Expert Commentary

Study: US voters who distrust university researchers less likely to believe in climate change   

A PLOS Climate study, based on a survey of 2,096 registered U.S. voters, finds trust in university research centers was higher among voters under 30, non-Protestants, regular religious service attendees, Democrats, and ideologically moderate or liberal individuals.

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(Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash)

American voters who have low or moderate levels of trust in university researchers are less likely to believe that climate change is an important problem and that it’s driven by human activities, according to a study published this month in PLOS Climate.

The study, which finds trust in university research centers was higher among voters under 30, non-Protestants, regular religious service attendees, Democrats, and ideologically moderate or liberal individuals, adds to an existing body of research examining the role of public trust in science, including climate change.

The study is based on a nationally representative survey of 2,096 registered U.S. voters who were asked questions about their belief in climate change, trust in university research centers, religion, ideology, political identity, race and gender. The online survey was conducted in May 2022.

The scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that climate change is real and the Earth’s climate is affected by human activities. Despite this scientific consensus, a portion of Americans don’t believe it.

Over the years, polls have shown a political and ideological divide in the U.S. in beliefs about climate change and its causes, and that divide may be widening.

An August 2022 survey by the Pew Research Center found 78% of Democrats describe climate change as a major threat, up from 58% a decade ago. Meanwhile, 23% of Republicans find climate change a major threat, almost identical to 10 years ago.

Meanwhile, Americans’ trust in scientists has been declining since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, according a February 2022 report by Pew.

Overall, 29% of Americans expressed a great deal of confidence in medical scientists to act in the best interests of the public, down from 40% in November 2020, according to the report.

Some responsibility for the trust decline lies with the scientists, according to Ramit Debnath, one of the authors of the PLOS Climate study, “Why Don’t Americans Trust University Researchers and Why it Matters for Climate Change.”

“A broken science communication paradigm restricts the flow of evidence-driven facts in [the] public domain,” Debnath wrote in an email.

The solution is for “universities and scientists to work to re-establish public trust and confidence in our research,” Debnath, an assistant professor at the University of Cambridge, and his co-authors R. Michael Alvarez, a professor of political and computational social science at the California Institute of Technology, and Daniel Ebanks, a Ph.D. candidate at Caltech, write in the paper.

The authors’ sentiment has been expressed by other researchers, including Dr. Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at University of Rochester and self-described “evangelist of science.”

Skeptics “need to understand how science works,” Frank said in a July 2022 story by the University of Rochester’s News Center. “We don’t gain their trust just by telling them about results. They need to understand how scientists know what they know.”

Debnath and colleagues add that trusted messengers, such as religious organizations and leaders, might play a pivotal role in helping garner this trust.

The consequences of distrust in university research

The study also highlights the ramifications of distrust in science.

“This lack of trust in climate science has critical environmental, social and political consequences,” write Debnath and colleagues in the study. “It weakens the science-society compact and enables the active resistance of powerful actors with vested interests to change the status quo from which they disproportionately profit.”

Also, “if the United States continues down this road of science denial, the best and brightest of the world won’t come here. It’s really about our nation’s capacity to be an economic powerhouse,” Frank says.

The role of the news media

Among the study’s other findings is an association between where people get their news and trust in researchers.

Those who follow the news on television and print were more likely to trust university research and believe that climate change is an important issue. Respondents whose primary news sources were online were least trusting of university research.

The study notes climate change denial in the U.S. has not only been fueled by a complex interplay of ideological forces and politics, but also by distorted media representations, including the practice of false balance, giving equal play to scientists and climate deniers. This has further muddied the waters, the authors write in the paper, presenting scientific consensus as just another opinion.

In his email, Debnath wrote that journalists play a central role in making science accessible to the public and in training university researchers in science communication.

“This is a life skill that scientists are often left to learn on their own or not care/not made aware about at all,” he wrote. “Journalists have a much greater role to play in both reinforcement and long-term strategy planning to prevent misinformation and polarization.”

The study’s findings

Responses to the question of climate change importance were simplified into two categories: important and not important. (You can read more about how climate change is the result of human activities on NASA’s website.)

