USA Today: Some scientists misread poll data on global warming controversy

Stanford researcher: “It is certainly possible that public confidence in climate scientists has declined since our last survey in December, but it’s not likely.”

Polling data is misunderstood and misread all of the time.  The public strongly supports action on climate and clean energy legislation, even if it raises their energy bill by $10 a month, but even (lazy) environmentalists are unaware of that.

Now it turns out that polling on the science may be equally misunderstood, as USA Today reported Tuesday:

The recent controversies “have really shaken the confidence of the public in the conduct of science,” according to atmospheric scientist Ralph Cicerone, head of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Cicerone was speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting last month on a panel calling for more communication and release of data to rebuild lost trust for scientists. IPCC chiefs have made similar calls in the handling of their reports.

Scientists see reason for worry in polls like one released in December by Fox News that found 23% of respondents saw global warming as “not a problem,” up from 12% in 2005. Also at the AAAS meeting, Yale, American University and George Mason University released a survey of 978 people challenging the notion that people 18 to 35 were any more engaged than their elders on climate change. Statistically, 44% in that age range “” matching the national average “” found global warming as either “not too important” or “not at all important,” even though they grew up in an era when climate scientists had found it very likely that temperatures had increased over the last century due to fossil fuel emissions of greenhouse gases.

I would add that the messaging on the climate and clean energy jobs bill has focused on spelling out the multiple benefits the bill brings, which is a key reason support for the bill remains high.  But many environmentalists and politicians — but not all, not folks like Sen. Kerry —  have been persuaded not to emphasize global warming or focus on explaining climate science (see “Messaging 101b: EcoAmerica’s phrase ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’ isn’t going to replace ‘global warming’ “” and that’s a good thing“).

But what “if” (apologies to Kipling again) scientists are misreading those poll results and conflating them with news coverage of the recent public-relations black eyes from e-mails and the glacier mistake? What’s really happening, suggests polling expert Jon Krosnick of Stanford University, is “scientists are over-reacting. It’s another funny instance of scientists ignoring science.”

Krosnick and his colleagues argue that polling suggesting less interest in fixing climate change might indicate the public has its mind on more immediate problems in the midst of a global economic downturn, with the U.S. unemployment rate stuck at 9.7%. The AAAS-released survey of young people, for example, finds that 82% of them trust scientists for information on global warming and the national average is 74%.

“Very few professions enjoy the level of confidence from the public that scientists do, and those numbers haven’t changed much in a decade,” he says. “We don’t see a lot of evidence that the general public in the United States is picking up on the (University of East Anglia) e-mails. It’s too inside baseball.”

So to try to see what is happening, Krosnick and colleagues tried a new approach to a standard polling question, “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?” In a September survey of 906 adults, they asked the question in different ways:

“¢When asked, without being given any examples of problems, 0% mentioned global warming, but 52% mentioned jobs or the economy.

“¢When asked “” with problems such as stopping crime, terrorism or global warming mentioned “” 6% selected the climate concern, and 34% mentioned jobs or the economy.

“¢When asked, “What do you think will be the most important problem facing the world in the future?” global warming moved to 9%, with 24% saying jobs or the economy.

“¢And when asked, “What do you think will be the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?” global warming moved to 15%, with jobs or the economy falling to 13%.

That is a terrific question and a terrific point.  The classic polling question “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?” is somewhat ambiguous.  It’s not clear whether you are asking what problem is having the biggest negative impact on you this very moment or whether you are asking what is the biggest problem we face in general.

In a follow-up December Associated Press/Stanford University poll of 1,005 adults, they found simply asking the last question bumped global warming up to 12% of the responses, up from 1% for problems today, effectively a statistical tie with the September poll.

It could just be that people think that global warming is a problem the government will solve in the future, Krosnick suggests, so today they are worried about their jobs instead. The part of the population already deeply opposed to climate change science likely has been inflamed further by the recent controversies, he adds, but that may be about as far as it goes. “It is certainly possible that public confidence in climate scientists has declined since our last survey in December, but it’s not likely, since little time has passed, and there has been no huge news [or] huge dissemination of the old news.”

For all of the confusion raised about the emails and the IPCC — indeed, for all of the nonstop disinformation campaign largely funded by Big Oil and the special interests in the past decade — the public still understands that doing nothing about climate change is very risky.

Finally, Daniel Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council makes the point that matches my experience:

“No senator I’ve spoken to has mentioned the e-mails in their thinking about climate.  The focus is much more on the economy, national security, clean energy jobs.”

The message is that consistent messaging works.

7 Responses to USA Today: Some scientists misread poll data on global warming controversy

  1. Leif says:

    Assuming that anything that FOX has to say about any contentious subject has not been contaminated by their personal bias is ludicrous.

    I have started many a poll that I have been forced to terminate before completion because I felt that I was not being given fair access to express my views. Even polls that should know better.

  2. paulina says:

    Can’t help but wonder to what extent the fact that the prestige press *detected* damage to public trust in climate science/scientists but also *attributed* this “damage” to the scientists’ own actions (read: CRU emails), in advance of any polls whatsoever and on the basis of zero evidence, influenced how people/press then misinterpreted poll results once these became available.

  3. Ana says:

    Krosnick will be speaking at a briefing in the Senate on Friday morning. More info here:

  4. MarkB says:

    Polls are ideally supposed to measure public opinion. Some polls seem designed more to influence public opinion or policy. Rasmussen Reports is a classic example.

  5. Sam says:

    On the money again Joe. I think it’s critical to stop this story line in its tracks–as much as possible. While acknowledging the fact that it would be very helpful if we continued to beat the drum on the climate problem.

    The public feels the same about climate policy as it ever has. They’re willing to do something about it if it doesn’t cost them much/any money (same as basically any other issue).

  6. Leif says:

    Sam, “5: “They’re willing to do something about it if it doesn’t cost them much/any money”…

    The public needs to be constantly reminded that the status quo is costing them upwards of a billion dollars a day plus interest to the rich and mostly foreign money lenders. Much of that money could be staying right here in the country with a sensible sustainable energy policy.

  7. James Newberry says:

    What would have been the poll results on happiness of passengers on the Titanic an hour before it sank to the bottom of the sea?

    The captain might have been nervous in letting the owners instruct him to race at night across iceberg territory, but the inhabitants of that veritable powered city had TRUST in the wisdom of his authority.

    In a highly centralized civilization, polls may even be used to create perceptions of opinion that maintain the status quo.