Scientific coverage of climate crisis can change minds, but only fleetingly, research suggests

Accurate beliefs can be rapidly eroded by exposure to climate-sceptic messages, US scientists warn

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Monday 20 June 2022 20:36 BST
Exposure to climate scepticism can change people’s beliefs on the subject, a new US study suggests
Exposure to climate scepticism can change people’s beliefs on the subject, a new US study suggests (Getty)

Scientific reporting on the world’s worsening climate crisis can help people adopt more accurate beliefs on the issue – but they are quickly eroded by climate-sceptic messages, a study has found.

These are the findings of a team of researchers at Ohio State University who conducted an online study of 2,898 people who each took part in four waves of the research during autumn 2020.

Thomas Wood, associate professor of political science at The Ohio State University said: “It is not the case that the American public does not respond to scientifically informed reporting when they are exposed to it.

“But even factually accurate science reporting recedes from people’s frame of reference very quickly.”

The research team said they found that these accurate beliefs faded quickly and can erode when people are exposed to coverage which minimises the threat of the climate crisis.

They found the same effect across both Democrat and Republican voters. Across the political divide people who initially rejected human-caused climate change also had their opinions shifted by reading accurate articles.

In the first wave of the study, all participants read media articles that provided information reflecting the scientific consensus on the climate crisis.

Then in the second and third waves of the experiment, they read either another scientific article, an opinion article that was sceptical of climate science, an article that discussed the partisan debate over climate change, or an article on an unrelated subject.

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

To rate participants’ scientific understanding, the research team asked after each wave if they believed that climate change is happening and has a human cause.

To measure participants’ attitudes, the researchers asked if they favoured government action on climate change and if they favoured renewable energy.

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

“Not only did science reporting change people’s factual understanding, it also moved their political preferences,” he said.

“It made them think that climate change was a pressing government concern that 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 the study.

In addition, opinion stories that were sceptical of the scientific consensus on the climate crisis reversed the accuracy gains generated by reading science coverage.

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’ beliefs and attitudes about scientific issues such as climate change.

“It was striking to us how amenable the subjects in our study were to what they read about climate change in our study. But what they learned faded very quickly,” Dr Wood said.

But the team noted that their results conflict with the media imperative to only report on what is new.

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

“The news media isn’t designed to act that way.”

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