group used a measure it terms the “science curiosity scale” to see how the measure influenced concern about climate change. In the group’s results, conservatives with a high scientific literacy were less likely to be concerned about climate change than conservatives with a looser grip on science. But science curiosity actually increased conservatives’ concern about the risks of climate change.
(These researchers defined science curiosity as “a general disposition, variable in intensity across persons, that reflects the motivation to seek out and consume scientific information for personal pleasure.)
While neither of these findings are direct measures of what people think about climate science, they’re both pretty significant. You wouldn’t express concern about climate change if you didn’t believe it was happening, after all. And while most people don’t go through the effort of examining scientific data, they tend to accept expert opinions, meaning that trust in the groups providing solid expert opinions can be very significant.
Motta also cites data showing that trust is lacking for many people when it comes to climate science: “Only about one-third of Americans think that climate scientists’ research represents the best available scientific evidence. Similar numbers of Americans believe that climate scientists are mostly influenced by career advancement or their political leanings.”
The key question, however, is how interest in science is translating to accepting what scientists are telling us. It seems unlikely that we’ll convert the majority of adults into the science-curious camp any time soon. But ideally, we’re still likely to see them accept the information that science is providing. If there’s a way to generate that acceptance without a lifelong interest, it would go a long way toward helping the public engage in fact-based decision making.