Both climate science and scientists generally have taken a “significant” hit in the world of public opinion as a result of the fall of 2009 hacked e-mails controversy at the University of East Anglia.

But the full picture is more nuanced and subtle, and most Americans still believe global warming is happening (57 percent); a plurality (47 percent) think humans are primarily responsible; and scientists “remained by far the most trusted source of information on global warming (77 percent).”

Those are key conclusions drawn by a group of climate change public opinion experts and reflected in a current “working paper” spelling out their findings, “Climategate, Public Opinion, and the Loss of Trust.” The paper, still subject to revisions, is available online here.  With Yale Forum Publisher Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University the corresponding author, the research paper is the work of Ed Maibach and C. Roser-Renouf of George Mason University, and N. Smith and E. Dawson of Yale.

Reflecting various surveys pointing to declines in public acceptance that global warming is occurring, and in large part because of human activities, the work-in-progress report says mainstream media are trusted as sources of information on global warming by only 36 percent of those surveyed. Media trail scientists, at 74 percent, weathercasters (56 percent), President Obama (51 percent), Al Gore (47 percent).

The authors write that continued economic woes, national political developments, and declining media attention on the issue contribute to the changes in public attitudes, along with abnormal winter weather across parts of the U.S. and controversies stemming from the hacked e-mails brouhaha.  They write that one in four American adults, about 58 million people, had both heard of those controversies and, at some level, had followed related developments.

“About 12 to 13 percent of all Americans said that the [news] stories had led them to become more certain that global warming is not happening and to have less trust in scientists.” Roughly 17 percent of Americans surveyed said they think the scientists involved “had either falsified their results or conspired to suppress contrary research.”

‘Significant Impact’ on Overall Public Opinion

The findings suggest the hacked e-mails controversy “had a significant impact on overall public opinion, despite the fact that a large majority of Americans had not heard of it,” at least as of early January 2010. “The e-mail story also appears to have influenced public opinions of both climate science and scientists.”

(Those perceptions appear to have developed despite a series of independent investigations pointing to some errors and misjudgments, but no serious wrongdoing, on the part of the scientists most closely identified with the hacked e-mail fiasco. Ongoing investigations are still to be completed and reported.)

The authors write in their paper that their survey results “strongly suggest” the e-mail controversies “deepened and perhaps solidified the prior observed declines in public beliefs that global warming is happening, human caused, and of serious concern.”

Importance of ‘Cultural World Views’ … and ‘Motivated Reasoning’

They write that the survey results “provide evidence of the important roles that cultural worldviews, political ideology, and motivated reasoning play in mediating public interpretations of and responses to global warming,” and also underscore political and partisanship factors behind views of climate change. “Our results demonstrate that climate change continues to be a sharply partisan issue and that much of the decline in public trusts in scientists has come from drops among political conservatives and Americans with a strongly individualistic worldview,” they write.

Elaborating on the concept of “motivated reasoning,” the authors added that “People are not dispassionate consumers of information. Instead, their motivational states — their values, wishes, and preferences — influence what information they pay attention to, how they evaluate data, and the conclusions they draw.” As a result, individuals “are often inclined to accept data and interpretations that appear to validate their prior views …. By contrast, people tend to view with suspicion data that contradict their preferences and beliefs.”

Science Facing ‘Growing Marginalization’

Looking ahead, the authors suggest that once the economy eventually improves and memories of hacked e-mails fade, Americans “will again feel more secure addressing a problem still viewed by most as relatively distant.” They write that short-lived temperature anomalies also will likely affect opinions in one direction or the other.

With media coverage “likely to remain episodic” and with “deeper structural changes in the media … [having] significant implications for climate change and scientific reporting in general,” they write, scientists must better explain the issue, its causes and effects and “help lay the foundations for informed decision making for years to come.” Without such efforts, they say they fear “a growing marginalization of science-based information in the policy-making process.”

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