This Is The Number One Fact That Can Change a Climate Denier's Mind

All is not lost.

12 DEC 2017

The issue of climate change in the US is polarizing to say the least. But a new study has found one type of fact is particularly good at bridging the divide between conservative and liberal opinions on climate change.


The study found simply informing people that 97 percent of climate scientists agree human-caused climate change is real can significantly increase public understanding of the consensus - and this is especially the case for educated conservatives.

"Our findings suggest that presenting people with a social fact, a consensus of opinion among experts, rather than challenging them with blunt scientific data, encourages a shift towards mainstream scientific belief - particularly among conservatives," said lead author Dr Sander van der Linden.

Compared to the scientific consensus (97 percent), the study found liberal attitudes towards climate change acceptance were about 20 percent less on average. Whereas, conservative attitudes towards climate change acceptance were about 35 percent less than climate experts on average.

But these opinions are not set in stone.

In an experiment with some 6,000 participants, psychologists found introducing people to the "social fact" of scientific consensus can help reduce the discrepancy between liberal and conservative attitudes by nearly 50 percent.

The shift comes especially from conservatives. The "social fact" increased conservative belief in the climate change consensus by 20 percent, which is almost the same as liberals after they were provided with the same fact.


"The vast majority of people want to conform to societal standards, it's innate in us as a highly social species," said Dr Sander van der Linden from the University of Cambridge's Department of Psychology.

"People often misperceive social norms, and seek to adjust once they are exposed to evidence of a group consensus."

Screen Shot 2017 12 12 at 12.17.48 pmHighlighting scientific norms depolarizes judgements about climate change.

The study supports previous research that has found higher education does not always improve scientific literacy - sometimes it can actually increase climate change denial. The new study found this is especially the case among highly educated conservatives.

Luckily, the "social fact" of a scientific consensus was found to neutralize the "negative interaction" between higher education and conservatism that can often lead to climate denial.

"Information that directly threatens people's worldview can cause them to react negatively and become further entrenched in their beliefs. This 'backfire effect' appears to be particularly strong among highly educated US conservatives when it comes to contested issues such as manmade climate change," said van der Linden.

"It is more acceptable for people to change their perceptions of what is normative in science and society. Previous research has shown that people will then adjust their core beliefs over time to match. This is a less threatening way to change attitudes, avoiding the 'backfire effect' that can occur when someone's worldview is directly challenged."


Speaking at a recent climate summit in Chicago, former President Obama argued there are "certain facts that are not subject to opinion or debate." And for the overwhelming majority of scientists, climate change is one of those indisputable facts.

Nevertheless, in our society it is becoming increasingly acceptable to ignore or twist scientific data to prop up preconceived worldviews – just look at Scott Pruitt's proposal for a national climate change debate.

This makes it extremely difficult for scientists to educate the population on serious and pressing issues like climate change.

But this new study has found a glimmer of hope for facts and scientists in our "post-truth" world.

"Scientists as a group are still viewed as trustworthy and non-partisan across the political spectrum in the US, despite frequent attempts to discredit their work through 'fake news' denunciations and underhand lobbying techniques deployed by some on the right," said van der Linden.

"Our study suggests that even in our so-called post-truth environment, hope is not lost for the fact. By presenting scientific facts in a socialised form, such as highlighting consensus, we can still shift opinion across political divides on some of the most pressing issues of our time."

The study was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.