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Science coverage of climate change can change minds—briefly

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Science reporting on climate change is leading Americans to adopt more accurate beliefs and support government action in this area, but these gains are fragile, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that these accurate beliefs quickly fade and can erode when people are exposed to coverage skeptical of climate change.

“It’s not like the American public doesn’t respond to science-based reporting when they’re exposed to it,” said Thomas Wood, an associate professor of political science at Ohio State University.

“But even factually accurate scientific reports deviate very quickly from people’s frame of reference.”

The study will be published in the journal on June 24, 2022 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences† Wood conducted the study with Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College and Ethan Porter of George Washington University.

The results showed that accurate scientific reporting didn’t just convince Democrats — Republicans and people who initially rejected human-caused climate change had also changed their minds by reading accurate articles.

The study involved 2,898 online participants who took part in four waves of the experiment in the fall of 2020.

In the first wave, they all read authentic articles in the popular media that provided information that reflected the scientific consensus on climate change.

In the second and third wave of the experiment, they read a different scientific article, an opinion article skeptical of climate science, an article discussing the partisan debate about climate change, or an article on an unrelated topic.

In the fourth wave, participants were simply asked about their beliefs about the science of climate change and their policy attitudes.

To assess the participants’ scientific understanding, after each wave, the researchers asked whether they (correctly) believed that climate change occurs and has a human cause. To gauge their attitudes, researchers asked participants whether they favored government action on climate change and whether they favored renewable energy.

Wood said it was significant that accurate reporting had positive effects on all groups, including Republicans and those who originally rejected climate change. But it was even more encouraging that it affected attitudes.

“Not only did science reporting change people’s actual understanding, it also changed their political affiliations,” he said.

“It made them think that climate change was an urgent government concern that the government should do more about.”

But the positive effects on people’s beliefs were short-lived, the results showed. These effects largely disappeared in later waves of research.

In addition, opinion stories skeptical of the scientific consensus on climate change reversed the accuracy gains generated by scientific reporting.

Articles featuring partisan conflict had no measurable effects on people’s beliefs and attitudes.

Overall, the results suggest that the media plays a key role in Americans’ views and attitudes about scientific issues such as climate change.

“We noticed how receptive the subjects in our study were to what they read about climate change in our study. But what they learned faded very quickly,” Wood said.

The results of the survey conflict with the media’s need to report only on what’s new.

“What we found suggests that people need to hear the same accurate messages about climate change over and over again. If they hear it just once, it disappears very quickly,” Wood said.

“The news media is not designed to act that way.”

Explaining scientific consensus can help convince naysayers

More information:
Time and content of skeptical opinions affect the effects of scientific reporting on climate beliefs and attitudes, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2022). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2122069119

Provided by Ohio State University

Quote: Scientific coverage on climate change may change your mind – in short (2022, June 20) retrieved June 21, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-science-coverage-climate-mindsbriefly.html

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