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How You Read Science News Depends—a Little—on Your Political Beliefs

More accurate science reporting helps everybody, but it's mitigated by how liberal or conservative people are.
(Photo: Fox News)

(Photo: Fox News)

When you read science news about global warming, how do you respond? Does it make you more likely to agree with scientists, the vast majority of whom think climate change is human-caused and an imminent problem? Do you dismiss the science? Argue against it?

At the crux of these questions are two conflicting ideas about how people deal with new evidence. The first, called the "scientific literacy model," hypothesizes that learning new science makes people more apt to agree with researchers about global warming. The second, called the "motivated reasoning model," posits people don't budge from beliefs they already hold. If they hear a new piece of science, they just re-interpret it the way that best fits their worldview.

Now, a new study argues that both models operate, sometimes in the same people, to different degrees. It's one messy world of belief out there.

More, accurate science news on global warming is effective for everybody—to an extent.

For the study, researchers at various American universities analyzed data from a nationally representative survey of about 1,700 people. The researchers found that both liberals and conservatives who paid attention to science and environment news had more accurate knowledge about global warming—and thought that warming was more harmful—than their peers who didn't pay attention. So more, accurate science news on global warming is effective for everybody—to an extent.

Limitations came in when researchers examined how much paying attention to science news affected liberals and conservatives. Strong liberals were more likely to get more accurate knowledge out of science news than strong conservatives. Strong conservatives who paid attention to science news were more likely to be swayed into thinking global warming was harmful than strong liberals were, perhaps because there's a ceiling to how harmful people think global warming is. (Liberals may already have reached it.) And among strong conservatives, those who paid attention to science news were actually less likely to support lawmaking aimed at mitigating global warming, such as requiring carbon taxes, or signing international emissions treaties. Apparently there are some things information just can't change.

How can organizations use this knowledge? One clue lies in the researchers' analysis of political—not science—news. Those who paid attention to political news more were more likely to be polarized about climate change. As other studies have demonstrated, politics desks are more likely to portray climate change as a "he said, she said" issue, while science desks are more likely to talk about global warming as a scientific consensus. Reducing false balance in political news might help bring about political consensus regarding climate change, the researchers wrote in their paper, published today in the journal Nature Climate Change

Here at Pacific Standard, we've often tackled how the news portrays climate change. For more on this subject, see this story about Fox News' climate change coverage, this story about United States versus United Kingdom coverage, and this story on improving climate-change PR.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.