Climate Central, a Palmer Square-based nonprofit group devoted to studying climate change, has joined several other scientific groups in a study that seeks to understand why many members of the public reject the findings of the scientific community in favor of unsubstantiated beliefs, in particular those surrounding climate science.
The project is partly funded by the Rita Allen Foundation, a Nassau Street-based philanthropy that aims to solve global problems. It has provided assistance to Climate Central before, including a 2014 grant of $250,000.
Climate Central is going against a well funded disinformation campaign that has worked for decades to muddy the waters of climate research. Much of the money fueling the anti-science lobbying comes from the fossil fuels industry and right wing think tanks, whose leaders worry that increased government regulation of greenhouse gasses would inevitably follow if the public accepted the idea of man-made global warming.
The denialist PR campaign has been remarkably successful at influencing public opinion. While only a tiny minority of scientists reject anthropogenic climate change, some polls show that fewer than half of Americans believe global temperature changes are due to human activity. Even more remarkably, about 37 percent of Americans believe global warming is a hoax.
The numbers have left experts wondering why so many people have been fooled by the pseudoscientific claims of the global warming denialists, and reject broadly accepted scientific findings. What are the psychological, behavioral and cultural threads that tie together the fear of vaccinations with denial of climate change? And how can science communicators apply the answers to these questions to improve the communication and understanding of science?
Leading experts in science and science communication are focusing on these issues in a two-year study recently launched by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The committee is charged with providing specific, practical guidance to the scientific community that can further research in this field and improve communication about the most controversial scientific issues.
In an op-ed published on April 22 at ScientificAmerican.com, Paul Hanle, above right, president of Climate Central, describes why Climate Central has joined the anti-denialism venture:
“In realms of science that touch on human affairs, and especially where science is directly linked to policy, public opinion has sometimes diverged widely from the scientific consensus. A growing literature of social science suggests that acceptance of a scientific fact like climate change may be driven by external social factors — group psychology and identity, economic or political interests, or purposeful obfuscation, for example — that are largely separate from the internal processes of science.”
Hanle said the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine was launching a study to identify the factors that influence public opinion on “controversial” issues such as childhood vaccinations and climate change. The committee conducting the study heard expert testimony on how the public develops opinions that contradict the facts, based on considerations other than the science behind the topic.
“This is something we should all care about,” Hanle wrote. “America and the world have an enormous stake in assuring that the public trusts the integrity of science and scientists. Rejecting accepted science threatens our society, not only because the enterprise of scientific research has undergirded our enormous technical and material advances since the Enlightenment, but also because it is a foundation of knowledge for improving the human condition that informs social institutions from government to health care to economics.”
Hanle said the study is important because the public is expected to influence policy decisions, but that people often support laws or candidates based on inaccurate understanding of the issues.
“It is important to try to answer the questions that follow — what factors are known to give rise to public perceptions of science and its credibility, what needs further social science research, how can we apply findings from such research to the practice of communicating science and its consequences? Under the leadership of former AAAS chief executive Alan Leshner, the Academies committee has set an agenda to investigate these and other questions arising from controversies involving science and to report its findings to the public.”
The Academies committee will publish its findings at the end of 2016. The Climate Central project will be completed in 2017.
Climate Central, 1 Palmer Square, Suite 330, Princeton 08542; 609-924-3800; fax, 609-924-3882. Paul Hanle, CEO. www.climatecentral.org.
Rita Allen Foundation, 92 Nassau Street, Third Floor, Princeton 08540; 609-683-8010; fax, 609-683-8025. Elizabeth Christopherson, CEO. www.ritaallen.org.