The Enduring Effect of Scientific Interest on Trust in Climate Scientists in the US
By Matt Motta (University of Minnesota)
Most Americans think that climate scientists ought to play a role in making policy decisions about the environment. But a substantial number doubt that they can trust climate scientists and the research they produce. A recent Pew study (Funk & Kennedy 2016) found that about one third of Americans have doubts that climate scientists’ research represents the best available scientific evidence. Similar numbers believe that climate scientists are mostly influenced by their political views, or career advancement. Why do so many Americans distrust climate scientists, and what can be done to improve that trust?
In a letter recently published at Nature Climate Change, I investigate the effect of young adults’ (aged 12-14) interest in scientific issues (“science interest”) on trust in climate scientists, when they become older. Analyzing longtudinal survey data from the Longitudinal Study of American Youth (LSAY), I find that people who are highly interested in science at young ages tend to be more trusting of climate scientists in adulthood.
Previous work has found several factors that are linked to American adults’ attitudes toward climate scientists. For example, ideologically conservative and more-religious individuals have been shown to be less trusting of climate scientists and the research they produce (McCright et al., 2013; Blank & Shaw 2015; Gauchat, O’Brein, & Mirosa 2017). More generally, research has also shown that both science interest and science comprehension are associated with increased acceptance of scientific consensus on a variety of issues. Kahan and colleagues (2017) however demonstrate that science curiosity, unlike science comprehension (which polarizes views across party lines), increases perceptions of risk associated with global warming and fracking independent of a person’s political ideology.
The broad debiasing effects of science interest represent an interesting avenue for future research on trust in climate scientists, especially at young ages. Longitudinal research has suggested that young adulthood is a critical period in the formation of attitudes toward science (Simpson & Oliver 1990). However, few have investigated the long-term effects of science curiosity from young adulthood.
In my study I examine the effects of young adults’ interest in scientific issues and “science comprehension” - i.e., citizens’ knowledge about science and abstract quantitative reasoning skills – on attitudes toward climate scientists in adulthood. I hypothesize that science interest – compared to science comprehension – may be especially effective at improving trust in climate scientists. Previous research suggests that the effects of science comprehension on trust tend to be strongly conditioned by citizens’ cultural and ideological affiliations. For example, ideological conservatives who “think like scientists” (e.g., who demonstrate higher levels of science comprehension) are more likely to reject scientific consensus than conservatives lower in science comprehension (Kahan et al., 2012; Kahan 2015).
According to Kahan’s Cultural Cognition Thesis (CCT), different groups in society stake out different positions on issues related to science; turning them into cultural, religious, and partisan battlegrounds (Kahan 2010). CCT predicts that those who comprehend science the best, are also the best equipped to interpret scientific information in line with their previous beliefs (e.g., Kahan et al. 2012; Kahan 2017). Adapting language from Kunda (1990), we might say that these individuals are the “best” politically motivated reasoners.
To study the effects of science interest and comprehension in young adulthood, on trust in climate scientists in adulthood, I analyze panel data from the Longitudinal Study of American Youth (LSAY). LSAY interviewed over three thousand middle and high school students several times between young adulthood (around age 12) to adulthood (around age 35), beginning in 1987. In this study, I show how students’ self-reported interest in “scientific issues,” as well as their performance on standardized quantitative and science knowledge tests, impacts their levels of trust in information from climate scientists (e.g., science professors, NOAA/NASA) later on in life.
The results highlight the enduring effects of scientific interest on trust in climate scientists. On average, I find that science interest in young adulthood is associated with about a 7% increase in trust toward climate scientists in adulthood. Follow-up analyses demonstrate that more than a third (about 36%) of the cumulative effect of scientific interest in both young adulthood and adulthood can be attributed to science interest developed early-on in life. However, the two science comprehension variables (quantitative skills and science knowledge) were not systematically associated with increased trust.
The results also suggest that scientific interest is indeed unique, with respect to its ability to boost public trust in climate scientists. I find no evidence that ideological self-identification (in adulthood) moderates the effect of scientific interest (in young adulthood) on trust in climate scientists; the effect of science interest in young adulthood on adults’ trust in climate scientists was about equal for liberals and conservatives. In contrast, both science comprehension measures produced significant evidence of moderation; such that comprehension improved liberals’ trust in climate scientists disproportionately strongly.
This research suggests a new and potentially fruitful path forward for boosting Americans’ trust in climate scientists. Efforts to get young adults interested in science – such as science-focused games (Wu & Lee 2015; Kwok 2017) – may have long-lasting and ideologically cross-cutting effects on trust. If trust in climate scientists ultimately boosts deference to scientific consensus and expertise, the public may be more accepting of the role that climate scientists (and scientific evidence) play in the policymaking process.
Figuring out how to most effectively improve trust in climate scientists has important consequences for public policy in the United States. Addressing complex policy challenges like climate change often requires a specialized knowledge of related subjects. Consequently, citizens and elected officials alike must, from time to time, place trust in unelected experts (Nichols 2017). Shutting experts out of the policymaking process impedes our collective ability to solve pressing and complex problems.
About the Author
Matt Motta is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. In Summer 2018, he will begin work as a postdoctoral fellow in the Science of Science Communication at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania (and will be based at Yale University).
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