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The pivotal role of perceived scientific consensus in acceptance of science


Although most experts agree that CO2 emissions are causing anthropogenic global warming (AGW), public concern has been declining. One reason for this decline is the ‘manufacture of doubt’ by political and vested interests, which often challenge the existence of the scientific consensus. The role of perceived consensus in shaping public opinion is therefore of considerable interest: in particular, it is unknown whether consensus determines people’s beliefs causally. It is also unclear whether perception of consensus can override people’s ‘worldviews’, which are known to foster rejection of AGW. Study 1 shows that acceptance of several scientific propositions—from HIV/AIDS to AGW—is captured by a common factor that is correlated with another factor that captures perceived scientific consensus. Study 2 reveals a causal role of perceived consensus by showing that acceptance of AGW increases when consensus is highlighted. Consensus information also neutralizes the effect of worldview.

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Figure 1: Final latent variable Model 3 in Study 1 for item types (a) and (b) from Table 1.
Figure 2: The interaction effect of experimental conditions on the association between mean-centred free-market endorsement and acceptance of AGW in Study 2 (AGWb predicted from the regression model).

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This research was supported by a Discovery Grant and a Linkage Grant from the Australian Research Council and an Australian Professorial Fellowship to the first author. We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of J. Wong during data collection. We thank G. Brown for his suggestions concerning the questionnaire design and J. Cook, T. Lombrozo and K. Oberauer for comments on an earlier draft of this article. S.L. receives funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC), including an ARC Linkage Grant with the Australian Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency.

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S.L. designed and supervised the studies and wrote the paper. G.E.G. and S.L. jointly conducted the analyses and G.E.G. contributed to writing of the article, and S.V. was involved in design and execution of Study 2.

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Correspondence to Stephan Lewandowsky.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Lewandowsky, S., Gignac, G. & Vaughan, S. The pivotal role of perceived scientific consensus in acceptance of science. Nature Clim Change 3, 399–404 (2013).

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