How Do You Build a Scientific Republican?

How Do You Build a Scientific Republican?
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It’s widely known that Republicans, far more than Democrats, reject modern climate science. And more and more, it has become apparent that this is at least partly because Republicans have a deep distrust of scientists in general, or at least environmental scientists.

But there are many other causes for this rejection as well. These include Republicans’ strongly individualistic system of values—basically, a go-it-alone sense that government is the problem, and markets the solution—and even, perhaps, some aspects of their personalities or psychologies. This is something that I’ve argued in my new book.

There is also, of course, the huge role of Fox News in all of this: Watching it causes conservatives to have more false beliefs than they would otherwise, about issues like climate change. We’ve written about this extensively on DeSmogBlog; and I’ve highlighted a new video on the “Fox misinformation effect” here and below.

Such are some of the factors that seem to build an anti-science Republican; but now, researchers at George Mason, American University, and Yale have swooped in to ask the reverse question. Given that this is so, how do you make a pro-science one? Or in other words, what attributes or beliefs predict being an outlier Republican who actually believes that global warming is real and caused by humans?

The researchers call such Republicans “counter-normative.” That’s academic speak for “out in the cold” in their party right now.

So here’s what their study did. It sought to examine the factors—beliefs, traits, practices—that are correlated with being a Republican, but also accepting global warming. Quite a large number of traits were thrown into the analysis, ranging from individualism to religiosity to self-reported conservatism—each of them measured according to standard social scientific techniques. The researchers also took a close look at how much Republicans they trusted scientists on global warming.

Then, they put it all into a blender—sorry, a “regression” analysis—and found that the factors they’d highlighted, together, explained quite a lot of why Republicans do what they do (or don’t do what they don’t do). So which were the strongest ones?

First, and not surprisingly, individualism played a significant role in fueling climate denial. The same went for “information satisfaction”—the so-called “smart idiot” effect that I’ve written on a great deal. In other words, what the study found is that the more Republicans thought they knew everything they needed to know about global warming, the more they were climate deniers. (Check out the study if you want to delve into the statistics; there are also far more factors analyzed than I discuss here.)

These first two findings might be considered pretty dismaying. If more knowledge (or at least, more believing that you know something about the issue) predicts more Republican denial, that suggests that patiently explaining the issue will get you nowhere. Something similar might be said for individualism—this is a deep seated part of identity, highly emotional (“don’t tread on me!”), and also not particularly amenable to change.

But have hope: The study found that the strongest predictor in determining whether a Republican accepts global warming is whether he or she trusts in scientists, and whether he or she thinks they are in agreement about whether global warming is occurring. As the authors therefore conclude: “Science views thus may serve as a central pathway in the development of Republican climate opinions.”

This, to me, says a ton. Remember that over the past several decades, there has been an active smearing of the scientific community on this issue. Trust  in scientists was clearly driven down among Republican by events like “ClimateGate,” and how they were seized upon; and doubt about a scientific consensus on global warming was deliberately and consciously sown.

In this context, the new data suggest that, had there not been such a concerted attempt to create doubt about global warming by conservative think tanks and their corporate sponsors—and, by Fox—we might never have had a problem. Perhaps Republican individualism, information satisfaction, and all the rest would have gone and found some other issue to attach themselves too.

So how do we change Republican science views? Well, unfortunately, it still isn’t going to be easy. The authors of the new study write, for instance, that “a communication plan based around a core message of scientific consensus would have broad applicability across political audience segments.” But it would also get attacked by conservative media, e.g., Fox, and the usual suspects in conservative think tanks and the climate denial blogosphere. And given the “smart idiot” problem, Republicans consuming these media would then reject the science, and feel sure of themselves.

The only solution, then, is to make organized climate denial simply beyond the pale. It has to be the case that taking such a stand is tantamount to asserting that smoking is completely safe, no big deal, go ahead and have two packs a day.

Will that happen? Someday, I think it will. But it is not like we have a lot of time on our hands.

(Image credit: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons.)

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