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Does Endorsing Scientific Inquiry Boost Support for Environmental Regulations?

Scientific knowledge matters less than believing in the scientific method, researchers find.

By Nathan Collins


Jim Inhofe’s infamous snowball incident. (Image: C-SPAN)

Climate change denial has a real knack for getting under believers’ skin. Often, that’s because denial just seems, well, ignorant.

But ignorance of scientific facts might not be the main problem: The real culprit behind skeptics’ beliefs may be a denial of the value of the scientific process itself, according to a new study.

“Pro-environment policies require public support and engagement, but in countries such as the USA, public support for pro-environment policies remains low. Increasing public scientific literacy is unlikely to solve this, because increased scientific literacy does not guarantee increased acceptance of critical environmental issues,” Aaron Drummond, Matthew Palmer, and James Sauer write in Royal Society Open Science. Indeed, it’s been argued that scientific literacy could actually drive some people to believe in climate change less.

The real culprit behind skeptics’ beliefs may be a denial of the value of the scientific process itself.

Drummond, Palmer, and Sauer’s research focuses on whether people believe that science is the right way to go about understanding the world, something they call “endorsement of scientific inquiry.” As it happens, the Program for International Student Assessment asked students about precisely that in it’s 2006 test. For example, questions asked test takers how much, on either the preservation of ancient ruins or statements about the causes of acid rain, should be based on scientific research. The 2006 PISA also assessed students’ support for pro-environmental policies—what the test calls environmental responsibility—along with their scientific literacy.

While scientific literacy boosted students’ environmental responsibility, the researchers found that endorsing scientific literacy boosted it about three-and-a-half times as much. For students in the United States, the difference was even more stark: A one-point increase in endorsing scientific inquiry grew environmental responsibility by half a point, while the same increase in scientific literacy upped responsibility by less than a tenth of a point.

And that effect may not just be a correlation. In a follow-up study of 215 U.S. adults, the team found they could increase—albeit only slightly—support for renewable energy, emissions regulations, and so on by presenting subjects with a fact sheet on the process and utility of scientific research.

The authors point out that they haven’t directly tested whether endorsing the idea of scientific research is related to views on global warming, but addressing views of the scientific endeavor could be one way to improve Americans’ beliefs about the existence—and threat—of climate change.