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

Framing Science blog logo Many have been wondering about the impact that the climate research unit hacking incident (ClimateGate) had on public opinion towards climate change. This article summarizes the analysis of Stanford University professor Jon Krosnick. According to Krosnick, the public has the same level of trust for climate scientists that they had before the incident, and that any drop in support for climate solutions comes from a segment of Americans who view the recent cooler weather as an indicator that climate change isn't happening. Video and more after the jump.

Posted Mar. 13, 2010

By Matthew C. Nisbet, Framing Science

At a briefing
on Capitol Hill yesterday, Stanford University communication
professor Jon
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
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

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
earlier this week, one bias relates to perceptions of media

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

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
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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