PUBLIC OPINION

Trust in climate scientists

Those who distrust climate scientists are more likely to be skeptical of climate change and reluctant to support mitigation policies. Now research shows that scientific interest in early adolescence is associated with increased trust in climate scientists in adulthood irrespective of political ideology.

First attempted in the early twentieth century, the goal of measuring ‘public opinion’ was to discover societal views on issues of the day, with an eye towards finding consensus and democratic policy-making1. Instead, this research revealed substantial gaps in knowledge, engagement and coherence among the public on many issues, particularly when the topic is complex, abstract and removed from people’s everyday lives2. Consistent with this model, research on public views towards climate change has stressed public awareness and risk perception — such as opinions on sea-level rise, global temperature and severe weather — and public knowledge about the human causes of these risks. However, unlike many other public issues, the large-scale consequences of climate change will not be felt for decades3, but the response must occur in the near term, and the scale and scope of the problem requires transnational commitments to substantially reduce global consumption of fossil fuels. Public recognition of the problems posed by climate change will therefore require unprecedented trust in climate scientists and elected officials. However, surprisingly little is known about the origins of public trust. Writing in Nature Climate Change, Matthew Motta finds that scientific interest in early adolescence can have enduring effects on trust in climate scientists in adulthood4.

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Motta analysed data from the Longitudinal Study of American Youth, which collected data from middle- and high-school students from schools across the United States, with follow-up surveys several times in adulthood. Specifically, Motta used items measuring scientific interest, quantitative ability and scientific knowledge in the youngest cohort in 1987, and their responses to items pertaining to trust in climate scientists collected in the most recent survey in 2011. The results show that only scientific interest at the ages of 12–14 years was consistently associated with greater trust in climate scientists in adults (aged mid-30s) for all trust variables and their average index. Equally important, the positive influence of scientific interest in early adolescence did not depend on political ideology in adulthood, offering promise for improving public trust in the United States and reducing partisan polarization on this issue.

Motta’s research offers numerous contributions and directions for future research. One fundamental contribution is the measurement and analysis of public trust in climate scientists in various real world contexts. In this study, trust in climate scientists was measured by asking respondents how much they trust information about “global climate change” from various sources, including NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration)/the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), state environmental agencies, science professors and the IPCC. An important strength of Motta’s study is the use of psychometric methods to ensure that these survey items were reasonable indicators of ‘trust in climate scientists’. Notably, public opinion research has not paid sufficient attention to measurement error, developing instruments to ensure that they reflect the way people think about the world and testing measurement assumptions. These procedures are critically important to a research area that is committed to improving public trust and scientific authority. Advances in structural equation models (SEMs) are particularly promising, because these methods incorporate testing measurement assumptions and associations between variables, simultaneously5,6.

Future research can build on the insights from Motta’s research and ask respondents about trust in tangible groups and organizations that they have experience with instead of prospective attitudes about future environmental risk. Moreover, in everyday life people confront climate science along with other (potentially competing) types of cultural authorities, including elected officials, business leaders and celebrities. Researchers should therefore also examine perceptions of climate scientists in relation to these other authorities. For example, some segments of the public might trust different authorities equally, whereas others might value one type of authority over the others, which may have implications for communication efforts. Motta’s study also invites further thought about why people trust authorities, and what attributes people use to distinguish between different authorities.

Individuals not only confront various authorities on climate science, they also bring their own set of experiences and knowledge, including formal education, political identity, religious disposition and social networks to bear on processing information about climate change7. Matthew Motta’s study4 suggests that cultural affinity towards science in early adolescence is an essential source of population heterogeneity in adulthood that divides the public on perceptions of climate scientists, and demonstrates the kind of attention to measurement required when public opinion surveys are used to gauge social and cultural influences on perceptions of climate change.

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Correspondence to Gordon Gauchat.

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Gauchat, G. Trust in climate scientists. Nature Clim Change 8, 458–459 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0147-4

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