More on that Smithsonian Poll: The Rise of Denial

By Chris Mooney | July 7, 2010 8:05 am

I’ve looked a bit more closely at the Smithsonian/Pew Poll that I blogged recently, and I realized I overlooked one of the most important (and dismal) findings.

Once again, this poll shows that global warming denial is on the rise:

In an exception to the pessimism about the environment, the poll found a ten-point drop in the percentage of respondents who say the earth will get warmer: from 76 percent in 1999 to 66 percent in 2010.

And moreover–and consistent with my remarks in the Washington Post piece–this is happening among Republicans:

That trend “is very consistent with data we’ve gathered on the issue of global warming more generally,” Keeter said. “There are many possible explanations, but one thing is quite clear: there is a strong partisan and ideological pattern to the decline in belief in global warming.” The vast majority of the change since 1999, he said, has occurred among Republicans and independents who lean Republican.

Yup–the issue has gotten more partisan, more polarized, and so people have made up their minds based on ideology first, and data second.

Sadly, that’s how we think. And how we operate. Want to know how bad it gets? Just check out this Brendan Nyhan paper:

An extensive literature addresses citizen ignorance, but very little research focuses on misperceptions. Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.

“Extensive literature” indeed, just see the citations in the paper…which is one reason why the findings of the American Academy workshops and my report on them are so unsurprising to many social scientists and science studies experts.


Comments (20)

  1. ponderingfool

    Yup–the issue has gotten more partisan, more polarized, and so people have made up their minds based on ideology first, and data second.
    Wouldn’t a drop suggest people changed their minds?

    Of those that changed their mind to denialism, what were they originally basing their support on?

  2. GM

    With the risk of beginning to sound like a broken record in mind, I will repeat that making up your mind based on ideology first and data second is pretty much the same things a being a victim of poor science education.

  3. DCW

    GM – you might be right here, but it won’t help you win the battle.

    “With the risk of beginning to sound like a broken record in mind, I will repeat that making up your mind based on ideology first and data second is pretty much the same things a being a victim of poor science education.”

    It goes to basic human psychology and human weakness. Maybe you can say it’s a weakness of education generally. But knowing the populace is this way, scientists (or at least the institutions that support them) need to understand and accept that the populace is indeed this way and to start using the same tools businesses and politicians use to influence and convince the populace of their views. This is not to say that science itself needs to change – that must stay the way it is. However, how scientists talk about science and what scientists expect will sway the populace and politicians to accept their findings must change.

    Indeed, the failure of scientists to accept that people aren’t going to accept what they say just because they are scientists itself smacks of denialism: The fact is, studies have shown that people do not always accept things just because a scientist tells them so – even though in most instances people DO give great weight to what scientists say. Studies do show that political imagery helps convince people of things – and the denialists have been using these techniques to great effect. Assuming someone can show these studies to you, is it of any use to continue speculating that ineffective science education is the cause (it might be)? They are eating your lunch using tried and true political methods that are backed by experience and social science research. Why is it so hard for so many to accept that science is losing the PR/political fight and that the climate and biological sciences must adapt and use the techniques of the political, business and other social sciences to win the war for hearts and minds?

  4. ponderingfool

    Studies do show that political imagery helps convince people of things – and the denialists have been using these techniques to great effect.
    Of course to do this requires time and resources. You have money laying around to help the cause? To have professional pundits ready to appear on TV with a sound bite to reinforce the day’s talking points? Climate scientists given the financial interests motivated to counter their message have actually done a pretty good job in that light.

  5. David

    Right or wrong, both sides have an agenda and will use any perceived weakness to further their goals. The topic has devolved from the scientific and taken on a religious nature. It is all about beliefs now. Both sides have drawn the line in the sand and just fire shots at each other. It ranges from being “dismissive to the stupid deniers” to the stupid “Hide the Decline” music videos and much worse on both sides.

    The sad thing is that it will probably get worse before it gets any better.

  6. patrick murphy, winter park, fl

    In response to ponderingfool, I would think that the change in a segment of the Republicans from belief to denial has occurred in signficant part due to the decline in influence of Republican leaders who accepted the science, such as John McCain and Newt Gingrich, and a rise in the influence of those who have never accepted science as a basis for policy decisions.

  7. DCW

    There are any number of foundations that might make grants for this sort of thing, especially in this political climate. But the ask has to be made. It’s a question of priorities.

