March 22, 2017

How much does science knowledge influence people’s views on climate change and energy issues?

Many in the scientific community believe that if the American public were more informed about the science behind climate change and energy issues, people would hold views that aligned more closely with those of scientific experts. But how much people know about science only modestly and inconsistently correlates with their attitudes about climate and energy issues, while partisanship is a stronger factor in people’s beliefs, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey.

There have been wide political divides in public views over climate and energy issues over at least a decade of public polls. The 2016 survey showed these political divisions reached across every dimension of the climate debate, from the causes and potential cures of climate change down to people’s trust in climate scientists’ understanding of the issue and the motivations behind their research.

These political orientations appear to serve as an anchoring point for how knowledge influences peoples’ attitudes. This pattern is consistent with an array of scholarly literature which suggests that people’s political worldviews shape how science knowledge influences attitudes on climate-related matters. 

People’s level of science knowledge helps to a degree to explain their beliefs about climate change, but the relationship is complicated. While there are wide political divides in public views of the potential for harm from climate change. A majority of Democrats holding medium or high levels of science knowledge said it was “very likely” that climate change would lead to rising sea levels that erode beaches and shore lines, harm to animal wildlife and their habitats, damage to forests and plant life, storms that are more severe, and more droughts or water shortages. But there are no differences or only modest differences among Republicans holding high, medium and low science knowledge levels in their expectations of harms to the Earth’s ecosystems because of climate change.

Similarly, Democrats with high levels of knowledge about science, based on a nine-item index, almost all agree that climate change is mostly due to human activity (93%). By contrast, 49% of Democrats with low science knowledge think this is the case.

But among Republicans, there are no significant differences by science knowledge about the causes of climate change. Put another way, Republicans with high levels of science knowledge are no more likely than those with lower levels of knowledge to think climate change is mostly due to human activity.

This pattern did not occur on all judgments related to climate change, but to the extent that science knowledge influenced judgments, it did so among Democrats but not Republicans. (See our report “The Politics of Climate” for the results from statistical models of these patterns.)

On energy issues, a similar dynamic

The same pattern was found for people’s beliefs about energy issues. The survey found that Republicans more than Democrats favored expanding fossil fuel energy sources, as has been the case in past Pew Research Center surveys. The 2016 survey found that the vast majority of Democrats with high science knowledge opposed expanding offshore oil drilling, fracking and coal mining. Democrats with low science knowledge were more closely divided over these issues. Republicans’ views about these energy issues were about the same regardless of their level of science knowledge.

On nuclear power, the pattern was reversed. Three-quarters (75%) of Republicans with high science knowledge favored more nuclear power plants, compared with 37% of Republicans with low science knowledge. There were no more than modest differences among Democrats by levels of science knowledge in their opinions about more nuclear power plants.

People’s level of science knowledge influenced their attitudes and beliefs about a number of climate and energy issues but, most often, the relationship was indirect. Political orientations – whether Democrat or Republican – appeared to shape how people integrated science knowledge with their attitudes and beliefs about climate and energy issues.

Topics: Energy and Environment, U.S. Political Parties, Political Attitudes and Values, Public Knowledge, Political Party Affiliation, Science and Innovation, Political Polarization

  1. Photo of Cary Funk

    is director of science and society research at Pew Research Center.

23 Comments

  1. Anonymous5 months ago

    How do you measure “Science Knowledge “? Cause and Effect relationship?
    Facts and Opinions? Science skills integrate Quality and Quantity relationships
    To verify if they’re related or a valid connection can be found between them and
    The best answer is there. In one word, that is the truth! Can’t be two correct answers! Or Republicans lack scientific knowledge, the ones who told they have,
    Or they don’t want to see the cause and effect relationship because they’re interested just in making money regardless the destruction of the en environment
    even though they understand that will happen.

  2. Anonymous5 months ago

    Way off topic, but would like any comments available.

    With this seeming disregard for the efforts of science and lack of faith as a tool of fair warning — would this also explain the begrudging attitudes from the Right for women becoming involved in science careers? Because it sounds, from this insight that it isn’t so much a begrudging, as it is a lack of interest for themselves, and a feeling that it is a waste of education.

  3. Anonymous5 months ago

    You could put me in the higher science knowledge Democratic side

  4. Anonymous5 months ago

    I’d really like to hear about people near the center, who might swing even on a decade scale if not tomorrow. It seems clear that the partisans are not going to change their opinions on things like global warming anytime soon. But if people who are just slightly in the “Republican” camp have a response that looks just slightly like the Democrat’s, then climate activists might want to keep using science education as a main tactic, given the lack of shining alternatives.

