Conventional wisdom assumes that increased awareness of science issues brings public consensus in line with scientific consensus. However, a recent study reveals how science communication can backfire by heightening political polarization. The study’s authors hypothesized that an audience member’s political partisanship influences his/her social identification with individuals featured in news stories about climate change and that this social identification (or lack thereof) influences the audience member’s support for government policies regarding climate change.
To test their hypothesis, the authors showed 240 residents of central New York three simulated news stories based on facts reported by the Associated Press. Each story focused on the potential impact of global climate change on health and included pictures and names of eight farmers. However, one story was set in France, one in the state of Georgia, and one in upstate New York. All three versions of the story had the same photos of farmers.
The results support prior studies that show people engage in motivated reasoning, i.e., interpret information in a manner that reinforces their existing bias. Democrats expressed the same levels of social identification with the farmers regardless of the farmers’ location. Independents and Republicans on the other hand expressed lower levels of social identification with farmers in France and Georgia and higher levels of social identification with farmers in upstate New York. Republicans presented with the news stories set in France or Georgia were more likely to oppose policy action than Republicans presented with the news story set in upstate New York. Therefore, the news articles that focused on farmers in France or Georgia increased polarization.
Focus on Local Impacts
The authors of the study acknowledge that more research is required to understand additional factors (e.g., depth of processing) that may affect the role of motivated reasoning. Regardless, the study suggests that public consensus about climate change can be increased by “focusing on local effects and including implications for local areas when discussing the impact that climate change may be having on distant populations.” While the study focused on effective messaging regarding climate change, the results suggest that municipalities and advocates attempting to gain support for local sustainability initiatives should tailor their messaging to focus on local impacts in order to get a broader consensus across the political spectrum.