Stanford Researcher: Data Show That ClimateGate Has Had Limited Impact on Public Perceptions



At a briefing on Capitol Hill yesterday, Stanford University communication professor Jon Krosnick presented the best analysis to date estimating the impact of "ClimateGate" on public perceptions of climate change and of climate scientists. Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment, where Krosnick is a faculty fellow, has put together a detailed news release on Krosnick's survey analysis. Also above is a YouTube clip of Krosnick explaining the research.

The full report should be read, but below I feature several key conclusions. Despite alarm over the presumed impact of ClimateGate, Krosnick's analysis reveals very little influence for this event. More research is likely to come on this issue and this is just the first systematic analysis to be released.

Yet there is an even more interesting question emerging here than the impact of ClimateGate on public opinion: If communication researchers have difficulty discerning a meaningful impact for ClimateGate, why do so many scientists and advocates continue to misread public opinion on climate change and to misunderstand the influence of the news media? As I argue below, an additional object of study in this case should be the factors shaping the perceptions of scientists and advocates.

--->Krosnick's analysis estimates that the percentage of Americans who believe in global warming has only dropped 5% since 2008 and that ClimateGate has had no meaningful impact on trust in climate scientists which stands at 70% (essentially the same as the 68% level in 2008).

---->According to Krosnick's analysis, the 5% shift has occurred among the 30% of the public already distrustful of scientists. Moreover, for this segment, ClimateGate is not the major factor shifting opinion about global warming but rather the most likely cause is the belief among this segment that recent temperatures are cooler and the weather overall is more stable. Here's how Krosnick explains the shift, discussing trends in several poll questions that track these beliefs:

"Katrina is a distant memory," Krosnick said. "2008 wasn't a year of giant-sized storms, but it was a year of lower temperatures. 2009 also saw the fewest storms since 1997. For some people - especially those who say that they have little or no trust in climate scientists - that's real information. They see that the weather appears to be more stable and that temperatures are cooler, and their reaction is, 'it stopped getting hotter, so maybe global warming isn't happening after all.'"


If the best analysis to date shows very limited impact for ClimateGate, why has there been such an outcry of alarm and such strong assertions from some scientists and advocates that ClimateGate has done serious damage to public opinion? In part it reflects an innocence among some scientists and advocates about the relevance and findings from social science research in the area. From the Stanford news release:

"The scientific community is overreacting to these events," Krosnick said. "In theory, it's possible that public regard for climate scientists has dropped sharply since our 2009 survey. But based on my 30 years of experience in this field, that's very unlikely, because American public opinion, even on a highly publicized and frequently debated issue, changes very, very slowly. So in a two-month period, it's unlikely that there would be a dramatic change. My guess is that relatively few Americans are aware of the media controversy or are paying attention to it, and even fewer are influenced by it."


Not only does innocence about public opinion research shape perception, but several other likely cognitive biases are likely at work. As I explained at the NYTimes' Dot Earth earlier this week, one bias relates to perceptions of media influence:

These biases are well understood and predicted by past research in communication. They include a tendency for individuals heavily involved on an issue to perceive almost all news coverage as hostile to their goals (even news coverage that favors their position); to presume much larger effects for a message on the public than the actual influence; and to apply a faulty quasi-statistical sense to where public opinion might actually stand on an issue, perceiving public opinion as hostile to their goals, no matter what the objective indicators might say.


Another strong bias among the science community also relates to political ideology. While peer-review and other norms in science help correct for the influence of ideology on basic scientific research, they don't correct for the conclusions and judgments that scientists might draw about political debates over policy and regulation. For example, one recent study finds that in light of uncertainty about risks related to nanotechnology, liberal-leaning nanotech scientists are likely to favor stronger regulation while conservative leaning scientists are likely to oppose regulation. In other words, above and beyond scientific expertise and training, ideology in this case plays a significant role in shaping the policy preferences of nanotech scientists.

Heuristic decision-making by elected officials, journalists, and the public is common. We are all cognitive misers, often relying on ideology and values to make sense of the complexities of the political world, and scientists are unlikely to be very different, especially on climate change where strongly framed assertions are made about who is to blame for societal inaction on the issue.

Here's how I described the relevance of these questions in a recent panel at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government:

Raising attention to these questions is important: Political strategists and commentators are calling upon scientists to become more directly politically involved on climate change and other science-related policy debates. Scientists are urged to "fight back," and encouraged to go so far as to organize political action committees and to openly support "pro-science" candidates.

This last trend also raises an important research question: more study of scientists as a social and professional group is needed, specifically examining the influence of scientists' own ideology and news media use on how they evaluate political leaders, define their roles in policy debates, form political opinions, come to support proposed policies, and participate politically. Consider that a Pew survey of AAAS members last year found that 55% of scientists self-identify as liberals compared to 20% of the public and that only 9% of scientists self-identify as conservatives, compared to 37% of the public. This ideological gap between scientists and the public--above and beyond professional expertise or technical knowledge--likely contributes significantly to how scientists differ from the public in their views on political leaders, proposed policy options, and who or what is to blame for policy failures.


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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.