Below are the study’s findings in more detail, grouped by the main survey question.

“On a scale from 0 to 10, how much do you trust university research centers, where 0 means you don’t trust the institution at all and 10 means you trust it completely.”
  • Individuals aged 45-64 and those over 65 were less inclined to trust university research centers compared with those under 30.
  • Respondents with postgraduate education showed a higher level of trust in university research centers compared with those with no post-high school education.
  • Protestant registered voters displayed a lower trust in university research centers compared with individuals from other religious denominations (Catholic, Jewish and other) and those without any religious affiliation.
  • Regular attendees of religious services exhibited higher trust in university research centers compared with those who never attend.
  • Democrats and moderates showed a higher level of trust in university research centers than independents. The results for Republicans and conservatives were not statistically significant.
  • Traditional information sources like print and television positively influenced trust in university research centers. Conversely, trust was lower among those who relied on online news sources, but this finding wasn’t statistically significant. The results for radio listeners were also not statistically significant.
“How much of a problem do you believe climate change may be in the next 10 years for the United States?”
  • Trust in science played a pivotal role. Those with low trust in science were significantly less likely to see climate change as important compared with those with high trust. Even those with moderate trust in science were less likely to consider it an important issue, relative to high trust individuals.
  • Respondents aged 45-64 and 65 and older were less likely to consider climate change an important problem compared with those under 30. The results for the 31-44 age group were not significant.
  • Democrats and those identifying as moderates or liberals were more likely to view climate change as an important issue compared to Republicans and conservatives.
  • Other demographics, like race/ethnicity, education, region, and religious affiliation, didn’t show statistically significant differences.
  • People who followed news on television or print were more likely to believe climate change is a crucial issue. No significant findings were seen for radio or online news consumers.
“Do you think that climate change is caused by human activities or that it is a natural event?”
  • Those with low trust in science were much less likely to attribute climate change to human activities compared with those with high trust. Even respondents with moderate trust were less likely to believe humans cause climate change when compared with those with high trust.
  • 59% of respondents believed climate change is due to human activities, while 41% attributed it to natural events.
  • Black respondents were more inclined to believe that climate change results from natural events compared with white respondents. Conversely, Hispanics/Latinos had a higher likelihood than other ethnicities and races to attribute climate change to human activities.
  • Respondents over 45 were less likely to believe that climate change is caused by human actions.
  • Jewish and non-Catholic respondents more often believed in human-caused climate change than other religious groups. Respondents with no religious affiliations were significantly more likely to attribute climate change to humans than nature.
  • Democrats, moderates, and liberals were statistically more likely to attribute climate change to human activities than nature.

Next steps for scientists

The authors offer four recommendations for the scientific community to address this trust deficit:

  1. Targeted research: More research is needed to understand who currently trusts university research on climate change and sustainability, who does not and who is on the fence, and how to develop tailored strategies for each group.
  2. Message framing: The way scientific findings are presented can make a big difference. “These results suggest scientists cannot necessarily expect that these groups will automatically trust their work, even if their research is of high quality and well-evidenced. Instead, scientists need to be more sensitive to understanding how to translate and discuss their work in ways that are understandable, and which generate trust among the public,” the authors write.
  3. Finding the right messengers: It’s not always the scientists themselves who make the best communicators. “While additional research is necessary, our survey results indicate that religious organizations and leaders might provide an important mechanism for the generation of higher levels of trust in university research,” they write.
  4. Education: The long-term strategy should focus on primary and secondary education. “What is also needed is developing educational approaches and materials that help students better understand the scientific process and how they can best understand and interpret scientific materials. Only by educating the next generations can we minimize distrust of scientific research in the longer term,” the authors write.

Like all studies, this paper has limitations. The study is observational and it depends on survey designs, so it can only paint a partial picture of the issue. The authors note their future research aims to refine survey methods, introduce more nuanced questions, and delve deeper into causal relationships concerning trust in science and climate action.

The study was funded by the Quadrature Climate Foundation, Keynes Fund and Caltech’s Resnick Sustainability Institute. The funders had no role in the study. The authors declared no competing interests.


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