Sunday, December 8, 2013

Scientists conclusions more strongly shaped by their political beliefs and their desire to fit in than their level of expertise

Well this is interesting. I have mocked the claim that "the science is settled" for a long time. It betrays a gross misunderstanding of the scientific method where everything is always contingent on new information. With regard to the global warming discussion, it has also always been factually false - there have been many dissenters to the IPCC working group findings. However, I have not seen any solid quantification of the level of dissent.

The American Meteorological Society recently surveyed its members. Literally buried on the last page and not discussed in the narrative of the report at all, is this startling finding. Among meterologists, only 52% believe both that global warming is happening AND that it is primarily being caused by human activities. So much for "the science is settled."
However, members of this professional community are not unanimous in their views of climate change, and there has been tension among members of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) who hold different views on the topic. In response, AMS created the Committee to Improve Climate Change Communication to explore and, to the extent possible, resolve these tensions. To support this committee, in January 2012 we surveyed all AMS members with known email addresses, achieving a 26.3% response rate (n=1,854). In this paper we tested four hypotheses: (1) perceived conflict about global warming will be negatively associated -- and (2) climate expertise, (3) liberal political ideology, and (4) perceived scientific consensus will be positively associated -- with (a) higher personal certainty that global warming is happening, (b) viewing the global warming observed over the past 150 years as mostly human-caused, and (c) perception of global warming as harmful. All four hypotheses were confirmed. Expertise, ideology, perceived consensus and perceived conflict were all independently related to respondents' views on climate, with perceived consensus and political ideology being most strongly related.
In other words, the notion that expertise is the single dominant factor shaping meteorologists’ views of global warming appears to be simplistic to the point of being incorrect. We found that perceived scientific consensus was the factor most strongly associated with AMS members’ views about global warming. This suggests that scientists’ thinking on scientific topics may be subject to the same kinds of social normative influences that affect the general public. Rather than rationally weighing the evidence and deciding for themselves, as would be expected under more traditional ideas of scientific judgment, scientists may also use the views of a relevant peer group as a social cue for forming their own views. Our results are consistent with those of Lewandowsky et al. (2013), who found that providing information on the scientific consensus increased the likelihood of members of the public agreeing that global warming was occurring. Our data are cross-sectional, rather than experimental as in Lewandowsky et al. (2013), so we cannot be certain of the direction of the causal relationship between perceived consensus and views on global warming for AMS members. Nevertheless, the findings of Lewandowsky et al. (2013) combined with our results suggest that perceived scientific consensus may have a substantial influence on AMS members’ global warming views. Political ideology was the factor next most strongly associated with meteorologists' views about global warming. This also goes against the idea of scientists’ opinions being entirely based on objective analysis of the evidence, and concurs with previous studies that have shown scientists’ opinions on topics to vary along with their political orientation (Nisbet, 2011; Rosenberg et al., 2009). The result suggests that members of professional scientific organizations have not been immune to influence by the political polarization on climate change that has affected politicians and the general public.
While we found that higher expertise was associated with a greater likelihood of viewing global warming as real and harmful, this relationship was less strong than for political ideology and perceived consensus. At least for the measure of expertise that we used, climate science expertise may be a less important influence on global warming views than political ideology or social consensus norms. More than any other result of the study, this would be strong evidence against the idea that expert scientists’ views on politically controversial topics can be completely objective.
This is not enormously surprising to those skeptical of the politicization of science as exemplified by the global warming controversy but it is still almost wrenching to see it laid out so . . . scientifically.

No comments:

Post a Comment