  8. ThomasL


    I honestly think part (muchalmost all) of the problem is the disdain many in the hard sciences have towards the social sciences. While at some level everyone thinks what they major in is the most important area (business majors point out they make the world go round, teachers point out there wouldn’t be education without them, philosophy majors have almost 3 thousand years of thinking they are the top of the heap when it comes to knowledge and understanding, physicists know they are closer to understanding how things REALLY work than anyone…), the only field who has a majority of practitioners (in my personal experience of talking to people in about every major one can think of) who honestly can’t for the life of them figure out what is worth knowing in the other majors would be those in the hard sciences. At least all the other majors learn to appreciate that every major has valid knowledge and studies things worth knowing about – and should be listened to and weighed carefully when speaking of things known and studied in their field.

    Whether religious or not I’ve never seen anyone but hard scientist atheist types bemoan religious studies (because I guess we can understand history without any knowledge of the main historical driver?). If you look at all the arguing mostly what you see is other majors trying to point out there are things in these dismissed fields one really should be aware of, and the science majors thumbing the nose at the very idea there is anything worth knowing outside of science… It’s been very prevalent in the whole communication debate and I doubt a single social science major has missed it. We’re all saying “you’re doing it wrong if you want to have any positive effect in this”. The response is “what the heck do any of you know?” It would be funny if it wasn’t so ironically sad.

    To all that I just point out arrogance is considered a “sinevil” in every society I’ve ever studied. To every social studies major what is meant by those words is likely very well known. To the hard science types, I’m not so sure they won’t mistake it for that hated religious talk…

  9. GM

    DCW @ 3:

    Scientists are perfectly well aware of what you describe in that post. It does not mean that things should stay this way forever – you can go a long way towards making people based their decisions on facts and not on politics and ideology if you train them in having respect for facts and you make a concerted effort to discard politics and ideology out of the social life. But it will never happen if you just assume that it will continue to be the same way and there is no point trying. Which is why I keep repeating the same point and why I am so pissed at Mooney and the likes.

    You can’t write hundreds and hundreds of pages about the subject, 1 or 2% of which include paying some how minimal lip service to the fact that the public doesn’t really know anything about science, then spend the other 98% talking about how science education isn’t really the problem while completely misrepresenting what the meaning of scientific literacy really is and making it seem like the blame is mostly on scientists for being so happy to point the finger at mass ignorance, and claim that you are helping. You’re not, and not only you’re not but you’re actively hurting the cause

  10. GM

    TomasL @ 11:

    You will be hard pressed to find a scientist denying the value of philosophy – not all of it of course, but the part about how do we know what we know in particular. At some point though one has to ask what is exactly is it that a certain field of study contributes to our understanding of the world, and even the more painful question – why is it that the hard science with their rigorous intellectual standard so often are in direct contradiction with what the humanities with their much softer standards claim, who is right, who you trust, and really, what is the value of a field where 95% of the published work is obvious nonsense with the rest in doubt too? You can’t have too contradictory statements being true in the same time, that much we should be able to agree on.

    Whether religious or not I’ve never seen anyone but hard scientist atheist types bemoan religious studies (because I guess we can understand history without any knowledge of the main historical driver?)

    The hard atheist type bash religious studies because of the shameful Christian apologetics that people in those fields are involved most of the time. You are absolutely right that it is very important to know the history of religion and its influence on intellectual thought. But people who have studies the subject for 1500+ years should have figured out by now that there is no God so writing and thinking about him is total waste of time.

  11. ThomasL

    GM (@13)

    I rest my case 😉

    More seriously, one needs to understand it is not that the methods and standards are more lax or less rigorous, but rather it takes much longer to work through the value and truth of what gets developed. Unlike mathematical equations (which on a fundamental level all most all “hard” science rests on) understanding how something like language works is a much more convoluted issue to deal with.

    The hard sciences can explain the mechanics of the brain and how the cells interact, but they will never provide us with an explanation as to how a joke works or other such things. We are still working on it. Just as in science we have had several helpful, but ultimately incorrect explorations of something the same holds true for much of the “soft” sciences. Almost all are familiar with Hume’s contributions (most still think along those lines, though Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonder Land is actually a critic of its folly). Its problems lead to lots of interesting work and eventually gave us Wittgenstein though. His work has lead to even further work on the problem. On and on the work continues.

    The “soft” sciences accept it can easily take a hundred years or so to determine some understandings contribution and worth, something the “hard” sciences may need to be reminded of.

    Think of it like statistics. Given a large enough sampling many trends can be recognized and laid out. Even knowing all the trends, if a single thing is pulled out one still has no idea what part of that sample group they are going to fall into – and “average” is only meaningful in relation to a sample. For an individual it helps not at all, and in fact doesn’t even exist.

