Ohio State University researchers gauged responses to climate science versus scepticism and suggest facts bear repeating
People’s views of the climate crisis can be influenced by the media, according to new research. But accurate scientific reporting only has limited impact on people who already have a fixed political viewpoint, particularly if it is opposed to climate action.
Researchers who ran an experiment in the US to find out how people responded to media reporting on the climate found that people’s views of climate science really were shifted by reading reporting that accurately reflected scientific findings. They were also more willing to back policies that would tackle the problem.
But the effect quickly faded, especially when people were exposed to other media that cast doubt on climate science, according to the paper, to be published on Friday in the peer-review journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Thomas Wood, associate professor of political science at Ohio State University, who led the study, 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.”
He suggested one way to reinforce the impacts of accurate science reporting was to repeat it more often. “It was striking to us how amenable the subjects in our study were to what they read [in scientifically accurate reporting] about climate change in our study. But what they learned faded very quickly,” he said. “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.”
The researchers recruited 2,898 online participants who were first asked to read media articles that reflected accurate climate science in the autumn of 2020.
In a second and third stage of the experiment, a week apart, the same participants were placed in randomised groups, which were variously asked to read from another scientific article; an opinion piece that cast doubt on climate science; an article that discussed the partisan debate on the climate crisis; or another “placebo” article on something unrelated, such as cookery.
In a fourth stage, participants were questioned on their attitudes to policy and their understanding of climate science. After each stage, the participants were asked if they believed climate change was happening and caused by people. They were also asked whether they favoured renewable energy.
After the first stage, some people who had been sceptical of climate science reported a change to their attitudes and were more willing to consider government action on climate breakdown and renewable energy. However, by the third and fourth stages, such people had largely reverted to their previous stance.
The researchers concluded: “Exposure to science content improves factual accuracy, but the improvements are short-lived and no longer detectable by the end of our study. We also find that exposure to opinion content sceptical of science can neutralise or reverse accuracy gains.
“Contrary to expectations, we do not find that exposure to news coverage focused on partisan conflict decreases factual accuracy. Immediately after exposure, science coverage about climate change increases support for government action to address climate change, but this effect fades over time.”
The impacts of reading material that cast doubt on climate science had a greater impact on Republicans and those who were already inclined to deny climate science.
The research was conducted in the US, where the reporting of science is often strongly politically inflected, and where many attitudes appear to reflect a partisan approach even to basic facts. Most Republicans, for instance, say they believe the 2020 presidential election was in fact won by Donald Trump, not Joe Biden.