By September 11, 2017 Read More →

25 September – “The Perception of Daily Temperatures as Evidence of Global Warming & Public Perception and Communication of Scientific Uncertainty”

Date: 25 September 2017
Time: 12:00pm
Location: Baker 129 Conference Room
Speaker: Prof. Stephen Broomell
Topic: The Perception of Daily Temperatures as Evidence of Global Warming & Public Perception and Communication of Scientific Uncertainty

Abstract: Unlike the scientific definition of global warming (GW), public discussion often links the existence of GW to daily temperatures rather than long-term averages. Previous research found that daily weather is perceived as personal experiences with GW. Additionally, prior beliefs about GW can affect interpretations of such experiences as evidence for the existence of GW. However, previous studies demonstrating that beliefs affect interpretations of experiences were based on correlational designs—limiting causal inferences—and relied only on self-reports of remembered personal experiences instead of direct interpretations of weather. The authors present the first randomized experiment investigating how people interpret daily temperatures in terms of the evidence that it provides about GW, clarifying the psychological causes for different interpretations of the same experiences across individuals. They test the influence of knowledge about (and beliefs in) GW on the interpretation of daily temperatures across two framing conditions labeled weather (interpreting a temperature as abnormal weather) and climate (interpreting a temperature as evidence ofGW). The authors use signal detection theory to measure the decision-maker’s (a) ability to discriminate between temperatures, called sensitivity, and (b) threshold for describing a temperature as abnormal, called the decision threshold. The results replicate previous research finding a motivational distortion in interpreting temperatures as evidence of GW and further find belief-consistent distortions in decision thresholds while observing no measurable change in sensitivity. In other words, people know when temperatures are abnormally hot, but classify ambiguous events (i.e., less extreme abnormalities) differently based on their beliefs in GW.

Understanding how the public perceives uncertainty in scientific research is fundamental for effective communication about research and its inevitable uncertainty. Previous work found that scientific evidence differentially influenced beliefs from individuals with different political ideologies. Evidence that threatens an individual’s political ideology is perceived as more uncertain than nonthreatening evidence. The authors present 3 studies examining perceptions of scientific uncertainty more broadly by including sciences that are not politically polarizing. Study 1 develops scales measuring perceptions of scientific uncertainty. It finds (a) 3 perceptual dimensions of scientific uncertainty, with the primary dimension representing a perception of precision; (b) the precision dimension of uncertainty is strongly associated with the perceived value of a research field; and (c) differences in perceived uncertainty across political affiliations. Study 2 manipulated these dimensions, finding that Republicans were more sensitive than Democrats to descriptions of uncertainty associated with a research field (e.g., psychology). Study 3 found that these views of a research field did not extend to the evaluation of individual results produced by the field. Together, these studies show that perceptions of scientific uncertainty associated with entire research fields are valid predictors of abstract perceptions of scientific quality, benefit, and allocation of funding. Yet, they do not inform judgments about individual results. Therefore, polarization in the acceptance of specific results is not likely due to individual differences in perceived scientific uncertainty. Further, the direction of influence potentially could be reversed, such that perceived quality of scientific results could be used to influence perceptions about scientific research fields.


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