the chasm between public opinion and scholarly discourse

Via Kevin Drum, here is a table from the Pew Research Center that shows how much scientific consensus Americans perceive on the subject of climate change:

As Drum notes, there is a correct answer to this question. It is not a question about global warming, but about the proportion of climate scientists who believe that the climate is changing (for whatever reason). In reality, that proportion is very close to 100%. Yet only 14% of American adults chose the 81%-100% category. The median respondent thought that scientists are split about evenly regarding the very existence of climate change. Drum writes, “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.”

To me, this kind of statistic raises a very basic question about how the university functions in the modern world. To be sure, participating in public debates and informing policies are not our only roles. If you are a pure philosopher, for example, then you are engaging in an activity of intrinsic value. But climate science is not about pure knowledge. Like most of the university’s work, climate science is an expensive, labor-intensive enterprise ultimately meant to advise human beings. So if we employ many thousands of highly trained experts, spend many millions of public dollars on this activity, and agree upon at least the fundamental facts, yet only 14% of our own fellow citizens recognize the consensus, there is a problem.

I do not claim that the problem is worse than it used to be, although I think it has novel features and causes. Forty years ago, most people watched Walter Cronkite and/or read the daily newspaper. So the challenge for concerned academics was to persuade the broadcast networks and print reporters to pay attention to and understand scholarship. Now the media landscape is fragmented, and all forms of substantive news reporting reach niche audiences. That is a different problem.

One common proposal is to teach our core findings better in k-12 schools. For instance, in my field, survey results of adults’ civic knowledge look abysmal, and the typical response is to demand civics classes in high schools. But 97% of American high school seniors already report taking American government or civics courses, thanks in part to standards that exist in all the states except Iowa (where most students nevertheless take the courses). Some states require difficult civics tests for graduation. The textbooks, tests, and standards are written or heavily influenced by academics–like me.  We could do a better job, but it’s folly to assume that by teaching a bunch of material to 16-year-olds, we can solve all the communications and knowledge problems for their subsequent seven or eight decades of life.

I don’t have solutions, but I believe the academy most “own” this problem. It is ours. We might start by lamenting the poor performance of the mass media, but we cannot stop with that. We have more than 2,000 institutions distributed across the nation’s communities, three percent of GDP, large endowments, skilled employees, and a generally accepted right to decide who enters the middle class. Those are assets that we must deploy to address the communications problem.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.