Views Differ on Shape of Earth, Climate Edition

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 1:24 PM EDT

Brad Plumer points us to a new survey from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, and the news is grim. As usual, plenty of people don't believe in global warming, and tea partiers really, really don't believe in global warming. But in a way, that's not the most appalling result of the survey. This is:

Holy cow. This is a straightforward factual question, and the correct answer is something in the neighborhood of 98%.1 But even among Democrats, only 42% think that most climate scientists believe global warming is happening. It's even worse among the other groups.

Hell, if it were really true that 60% of climate scientists believed in global warming and 40% didn't, I probably wouldn't believe in it either. But nationally, that's what a large majority of Americans think. They think that within the scientific community, there's roughly an even split among believers and deniers.

If this were limited to the far right, we could blame it on Fox and Drudge and Limbaugh and all the other usual suspects who peddle climate absurdities just because they conveniently buttress their worldview. Chris Mooney describes here how this kind of "motivated reasoning" helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal.

But it's not just a phenomenon of the right. It's a phenomenon of everybody, including those who get their news from the mainstream media. It's what happens when reporters insist that every story about climate change has to include a quote from at least one or two skeptics to "balance out" the other scientists. Is it any wonder that the public is so wildly misinformed?

1I wasn't going to bother with this, but a reader emails to point out that, actually, 100% of climate scientists believe global warming is happening. Something like 98% of them believe that it's mostly caused by humans. But I'm giving our survey respondents a break, since I suspect most people automatically think "human-caused global warming" whenever they hear "global warming."