Study: Belief in Climate Change Drops Amid Skeptical Content

Increases in belief accuracy often disappeared after exposure to opinion articles expressing skepticism about climate change.

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July 07, 2022

Exposure to factual information about climate change briefly persuades people to agree with the scientific consensus, according to a new study co-authored by a George Washington University assistant professor. However, they often revert to their original attitudes about climate change over a short period of time and after consuming skeptical opinion content.

The study, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, aimed to uncover why people continue to hold misperceptions about certain subjects even after viewing accurate information. During the early stages of this four-wave study, the research team found that when people read articles that presented scientific facts about climate change, they came to hold more accurate understandings about the subject. The researchers also found that more people supported a more robust government response to the climate emergency immediately after consuming factual information.

However, those attitudes dissipated during the latter stages of the study as time went on and people read articles that were skeptical of the scientific consensus on climate change. Among those who identified as Republicans and climate change deniers, the study showed improvements in factual accuracy and supported more government action after reading scientific coverage. However, they were more likely than Democrats to express disbelief in the scientific consensus on climate after coming across skeptical opinion articles.

“This study makes clear that, while reading articles about the science behind climate change makes people understand climate change more accurately, these gains are fleeting,” said Ethan Porter, a GW assistant professor of media and public affairs and director of the Misinformation/Disinformation Lab at GW’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics. “When people read articles casting doubt on the science of climate change, the positive effects of science coverage are all but eliminated.”

In addition to Porter, the research team includes Brendan Nyhan, professor of government at Dartmouth College, and Thomas J. Wood, assistant professor of political science at the Ohio State University. 

The study was funded by the GW Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics (IDDP), which launched in 2019 with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. IDDP's mission is to help the public, journalists and policy makers understand digital media’s influence on public dialogue and opinion, and to develop sound solutions to disinformation and other ills that arise in these spaces.

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