Paper Drives Home How Much Politics Influences Attitudes Toward Science Issues

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A recent paper in the journal Science Communication drives home the extent to which political identity – and the way we communicate about science – can influence a person’s attitude toward scientific issues.

Here’s the short version: a study that measured the public’s response to a local water quality issue found that the more people knew about the relevant science, the more they supported an environmental science solution. However, if the water quality issue was framed as being related to climate change, well-informed but politically-conservative participants became much less likely to support funding for an environmental science solution. In fact, they showed less support for a science solution than the politically-conservative but uninformed participants.

The paper, “Worldviews, Issue Knowledge, and the Pollution of a Local Science Information Environment,” was published online March 2. The paper was co-authored by Lee Ahern and Colleen Connolly-Ahern of Penn State and Jennifer Hoewe of the University of Alabama. DOI: 10.1177/1075547016636388. (I’m offering a summary of the work below, but it really is worth reading the paper yourself.)

Overview of Study

The researchers performed an online survey of 964 adults in the Philadelphia region. Participants were asked about their political views in two ways. First, they were asked to self-identify on a six-point scale between “strong Democrat” and “strong Republican.” Second, they completed a 14-item questionnaire that gauged their sociopolitical views. There was significant overlap between those with “Egalitatarian-Communitarian” views and “solid/strong” Democrats, and a similar overlap between “Hierarchical-Individualists” and solid/strong Republicans.

Participants were then asked a series of questions to determine how knowledgeable they were about storm water runoff, water quality, and what could be done to mitigate storm water pollution.

At this point, participants were given one of two messages. One group was given a “normal” framing message, telling them that the problem of storm water runoff was caused by “normal” heavy rain. A second group was given a “global warming” framing message, telling them that heavy rain was “increasing due to global warming.”

Both groups were asked to identify the best policy option for addressing storm water runoff, with one of the options being to “invest in green surface infrastructure that absorbs and treats rainfall before it enters the runoff system” – which the study authors defined as the “green” solution. Participants in both groups were also asked, on a scale of 1 to 5, how willing they were to pay additional taxes to support the green solution.

Hypotheses and Results

The study had two hypotheses.

The first is that knowing more about the issue would “be associated with increased support for environmental science policy solutions.”

The second hypothesis was that framing the issue as a “global warming” problem would make political conservatives with “high issue-specific knowledge” report lower support for environmental science policy solutions than political conservatives with low issue-specific knowledge. The idea here being (if I’m reading this correctly), that in the case of political conservatives, the more they know about climate change, the more negatively they will respond to it. (Why? Because climate change has become such a politically-charged topic.)

The researchers ran the survey data through four models, and the findings supported both hypotheses.

In three of the four models, issue knowledge (that is, knowing a lot about storm water) was a positive predictor of support for the “green” environmental science solution. But not always. This is where the global warming frame comes in.

I’ll just quote the paper directly here, since it explains the results clearly: “more liberal individuals with high issue knowledge who saw the global warming condition were significantly more likely to report a willingness to pay for a green solution. Conversely, more conservative individuals with high issue knowledge who saw the global warming condition were significantly less likely to report willingness to pay for a green solution.”

To put that into the context of political parties, solid/strong Dems were more willing to pay for a green solution if they had been given the global warming frame. The opposite was true for Republicans: “framing the issue as a global warming problem reduced support among high-knowledge Republicans but not among low-knowledge Republicans. In fact, support among [low-knowledge Republicans] increased in the global warming condition.”(!)

So What?

This study adds to a growing body of work highlighting the importance of personal beliefs (ideology/politics/religion) in determining how people process and make use of scientific information. These are things that science communicators need to think about, particularly if they have specific goals for their science communication efforts (other than simply conveying raw data).

One question – and it’s a good one – is whether science communicators should try to influence what people think. That depends on a number of things. Do you work for an organization with specific policy objectives? For example, do you work for an organization that wants to influence behaviors in order to protect public health or conserve natural resources? If the answer is yes, then part of your job is influencing public discussion about how research relates to policy. For others, it can be more complicated, but many people want to contribute to discussions on policy issues ranging from support of federal funding for science to climate change to vaccines.

If you do want to influence behavior or opinions through science communication, then this study – and others like it – drive home an important point: you need to tailor your communication efforts to fit both the subject matter and your audience.

For example, if you want to build support for a local storm water pollution control project, you don’t need to mention the role of climate change when presenting information to your largely conservative city council – but it may be worth mentioning when speaking to local environmental organizations. To be clear: neither presentation should be misleading or inaccurate, you are simply tailoring the message – this is not about twisting the facts. If a conservative city council member asks whether climate change may be a contributing factor, answer honestly. But if you can show rainfall and pollution data without using the words “climate change” or “global warming,” it makes sense to avoid using them.

The need to take into account audience beliefs is not a new idea – I wrote about the need for practical science communication tools that address this more than a year ago. But this study caught my eye, and I thought it would serve as a useful reminder.

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2 thoughts on “Paper Drives Home How Much Politics Influences Attitudes Toward Science Issues

  1. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] What Scientists Want Out Of Online Engagement › Communication Breakdown

  2. It’s not just beliefs that we have to bear in mind – its how those beliefs are entangled with identity. The more tightly entangled they are, the more the beliefs must be considered, in my opinion.

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