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If you’re worried about climate change, you’ve got a lot more in common with Idahoans than you think

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Climate Central
New research on perceptions and false "social realities," was published the journal Nature Communications on Aug. 22, 2022

Most Idahoans are deeply concerned about climate change, but incorrectly believe most of their fellow Idahoans are not, according to new research published in the journal Nature Communications.

The analysis says Idaho is in sync with the majority of Americans who support a range of climate policies, but they’ve been led to believe that they’re in the minority.

“In actuality, people who are concerned about climate change or support climate policies might outnumber opponents almost 2 to 1,” said Dr. Gregg Sparkman, co-author of the study. “But people perceive it to be the other way around.”

Sparkman visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the data, how widespread misperceptions on climate change are across the nation, and how many Americans have been swayed by “pluralistic ignorance.”

“It's easy to imagine that when people try to estimate how the nation feels, they think, ‘Well, I guess most Democrats are worried about this. And probably no, conservatives are,’ they have that kind of picture in their mind. But it would be much more accurate if they thought pretty much all Democrats feel this way and half of Republicans feel this way, too.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Most Americans are concerned about climate change, but incorrectly believe most of their neighbors aren't that concerned. That misperception is the centerpiece of a new study published today, and its findings, particularly regarding Idahoans, are most certainly worth our attention this morning. Dr. Gregg Sparkman is assistant professor at Boston College and one of the authors of the research. Dr. Sparkman, good morning.

DR. GREGG SPARKMAN: Good morning.

PRENTICE: Well, let's not bury the headline here and get the news right up top. And that is “the misperception of how others think or behave poses a challenge to collective action on climate change.” And at the heart of this is what your research calls “pluralistic ignorance.” So, help me out with that. As a layperson, what is pluralistic ignorance?

SPARKMAN: “Pluralistic ignorance” is the term from psychology. And what it means is you kind of break it down in its parts. “Pluralistic” means that many, or perhaps most people, share something, and “ignorance” in this case means that they are misguided or incorrect about something. In this case, the term has come to mean when people misperceive how people in their own group, even perhaps a large group like a state or nation, behave or thing. Another component of pluralistic ignorance is that it's not just that people are sort of erroneous in their perceptions of the group they belong to, but they all share the same misperception, like they all hold a picture of how the group is or how that group feels or behaves, but that picture is off in exactly the same way. So they come to think. Most people feel some way and they often think I might not, but I must be the outlier when in fact they might be part of the majority.

PRENTICE: Indeed, this is a national study, but let's dive right into Idaho, because, Dr. Sparkman, is it a fair assumption that Idaho is a really good example of this? We are labeled a “red state.: But I'm looking, for instance, here, well, 50 close to 60% of people in Idaho say they're concerned about climate change, but they think only about 35% are indeed. Is this a pretty good example of what this research has revealed?

SPARKMAN: A majority of people in Idaho are concerned about climate change. And you can support major climate policies like having fossil fuel companies pay for a carbon tax. However, when they estimate, “How do my fellow folks in Idaho feel?”, they think, “I don't know, maybe only a third of us are actually worried about climate change and maybe less than that supported carbon tax.” So, they're undercutting those numbers by half in this case. So, in actuality, people who are concerned about climate change or support climate policies might outnumber opponents almost 2 to 1, but people perceive it to be the other way around.

PRENTICE: In your article, and, by the way, it is published this morning in Nature Communications, there are so many elements that jump off the page. One of them is how what is called a “false social reality,” where Americans from all walks of life systematically underestimate public concern about climate change. Talk to me a little bit about false social reality.

SPARKMAN: So, we wanted a term that captured the kind of strength of the effect we were seeing. Pluralistic ignorance is a pretty general term for a kind of misconception that a group shares about itself. And there were some unique cases that made this one have its own qualities we wanted to draw attention to. So, we've defined a false social reality here as something where the magnitude of that misperception is so large is as to flip something from it actually being a majority of a large population to being seen as only minority. So, the magnitude of that misperception is quite good. And we also qualify that in this case it seemed to be nearly ubiquitous. So universally, every demographic group we looked at perceived this incorrectly to the extent where they were flipping things from being majority to only thinking it's a minority of people. So those two qualities is what we're donning something to be. A false reality has to be so large magnitude as to really invert the true norm status, and it has to be essentially ubiquitous. It's not like some of the population is a little off, but other folks aren't here. Everyone is, whether it be liberals or conservatives, people who don't have a GED, people who went all the way and got their PhD. You name it, everybody. People in the rural areas, people in suburbs, everyone here is incorrect.

PRENTICE: And as far as the big question of “Why?”, one of the elements that you write about here is media consumption, and particularly if that media misrepresents public opinion.

SPARKMAN: That's right. So recently there's been some work that even experimentally shows, if you like, assign people to view different kinds of news sources. They come away with different political attitudes. And in this work, what we do is at least a kind of simpler analysis, which is just to say we ask people to self-report which media they consumed and then controlling. Or how maybe liberal or conservative they were. We then asked them to make these estimates and what we observed was that certain news sources did not perform quite so well as others, meaning that viewers of those news sources tended to be less accurate in their perceptions of the country and their state.

PRENTICE: And more often than not, it does have to do with who has the microphone or in some cases, the megaphone.

SPARKMAN: That seems to be the case. So, we've noticed that specifically more conservative outlets and outlets like Fox News tend to have larger misperceptions of sort of how the nation or their state feels. So, folks in media, for instance, probably ought to be portraying majorities or super majorities of Americans is worried about climate change and wanting kind of major transformative policies to address it. I think it's important to remember that trying to be fair and balanced doesn't mean pretending something is 50/50 in this country, when in fact it might be more like a supermajority feels a certain way. So, we actually even asked people to self-report if they frequently consumed NPR. And we saw that those folks, compared to people who didn't view NPR, they were a little bit like 2% better in their kind of estimates of how the nation felt about climate change and support for climate policy and their kind of guesses there. So, there's two ways to look at that. One is that like,” Oh, this is great. Like this kind of news outlet is performing in a way that kind of improves accuracy.” But the margin obviously leaves room for improvement. Like people are off by 20 to 30% and maybe we're helping out 2% by consuming a news outlet like NPR.

PRENTICE: Can I ask about - even anecdotally - as you revealed some of these numbers to your colleagues and as you put together your discussion points, there are some real headlines in here. There are some real surprises in here.

SPARKMAN: So some folks are saying that this is high time that people kind of dispel kind of once and for all the myth that Americans aren't worried about climate change and that they don't want sort of major transformative climate policies. We're hoping that this research, along with the kind of continuous polling program and climate change communication is putting out, which they do. Year after year, with thousands of people and the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, all these things we hope serve as a signal to kind of perhaps once and for all tell Americans know really you pretty much in every state want major transformative climate legislation and you're worried about climate change. And if you feel that way, you're not alone. In fact, you're in a majority or perhaps a super majority for where you live.

PRENTICE: And there does not have to be a political divide on this.

SPARKMAN: It's easy to imagine that when people try to estimate how the nation feels, they think, “Well, I guess most Democrats are worried about this. And probably no, conservatives are,” they have that kind of picture in their mind. But it would be much more accurate if they thought pretty much all Democrats feel this way and half of Republicans feel this way, too.

PRENTICE: Well, in a week where the city of Boise has set a new weather record of days of 100 degrees or more, you have our full attention. Dr. Gregg Sparkman is an assistant professor at Boston College and one of the authors of this must-read research, which we are linking to this morning and for now. Dr. Sparkman, thank you so very much for giving us some time this morning.

SPARKMAN: Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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