Saturday, April 21, 2007

Courts affect public on science views more than they should, but maybe it's a good thing

Some good recent polling about American attitudes on climate change:

April 20, 2007 — After a year of increasing scientific alarms, public concern about global warming has risen dramatically. The number of Americans identifying it as the world's single biggest environmental problem is double what it was a year ago.

Climate change now places far ahead of any other environmental problem in the public's mind; 33 percent now cite it as the world's top environmental issue, a very high level of agreement on an open-ended question. That's soared from 16 percent a year ago.

The related issue of air pollution ranks a distant second, cited by 13 percent, with all other mentions in the single digits.

This ABC News/Washington Post/Stanford University poll also finds a 10-point increase in the belief that global warming is caused mostly by human activity (to 41 percent, up from 31 percent last year); and a significant decline — the first in a decade — in the belief that many scientists disagree on whether global warming is happening.

While 56 percent of Americans still think there's substantial scientific disagreement on global warming, that's down from 64 percent last year (and similar levels in the late 1990s.)

I have nothing to base this on besides my impression of public reaction, but I think the Supreme Court's ruling on the climage change case has a big role in this. I see a parallel to the Kitzmiller v. Dover case where a judge ruled against Intelligent Design being a scientific theory that can be taught in public schools. The Dover decision really seems like a gut punch to the ID movement - it's still very much around, but it took a big blow, not just in schools but in public opinion. I think the same might be true of the Supreme Court's recognition of climate change.

The twist to this is that neither the Dover judge nor the Supreme Court justices have scientific expertise. There are thousands of people who should be more persuasive to the public that the public ignores. Still, it's not completely illogical since judges are theoretically trying to be unbiased in weighing the information in front of them.

I'll chalk this up to one of the pieces of evidence that people overweigh but falls on the side of scientific accuracy (along with extreme weather events, which do have a modest connection to climate change). Given everything that disconnects the public from actual science, such as a majority still not believing that a climate change consensus exists, it's probably a good thing.

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