By Raquel Bertoldo & Claire Mays
We know that the perceived level of scientific consensus plays a role in how real climate change (CC) is seen to be. Across different publics, the perceived level of scientific consensus is the strongest predictor of individuals’ own CC belief, sense of climate urgency and acceptance of political measures to ‘halt, reverse, mitigate and prepare for the consequences of the climate emergency ’.
In our study published this month by PUS we looked at the importance of perceived scientific consensus for CC beliefs… when the person views science as a search for ‘truth’, or as ‘debate’.
Scientific consensus might mean different things under subjective epistemic models. One assuming the existence of a single universal truth might cast consensus as an indication of such truth unveiled by the rigorous application of scientific method. By contrast, a view of science as a social practice, embracing debate and gradual triangulation on competing descriptions of reality, might diminish the power of consensus as a guide. These subtly different positions might lead to distinct outcomes in anthropogenic CC beliefs.
We tested this during the European Perceptions of Climate Change project (EPCC). Comparative data from 4,048 individuals on attitudes towards CC, climate policy, energy, etc. were obtained in June 2016 from representative national samples in France, Germany, Norway and the UK. We expected that for individuals viewing science as revelatory of the ‘truth’, a high perceived degree of scientific consensus leads to stronger belief that climate change is caused by humans (and lower perceived consensus to lesser belief). For individuals viewing science as ‘debate’ we expected a weaker link between perceived scientific consensus and CC beliefs.
Our hypotheses were confirmed. For people sharing a model of science as search for ‘truth’, anthropogenic CC beliefs vary more tightly with what they judge to be the level of scientific consensus. Beliefs by participants viewing science as ‘debate’ are less influenced by perceived scientific consensus – although they are more inclined overall to affirm the reality of anthropogenic climate change. This is the first demonstration of the moderating effect of model of science on interpretation of consensus, a small effect but that holds across social groups.
What does this variable power of scientific consensus mean for climate change awareness?Paradoxically, if the idea of a single right answer is implicit in public discourse – conveying and reinforcing a model of science as revelatory of ‘truth’ – people may be more vulnerable to sceptical arguments than when science as ‘debate’ is implicit or acknowledged.
Communicative acts implying the existence of exclusive truths may shift some listeners away from assessing the validity of methods, presuppositions, the quality of scientific arguments… to focus instead on whether or not scientists are unanimous.
Societal communication of science as ‘debate’, by contrast, could gradually reinforce individuals’ critical discernment of information, its source and context — buffering against forming scepticism in the face of contradictory and uncertain information. Rather than creating barriers to belief or action, the complex and ambiguous information about climate change that will continue to flow could be received as welcome indication of the scientific process. In this light – and with the certainty that dangerous climate is here and now – future research could explore effects of a ‘message within the message’ communicating about the nature of science as well as about scientific findings and consensus.