USAToday: Scientists Misreading the Polls on Climate Change

Dan Vergano of USA Today has an important column out this weekend. Vergano, I believe, is the first major journalist to call into question the now dominant narrative that "ClimateGate" has powerfully damaged public trust in scientists.

In the column, he quotes Stanford professor Jon Krosnick with the following apt observation. As Vergano writes:

What's really happening, suggests polling expert Jon Krosnick of Stanford University, is "scientists are over-reacting. It's another funny instance of scientists ignoring science."

The science that Krosnick is referring to are the multiple polling indicators relative to public trust in scientists which shows only slight shifts in public trust from a year or two years ago and more generally, principles and theory from the field of political communication research. Here's how I explained these factors at a panel a few weeks back at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government:

...without more formal analysis, it is difficult to say what the impact of ClimateGate has been on American public opinion. There is the question of how much attention Americans paid to news coverage of the controversy, especially in competition with other issues at the time. Also, from what we know from public opinion research generally, for those who did follow the event, the most likely impact is a reinforcement of the views of audiences already deeply dismissive of the issue.

Multiple recent surveys--specifically those from Pew, ABC News, and Yale/George Mason--do show that public concern and acceptance of climate science are down from 2008, even among Democrats. Yet other factors likely influencing public opinion include the performance of the economy; perceptions of cooler weather at the local level; and widespread dissatisfaction and distrust of government and the media [though as the Yale/George Mason survey finds, public trust in climate scientists remains very high at roughly ¾ of Americans].

I will weigh back in with more on this topic next week. It's a topic I think is very important to explore. In the meantime, definitely check out Vergano's column and more of Krosnick's explanation. Much of the misinterpretation of ClimateGate's impact on the public connects more broadly to a paper I am currently working on with my colleague John Besley, that reviews the emerging research on how scientists as a group perceive the public and public communication; journalists and the media; and the policymaking process respectively.

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