    Does that mean the individual and the sample are in conflict, or does it mean they are measuring and exploring very different things (like those between the hard sciences and the soft sciences, only on the surface would one think they have similar interests…)?

  12. GM

    You are evading the questions.

    First, you completely sidestepped my objection to the value of religious studies as they exist now.

    Second, I asked you who do you trust if the hard sciences give you one answer and the humanities another given the difference in methodology.You didn’t answer

    Third, I will elaborate a little bit on the “usefulness” of humanities. According to wikipedia, they are divided into the following subcategories:

    1.1 Classics
    1.2 History
    1.3 Languages
    1.4 Law
    1.5 Literature
    1.6 Performing arts
    1.7 Philosophy
    1.8 Religion
    1.9 Visual arts

    History and linguistics can be thought of as actual sciences in principle, even though in practice way too often they are not. But they study something objective and they use evidence.

    I have already stated my views on philosophy, I will not repeat them here.

    But, I challenge you to tell me how arts and law can teach us anything about the world around us? It doesn’t mean that they are not valuable things on their own, but in terms of understanding the world around us, they contribute nothing.

    So do literature and the study of the classics, but there it gets even worse. Those are very useful disciplines when one is interested in the history of intellectual thought, and it is very very important to know the history of intellectual thought. But what happens in practice is that the views of the authors of the works that people study become more or less the views of the people who study them, then passed on to students and to society in general through the process of studying the classics in school, and as the works in question solidify their status as unquestionable classics, the worldviews and values expressed in them get a firmer and firmer grip on the thinking of people. Which ends up being an unmitigated disaster because in this way the worldviews and values of people at best poorly informed about the world around them and at worst totally at odds with reality become the dominant paradigm of society. In practice, what contributed the most to the gravity of the situation is the fact that the vast majority of written works have been produced by the class of people who have been historically detached from the land. Which is expected, because in order to have the time to be writing poems, plays and philosophical treatises, you need considerably more time than what the life of a subsistence farmer provides to you. But this has had the effect of almost completely removing the relationship between man an nature from the focus of intellectual thought, instead replacing it with things like love, morals an ethics, politics, etc., things that matter a lot less (that is not to say they are completely meaningless, but they are at best secondary to the really important thing which is to keep the general entropy balance of humanity negative). This would not have been such a problem if it wasn’t for the mechanisms I described above of perpetuating and firmly establishing such a worldview, but unfortunately the mechanism is in place, and not questioning the value of the humanities will keep it in place.

  13. DCW

    GM@12 – the issue is, not an opposition of facts to non-facts, but how you convince people of what they need to know in a world where there are too many fields of knowledge for people to know. You apparently know little about PR or marketing or politics, yet you feel confident that your argument that science education is the way to go (even if it won’t bear fruit, if ever, for decades) in spite of the fact that the people who actually work in the field might actually give useful advice and alternate/additional courses of action to help you prevail in your quest to convince the public of your point of view. Just as you ask the public to submit to your superior knowledge of science, should you not also submit to others’ superior knowledge of their chosen fields?

  14. GM

    DCW @ 16:

    There is such a thing as evidence. The evidence is that indeed people do not listen to facts, which is what the expert you refer to keep reminding us. The evidence is also that the do nothing approach they advocate does not produce results, because it has been do-nothing for decades and the state of scientific literacy is becoming worse and worse. And before you object that they are not advocating do-nothing, let me stress that it is precisely do-nothing with respect to the most important parts of the problem of public understanding of science – the scientific way of thinking and religion. They pretend that the public does not need to think scientifically and that religion is not a problem, which allows them to come up with wishy-washy “solutions” that do not at all address the underlying issues.

    Nobody is dismissive of other people’s expertise, the question is how limited that expertise is and how relevant to the problem it is.

  15. anon

    Hey Chris,

    When you say ideology first and data second, well, just what data do you think the public examines? What *data* do they have? What **data** are they observing?

    Does the public ever decide much of anything apart from when to water their lawn based on *data*?

    How does an individual make a decision on any issue? How much of that decision is *DATA* based?

    Thank you putz

  16. doubleBubble tripleDipper

    global warming denial is on the rise:

    In an exception to the pessimism about the environment, the poll found

    ~~Chris Mooney~

    Is denial less about the result but more about the ultimate origin of the process? Is atmospheric carbon merely a prominent symptom of the deep underpinnings of impending calamity? Is our global land-mine merely a Population Bomb ? Do we need to sterilize every male newborn the world over? Is it too late?
    Can we afford to venture a guess?

  17. GM

    Well, apparently the sock-puppetry scandal also killed the discussion here. Too bad


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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