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Showing Conservatives the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change Can Shift Their Views on the Issue

Our deep-seated desire to conform to social norms can override ideologically based skepticism.
Protesters display signs during a rally against climate skepticism in San Diego, California, on February 21st, 2017.

Protesters display signs during a rally against climate skepticism in San Diego, California, on February 21st, 2017.

Political conservatives are particularly unwilling to accept the reality of climate change. Recent research reiterated this reluctance, and noted that it appears to stem from "worry about the economic and political ramifications of climate science," rather than an inherent distrust of scientists.

In other words, the implications of a warming planet challenges their worldview, and they're understandably resistant to revisit some of their most fundamental beliefs.

Much research suggests directly challenging people's convictions often backfires, leading them to cling to "alternative facts" ever more strongly. But a new study points to a way around this dilemma.

It reports emphasizing the fact there is near-unanimity among climate scientists that climate change is both real and human-caused is a surprisingly effective way to get conservatives to shift their opinions.

"The vast majority of people want to conform to societal standards. It's innate in us as a highly social species," lead author Sander van der Linden, a University of Cambridge psychologist, said in announcing the findings. "People often misperceive social norms, and seek to adjust once they are exposed to evidence of a group consensus."

In the journal Nature Human Behavior, van der Linden and his colleagues describe the results of "a large nationally representative online survey experiment" featuring 6,301 American adults. Confirming previous studies, they found a correlation between political conservatism and reduced acceptance of climate science—an association that was even stronger among highly educated right-wingers.

"We subsequently exposed half of the sample to a descriptive norm: '97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused global warming is happening,'" they write. "We measured judgments of the consensus at the beginning of the survey and at the end, with various 'distractors' in between to obscure the purpose of the experiment."

"Both liberals and conservatives updated their beliefs in line with the scientific norm," they report, adding that this effect was seen "more strongly amount conservatives." In the end, it "reduced belief polarization by 50 percent."

These results point to a more promising approach to changing minds on this subject.

"Instead of trying to change deep-rooted beliefs about contested issues," the researchers write, "it may be easier to correct people's perception of the norm." This is vital because "societal norms help set standards against which people evaluate the appropriateness of their beliefs and behaviors."

In other words, we are uncomfortable straying too far from the consensus. And that primal pull can help people accept the truth.

"Scientists as a group are still viewed as trustworthy and nonpartisan across the political spectrum in the U.S., despite frequent attempts to discredit their work," van der Linden said. "Our study suggests that, even in our so-called 'post-truth environment,' hope is not lost for the fact."