News media influences public trust in science

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No one will be surprised at the headline on ‘s Guardian blog – Fox News found to be a major driving force behind global warming denial. Still, the article references a new research paper by Hmielkowski et al. in the Public Understanding of Science (see An attack on science? Media use, trust in scientists, and perceptions of global warming). The conclusions from this research affirms we are right not to be surprised, but also shows links between climate change denial and trust in science and scientists. They also conclude that the news media people read can influence both their attitude towards climate change issues and their trust in science and scientists.

Trust in science related to your news sources

These researcher found that:

“the more Americans use conservative media, the less certain they are that global warming is happening. Conversely, the more Americans use non-conservative media, the more certain they are that global warming is happening.”

This confirms previous findings. But they went further and found their results:

” . . demonstrate that the negative effect of conservative media use on global warming belief certainty is due, at least in part, to the negative effect of conservative media use on trust in scientists. The positive effect of non-conservative media use on belief certainty is likewise explained by the positive effect of non-conservative media use on trust. Furthermore, the use of within-subject panel data and longitudinal analysis shows that media affects people’s level of trust in scientists.”

I find this last point disturbing. It’s one thing for a group of people to disagree with current scientific findings, but far more serious if they are motivated to disagree by lack of trust in scientists. That does create a defense mechanism for the protection of beliefs against the evidence of reality.

Conservative media promote distrust in science

Further disturbing is the implication that such distrust is actively promoted by some conservative media.

It is probably not surprising that trust, or lack of trust, are cognitive mechanisms enabling people to draw conclusions without the need for intensive analysis of the evidence. consequently people are effectively programmed, by the nature of their normal news media reading, to draw politically motivated conclusions, whatever the evidence.

There are two implications from this work. Firstly, changes in public perceptions on climate change have probably had more to do with media either promoting or undermining trust in scientists than in evidence:

” . . it appears that climate change contrarians have successfully raised questions about scientists in the public mind. Polling data from 2008 showed that 83 percent of the US population at least somewhat trusted scientists as a source of information about global warming; however, trust declined in 2010 to 74 percent. By contrast, these results demonstrate that use of non-conservative media outlets increases trust in scientists, suggesting that mainstream and liberal-leaning media coverage plays an important role in limiting (and countering) the effects of the climate skeptic movement. Therefore, continued use of mainstream news media outlets by the public should help sustain the credibility of scientists as a source of information about global warming. Thus, mainstream news media should be cognizant of this role and continue to highlight scientists as a trustworthy source of information on climate change.”

The public role of scientists

Secondly scientists should attempt to make sure their public role on issues like climate science promotes trust, rather than the opposite. They need to defend their credibility when attacked by conservative media in this way:

“Scientists could remain on the sidelines and exclusively produce research for peer-reviewed journals and reports. Although this strategy may help keep scientists above the fray, this does not mean that they will remain neutral actors in the eyes of the public. Indeed, climate contrarians and conservative media outlets are already attacking the credibility of climate science and individual scientists. Remaining uninvolved gives climate contrarians and conservative media free rein to redefine how the public thinks about climate scientists and their research. Alternatively, scientists could use their trusted position in society to engage the public by providing them with understandable analysis and information about the causes, risks and potential solutions to climate change. However, this proactive stance may lead some members of the public to view scientists as increasingly politicized. In both scenarios, some members of the public may lose trust in scientists, which may be difficult to regain . Importantly, however, the sidelines strategy will likely lead to a greater total loss of public trust than the public engagement strategy – especially among the Cautious, Disengaged, and Doubtful audiences identified in prior research, if climate contrarians are allowed to shape public discourse uncontested. Regardless, scientists will play an important role in how different publics perceive the issue of global warming. The question is whether it is on their terms or the terms of climate contrarians and their allies.” My emphasis.

It’s an important issue for scientists – particularly in the US where the news media is so polarised and political factions concentrate around specific examples. The authors finish by stressing how important the role of the media there has become:

“This political polarization is contributing to national climate change policy paralysis in the USA, and it is becoming clear that the news media itself plays an important role in this process.”

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3 responses to “News media influences public trust in science

  1. Pingback: Regaining trust! | Wotts Up With That Blog

  2. Pingback: Arkarbor

  3. Pingback: Regaining trust? | And Then There's Physics

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