The Denialist Circle

A search of Google News brings up no references to this paper, which seems to me a pity.

As part of her PhD at Curtin University CSIRO researcher Zoe Leviston conducted two studies of what people thought about climate change. However, in addition to asking people whether Climate Change was “not happening”, “natural” or “human induced” (plus “don’t know”) she also asked them what proportion of the rest of the population they thought would give each answer.

Leviston’s sampled over 10,000 people in two batches (in 2010 and 2011) so her margin for error is smaller than the data from mainstream pollsters, although its hard to tell if her randomisation techniques were of similar quality. Like most of the other polls run since the breaking of the drought Leviston found an increase in those denying change was happening, from 5.6% to 7.2%, and a decrease from 50.4% to 44.6% in those saying it is real and anthropogenic.

However, what is really new in her results is the expectation of what others thought. On average people thought more than 22% disputed climate change entirely (21.6% first time, 23.0% the second) while the proportion thought to consider it real and human induced was lees than 32% (33.7% and 30.6% respectively).

The overestimation of outright denial is perhaps understandable. Most deniers bounce around so much between saying that the world is not warming, and saying it is, but its not Global Warming, knowing how people would respond to a poll is hard. But the other figure is much more revealing. The proportion of Australians aligned with climate science is almost half, yet was thought to be less than a third.

The next step is not surprising at all. People giving a particular response always thought it had wider support than those who held other positions predicted. For example those who saw climate change as natural anticipated support in the low 30s, whereas those who gave other answers predicted the “natural” response would draw around 19% (a figure remarkably consistent across the other groupings and when the poll was taken).

Those who regard climate change as anthropogenic were better at predicting the support for each position than anyone else. But here’s the kicker: even those in touch with reality on this underestimated how many Australians agreed with them. They thought that 40% of the population would agree it was human induced rather than 47% – a reasonable estimate, but still on the low side. Meanwhile everyone else was in complete fantasy land on this.  Those who thought change was natural or simply didn’t know gave figures of 26.9% and 21.1%.

Not surprisingly those who think change is not occurring were truly out of touch reality. They thought that 46.3% would agree with them and 17.0% thought climate change was real. Remember the true figures were 6.4% and 47.5%.

There are two pretty obvious explanations for this. Firstly the media’s misreporting of the issue has got to be a big contribution. Between News Limited/2GB pumping out lies and the ABC/Fairfax feeling they have to get “both sides” it’s not surprising people get a false impression not only of expert, but also popular, opinion. Secondly people in touch with reality on physical science are also better at assessing public opinion. But, still far from perfect it seems.

What can done with this information is harder to answer. It might prove useful for lobbying journalists and editors in the thrall of false equivalence, but it’s hardly likely to make an impact on those who publish Bolt or Jones.

An important unknown is the direction of causality. Do people choose their position and then decide that their views must be widely shared? If so the result may not matter much. But if, at least in part, people form their views based on what they think those around them would answer then it matters a lot. If that is the case then getting out how widespread support for climate science actually is (remember it was the most popular answer in both cases and over 50% the first time) could actually help build that support.

Few will be convinced by statistics such as these, but encouraging people to be more public about their confidence in the science could make a difference. As Leviston concludes, “Leaving perceived estimates of doubt about climate change unchallenged risks perpetuating the myth of widespread scepticism, entrenching sceptical orientations and
undermining adaptive responses to climate change.”

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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3 Responses to The Denialist Circle

  1. John Norton says:

    I find para 2 very unclear, Could you kindly set out a table showing the %s, by category, and by time period ! ?

  2. Sorry, I’m not sure if I can extract the tables, and whether I would have permission to do so even if I can – Nature is funny about that. However, I will try to be clearer:

    In the first sample 5.6% denied climate change was happening at all. Twelve months later this increased to 7.2%. Of the 2010 sample 50.4% thought climate change was real and human induced. A year later this dropped to 44.6%. The ending of the long drought and the belligerence of the attacks on the carbon tax have been blamed for similar trends in other polls.

    In most of the piece I take the average of respondents from the two polls, as they are close enough that the change with time does not really affect the conclusion.

  3. Sorry, I see your confusion, there were a couple of typos in that paragraph. Hopefully fixed now.

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