Climate Change and the Belief Gap Hypothesis

[April 13, 2010]

A recent study shows that ideology is a better predictor of beliefs about climate change than is educational attainment, and that the resulting “belief gaps” between liberals and conservatives grow over time.

This study marks a departure from previous work which showed that heavy media coverage of science news contributed to “knowledge gaps,” or growing disparities in knowledge between those with different levels of educational attainment.

The concern raised in the 1970s by the Minnesota team of Phil Tichenor, George Donohue and Clarice Olien was that widening “knowledge gaps” would impede institutional responses to social problems.

The present study by Doug Blanks Hindman of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University is different from the previous knowledge gap studies in a couple of important ways.

First, Hindman suggests that knowledge is replaced by beliefs when social problems enter the political fray. Second, he notes that whereas knowledge, and the resulting gaps, are predicted by educational level, beliefs are easily predicted by ideology. Hence, the “knowledge gaps” of a previous era become the “belief gaps” in an era of political polarization.

Data for the study were from five probability-based telephone surveys comprised of nationally representative samples sponsored by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and conducted by Princeton Survey Research International from June, 2006, to June 2008.

Hindman’s study showed that ideology was a stronger predictor than was educational attainment of the belief that there was solid evidence that the earth has been getting warmer.

The hypothesis of a strengthening relationship between ideology and beliefs over time—the belief gap—was weakly supported in the case of beliefs about whether or not there is solid evidence that the earth was getting warmer. Thus, under conditions of heavy media coverage, beliefs about the existence of global warming became more ideologically entrenched so that gaps between conservatives and liberals widened.

Hindman concludes that in an era of unprecedented partisanship, mass media coverage of politically contested issues contributes to widening belief gaps between ideological camps, further raising concerns about system adjustment to change.

Contact: Doug Blanks Hindman, Associate Professor, Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, Washington State University. 509-335-6149. dhindman@wsu.edu.

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