Heuristics and Climate Change

What role does extreme or unseasonable weather play in public opinions about climate change?
Image Credit: Megan Sutherland

One of life’s double-edged swords is that we’re constantly learning from experience. Usually, we think of this in terms of the way failure helps us refine our skills to become more successful. Another aspect of this, however, is the way experience serves as an informer for our beliefs about society and the world. Psychologists refer to these experience-based beliefs as heuristics. Heuristics include things like an educated guess, a rule of thumb, or an intuitive ‘gut’ reaction. Heuristics, as it turns out, play a factor in climate change belief.

Most recently, a study by researchers at the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College found belief in climate change rose from 55% in the Spring of 2011 to 62% in December 2011. While almost half of participants who stated they believe in climate change said they based their opinion on personal observations, only 8% said their belief was based on scientific research. Previous studies have found similar trends; after the snowy winters of 2009 and 2010, climate change belief dropped significantly.1

Andrew Weaver, a Canadian climate scientist, laments the most recent findings as a case of the public “mix[ing] up the difference between weather and climate.” He says people tend not to fully grasp that extreme weather is a natural fact of life (and therefore not every instance stems from climate change). Rather, it is the frequency and severity of these events that climate change exacerbates.2 For climate scientists, this is an important distinction, and public understanding of basic facts is crucial to overcoming the cognitive bias that can result from choosing experience over research. Read More…

Spotlight On: Photographer Lu Guang

Lu Guang (卢广) isn’t a name being tossed around the dinner table, but if you have any interest in photography, the environment, or (ideally) both, you may be interested in looking at his work. Originally from the Zhejiang province of China, Lu started out as a factory worker who dabbled in photography on the side. In the early 90s he enrolled in post-graduate studies at Tsinghua University and began his career.

Lu’s work focuses primarily on social and economic problems, ranging from poverty to HIV to the environment. His project “Pollution in China” won him the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography in 2009. Some samples of his work and an interview can seen at the link below, though be warned that a few of the photos are of people suffering from pollution-related health effects.

Pollution in China project by Lu Guang

Interview with Lu Guang about the Pollution in China project

The Ebb and Flow of Climate Change in the News: Coverage and Narrative Content

How has the media's narrative of climate change developed over time and how does it affect the public and political agendas?
Image credit: Kevin Lim

In first grade, I distinctly remember the teacher gathering us around her to talk about resource conservation. Of course, she didn’t use that terminology. She kept things simple, asking how long we took showers and if we turned lights off when leaving a room. The conversation made a big impression, and I distinctly recall going home that night and insisting my father replace our shower nozzles with environmentally-friendly ones. In the months that followed, our class continued talking about the environment, the ozone, and pollution.

All of this happened in the fall of 1990. Two years earlier, an unusually hot summer resulted in environmental issues receiving an “enormous increase in attention.”1 Obviously such drastic shifts in weather are not common, even with climate change, and as a result the initial enthusiasm died down. Eventually the media shifted its focus to the debate about scientific consensus, and by 5th grade, our teachers rarely mentioned the environment except to halfheartedly talk about recycling.

This ebb and flow in coverage and the public’s subsequent interest has been noted by researchers and approached from a variety of angles. Today’s post examines these spikes and declines while also looking at what researchers consider noteworthy shifts in narrative content.

The first study that warrants attention is a 1999 paper by McComas and Shanahan, whose research focused primarily on how the narrative that developed surrounding climate change impacted public perception. Sampling articles from 1980-1995, McComas and Shanahan divided the rise and fall of coverage into three phases: waxing, maintenance, and waning. Their analysis of these phases showed distinct shifts in narrative device and thematic emphasis. The dangers of climate change, for instance, comprised the majority of stories in the waxing phase. McComas and Shanahan note that if we look at climate change coverage as a narrative, this angle of coverage had to end because it could only be maintained if the “apocalyptic outcome” actually occurred.2 Obviously the world was not scorched to soot, and the public’s expectation of short-term consequences were unmet. The story, then, was forced to re-shape itself.

When it re-emerged, the drama of scientific uncertainty and high economic cost took the reigns in the maintenance phase. The tension and infighting supplied an intriguing new narrative that easily built on the initial one. Of further appeal was the fact that the new narrative retained a sense of drama (the debate) and personal engagement (the economics) since people typically seek to avoid any economic burdens seen as unnecessary. McComas and Shanahan also considered this shift important because of its dominance in the maintenance phase. Since the maintenance phase is the longest part of the cycle, it helped McComas and Shanahan explain why these issues tend to dominate the story of climate change. Read More…

Climate Change and Balance in the Media

What role does information bias play in public opinions about climate change?
Image Credit: Megan Sutherland

Accusations regarding the media’s political stripes— that it taints everything with a liberal bias or, conversely, that it adheres to the agenda of its big business parent-companies—have been dueling metronomes in the background of many political debates. These polarized assessments are how we typically think of journalistic bias. With matters of science though, the landscape should be different because science’s objectivity, theoretically allows less room for divisiveness and discourse hijacking. This has not been the story, however, when it comes to climate change.

Assuming that science succeeds in being objective (or mostly objective), then it is somewhat strange the climate change controversy exists at all. With nearly 100% of scientific bodies of good standing declaring that climate change is not only real but an imminent threat, the disproportionately large segment of the population who question it is staggering. Ongoing research about the media’s coverage of climate change ranges in focus and scope, but today’s post is primarily concerned with research done about a less talked about form of media bias.

If you’ve ever taken a psychology class, you may recall the term ‘information bias.’  Simply put, information bias describes the process by which people mis-evaluate a situation due to less relevant information clouding their ability to focus on the more pertinent information. This excess of generally irrelevant information tends to alter one’s opinion or course of action. With this in mind, Maxwell and Jules Boykoff, two American researchers, looked at climate change articles (discounting opinion pieces, letters to the editor, etc ) from four major U.S. newspapers. Their study, which tracked articles from 1988 to 2002, analyzed the extent to which news articles balanced (or didn’t balance) both sides of the climate change debate.1 Read More…