Epistemic closure – climate change edition

by Henry Farrell on March 9, 2011 · 10 comments

in Blogs

Via via Serendipity and Ethan Zuckerman, an article suggesting that partisanship and level of education have the same kind of interaction effect on beliefs about climate change that Bartels finds for economic inequality. Drawing on surveys of New Hampshire and Michigan Upper Peninsula residents, Lawrence Hamilton finds that:

The probability of perceiving global warming as a threat increases with education among Democrats, but decreases with education among Republicans. Only two respondents out of a thousand described themselves as “strong Democrats” or “strong Republicans” with less than an 8th grade education, so the crossover at far left in Fig. 3 should not be over-interpreted. Setting aside this extreme, threat perceptions are roughly similar among Republicans and Democrats with lower education. They are most divergent among those with higher educations. … Earlier researchers found education (along with age) to be the most consistent predictor of citizen concern about the environment, and about climate in particular. … The inconsistency marks a social shift away from patterns seen in older research. It reflects the efficacy of media campaigns that provide scientific-sounding arguments against taking climate change seriously, which disproportionately reach educated but ideologically receptive audiences. Among many educated, conservative citizens, it appears that that such arguments have overshadowed the scientific consensus presented by the IPCC reports and other core science sources.

Global Warming

The relationship is, to put it mildly, stark – the predicted probability that a strong Republican with postgraduate education will think that climate change is a threat is rather less than 10%. The article argues that this is a result of selective media consumption via the Internet.

The Internet and cable television news make it easier for us not only to process information selectively ourselves, but to selectively acquire information that has been processed already, when we only tune in to ideologically compatible Web sites, cable news shows and so forth …. The bias or selectivity of our sources can be higher than the newspapers, magazines or broadcast news that formerly supplied most current- events information. Narrowcast media, including many Web sites devoted to dis- crediting climate-change concerns, provide ideal conduits for channeling politically inspired but scientific sounding arguments to an audience predisposed to retain and repeat them. The power to repeat favored arguments has been vastly expanded as well, through forwarding emails or posting links and content online, in a process that can become “viral” as it motivates new readers to do the same.

This seems a plausible surmise, but it is unlikely to be the only mechanism involved. If Gentzkow and Shapiro are right, then there is less ideological segregation in consumption of Internet information sources than one might imagine e.g. from looking at blogs alone. It is possible, for example, that highly educated strong Republicans may be exposed to both contrarian and conventional sources of information on climate change, but trust the former much more than the latter because of partisan cues.

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