ten-tall-tales-climate-change-skeptics-29-Jun-11By Claire

An interesting article has just come out in Nature Climate Change that looks at the opinions of Australians on climate change, and asks them to estimate how common their opinion is amongst the general population.

The authors surveyed 5000 Australians on their opinions on climate change, and then surveyed the same group again 12 months later to see if their opinion had changed.

Participants were asked for their opinion of the nature of climate change, and given four options for their response: “not happening”, “don’t know”, “natural” or “human induced”.

It turns out that people who responded with “not happening” and “don’t know” are actually in the minority, representing only 5.6% and 3.8% of those surveyed respectively. What is interesting though, is that people who hold these two opinions dramatically overestimated the number of other respondents who would also share that opinion, estimating 21.6% and 20.9% respectively.

This case is referred to as a “false consensus” where people overestimate the community prevalence of their own opinion. In this study, this occurs for people who answered that climate change is “not happening” or they “don’t know”.

The authors suggest that this behaviour occurs when people holding a minority view attempt to justify their position by asserting that a lot of people agree with them.

When the respondents were asked to put the broader community into each of the four categories, the opinion of the respondent played a huge role in the way they categorised opinion. In each case, the respondents suggest that their own opinion is the most commonly held, placing less weight on the other three responses.

I find this study really interesting in the context of climate change debate, because there does seem to be such a loud skeptic camp. Is it possible though, that people who assert that climate change isn’t true also assert that people agree with them, thereby making them sound more numerous?

If you have access to a subscription to Nature Climate Change, you can read the full article here.