    It might also be interesting, since it’s so hard for people to leave our own filter bubbles, to figure out why nuclear power has the parallel but opposite pattern to climate change. Is there a scientifically grounded argument for it that is just not reaching Democrats? If so, what is blocking that information? Is it the same process as with climate change information on the right?

  5. Anonymous5 months ago

    This is interesting, but incomplete without details about how you are gauging ‘scientific knowledge’. Is it possible to provide some details about your nine-point index?
    Thanks!

    1. David Kent5 months ago

      The questions can be found in Chapter 4 of the report: pewinternet.org/2016/10/04/publi…

  6. Anonymous5 months ago

    It would be great if you could report regression results that control for income.

  7. Paul Johnson5 months ago

    I’d like to know more about the “nine-item index” used to classify high-medium-low science knowledge. Does it measure real science knowledge or simply the respondent’s ability to parrot the alarmist line on climate?

    1. Anonymous5 months ago

      That you used the term “alarmist” gives away your bias. To be alarmist is to have a default position of fear, of exaggerate. When there is reason to be alarmed it is merely rational.

      Maybe you are a pollyanna…..

    2. Anonymous5 months ago

      Googling the phrase leads to this 12 question quiz from the pew research center:
      pewresearch.org/quiz/science-kno…

      You can also check the methods section of the study:
      pewinternet.org/2016/10/04/the-p…
      which has descriptions of the questions that were used, if not the questions themselves.

    3. Anonymous5 months ago

      If that were true, the left side of each chart wouldn’t be so flat.

    4. Anonymous5 months ago

      Yes please. The validity of the science knowledge index really matters here.

    5. Anonymous5 months ago

      Curious, what other scientific consensus in the last 40’years that strengthens every year do you disagree with? And why is it that only USA republicans disagree, there are conservatives elsewhere but the deniers are almost all in the USA.

      1. Anonymous5 months ago

        Is Fox News widely aired in countries other than the USA? Assuming no, I’d submit that as a major contributor in the tendency you’ve noted.

        Very good study, but it would have been nice to see data on what people said their info sources were re: climate change, as well as if there was any discernable income correlation across the 6 party/knowledge segments.

    6. David Kent5 months ago

      The nine-item index is included in Chapter 4 of the report, which can be found here: pewinternet.org/2016/10/04/publi…

  8. Anonymous5 months ago

    “It’s not what they don’t know that worries me. It’s what they do know, that just ain’t so.” Will Rogers

  9. Anonymous5 months ago

    I would like to see stats on this question: “Would you like to see more clean energy instead of fossil fuels”

    Also, I recommend the PDF “Let’s Talk Climate” which are science based suggestions for vocabulary and framing most effective in persuading the “persuadables”.

    1. Packard Day5 months ago

      That is sort of like asking people if they would prefer more clean air and have more clean water. Who wouldn’t? The better survey question, however, might be to ask whether a respondent is willing to pay 3-5 times more (i.e. coal/oil vis a vis wind/solar) in their personal energy bills in order to obtain more clean energy?__________Everyone wants to buy the world a Coke and teach it to sing in perfect harmony. Alas, far too few of us are willing to personally pay for such a wonderful experience when it comes to using our own money.

  10. David Rice5 months ago

    Why did they survey only Republican Party members and Democrat Party Members? That’s less than half the USA population.

    1. Anonymous5 months ago

      Thanks for the question, David. The findings are based on a nationally representative survey of 1,534 U.S. adults conducted May 10-June 6, 2016. The analysis shows opinions among two political groups: people who identify as Republicans (including independents who lean toward the Republicans) and people who identify as Democrats (including independents who lean toward the Democrats).

  11. Anonymous5 months ago

    So much for the power of education.

  12. Packard Day5 months ago

    Please count me as being grateful whenever I encounter someone with so called “science knowledge” who can also articulate the difference between a scientific law and a scientific theory._________________Too often what I find, however, are ill informed pseudo intellectuals who are only too happy to parrot whatever fashionable nonsense they have recently heard from their ideologically insulated social circles. For these types of people, their certainty for what they cannot possibly know is always a source of great amusement.

  13. Anonymous5 months ago

    It would be interesting to control for evangelical belief in this data. I suspect that non-evangelical Republicans look a lot more like Democrats (meaning that science knowledge would shape how people integrated science knowledge with their attitudes and beliefs about climate and energy issues to a greater extent).