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Climate Change and Conceptual Change


Global Warming (“GW”) is easily one of the most pressing concerns of our time,

and its solution will come about only through a change in human behavior.

Compared to the residents of most other nations worldwide, Americans report

lower acceptance of the realities of GW. In order to address this concern in a

free society, U.S. residents must be convinced or coerced to take the necessary

actions. In spite of the democratic appeal of education, however, many climate

communicators appear to be settling on the notion that emotional persuasion is

superior to education.

We'll set an empirical foundation in Chapter 2, reviewing an experiment in

the Numerically Driven Inferencing (NDI) paradigm that sheds some light on the

cognitive processes involved in learning and attitude shifts in response to

surprising policy-relevant information. Chapters 3–6 contain results from

a comprehensive program of research specifically targeting climate-related

attitudes and beliefs in the United States. As alluded to above, there have been

many surveys of American attitudes. Chapter 3 provides an overview of our

approach to assessing climate-related beliefs and attitudes. In particular, we

note relationships observed in one survey between scientific literacy regarding

the GW mechanism on one hand and attitudes, including “willingness to

sacrifice” on the other. As with some other empirical approaches, our

results suggest that U.S. residents generally accept anthropogenic (i.e.,

“human caused”) climate change, and support action on this issue.

But even if this is the case, Chapter 4 describes an experiment demonstrating

that these beliefs and attitudes are disturbingly fragile in the face of

cherry-picked, misleading numerical facts. Chapter 5 then describes a pair

of experiments evaluating the effects of representative numerical facts.

Chapter 5's Study 1 (Section 5.1) demonstrates that even when

students report strong psychological effects after receiving a set of surprising

numbers, their beliefs and attitudes will not necessarily be affected.

Chapter 5's Study 2 (Section 5.2) improves upon the clarity of

materials used in Study 1 and demonstrates that such materials

can effectively increase climate change acceptance and concern.

In both of these studies, as with the study presented in Chapter 4, this

relatively uncontextualized, surprising numerical information undermines

students' confidence in their own knowledge. Chapter 6 reports on three

successful experiments (spanning four samples) that provide a coherent

explanation of the mechanism of climate change that includes relevant numerical

facts. As with Study 2 in Chapter 5, this intervention shifts

participant attitudes towards the scientific consensus. Unlike uncontextualized

numerical information, however, this mechanism intervention additionally leaves

participants feeling that they know more than they did prior to instruction.

Chapter 6's Study 1 (Section 6.1) establishes this effect in

classroom-based settings at two culturally distinct universities.

Chapter 6's Study 2 (Section 6.2) provides an initial evaluation

of the time-course of retention for the cognitive shifts that followed our

mechanism intervention, and Chapter 6's Study 3 (Section 6.3)

provides a successful demonstration of durable shifts with the general

population online.

Taken together, these experiments point the way towards effective curricula and

on-line materials that can help bolster support to combat climate change. While

we must certainly be sensitive to the needs, values, and interests of our target

audiences, we should not reflexively steer away from science education. Indeed,

the experiments in this dissertation provide empirical support for the notion

that science education materials can have a meaningful and lasting impact on GW

attitudes and beliefs. While this may not provide the complete behavioral

solution we need for the United States (and the world), it seems likely that

such shifts will make behavioral and policy changes far more tractable in the

coming years.

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