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Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor of behavioural science at the University of Regina, studies how political ideology, rational thought and misinformation affect science beliefs.

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When it comes to climate change, there’s no shortage of fervent and opposing beliefs. But why do people believe what they believe about climate change?

That’s a question Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor of behavioural science at the University of Regina, has been looking at to determine how things like political ideology, rational thought and misinformation affect science beliefs. “One thing that people most commonly think is that those who disagree with them have their heads in the sand, and they don’t understand the basic science,” he says. “But none of us really understand the science of climate change. We may have a general understanding, but we don’t understand in the same way as scientists do. In these kinds of contexts, we rely on experts to guide us.”

And yet, in the case of climate change, this doesn’t hold true. Dr. Pennycook’s research found that the more educated and knowledgeable you are, the more polarized you’re likely to be; and if you’re conservative, the more likely you are to reject the scientific consensus on climate change altogether. “We don’t see this with other scientific issues like genetic modification or the big bang theory,” he says. “In the context of climate change, there’s something else going on. There’s an alternative constructed reality where something really perverse is happening with what information is presented.”

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He’s referring to the “fake news” or misinformation that’s intentionally disseminated, primarily through social media. “There’s millions of dollars spent every year to sow confusion around climate change,” says Dr. Pennycook. “Believers and skeptics live in different ideological worlds constructed by think-tanks, policy advocates, partisan media and politicians.”

Believing fake news is not rooted in intelligence or partisanship either. Instead, it comes down to taking the time to think critically, which, unfortunately, few people do. “Most people aren’t thinking about what they’re seeing on social media,” says Dr. Pennycook. “They have other things to do; they aren’t thinking reflectively about whether climate change is real. When given easy answers that seem plausible, it’s no surprise that people don’t believe climate change is caused by humans. It’s not that people are dumb; it’s that a lot of effort is going into duping them.”

The way climate science is communicated matters too. Dr. Pennycook and his colleagues looked at reports by both proponents and skeptics of climate change. They found that advocates tend to use more cautious and tentative language while skeptics use more assertive and aggressive language. This has significant implications because the simpler the information is and the more absolute the claims, the more likely people are to accept it. If we get confused or have to think too hard, the idea becomes less believable. That means the complex nature of scientific rhetoric makes it easy to cast doubt upon. “Actual scientists don’t want to give answers they don’t have, while the people who make stuff up sound much more confident than they should,” he says.

Given this fierce information battle, can collective climate change action ever happen? There is hope. Dr. Pennycook’s research shows people are not being willfully uninformed, and when presented with enough evidence, they can and do change their minds. “It’s not easy to change minds. But because climate change beliefs are not based on deliberate ignorance, the more discussion we have, the more we can break down the false expertise,” he says.

To this end, taking the time to verify the accuracy of what you accept as truth goes a long way. “People need to look at who’s giving them what information and consider what their vested interests might be,” says Dr. Pennycook. “If we expose people to a broader range of expertise, and show that the five commentators on Fox News don’t encapsulate all of it, we can shift public opinion and get political leaders to act on climate change.”

Climate change-related research abounds at the University of Regina

article image Dr. Kerri Finlay carries out her research in Saskatchewan’s agricultural dugouts, which could prove to fight against climate change.

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  • Dugouts, used to catch and hold rain or runoff, dot the prairie landscape. They may prove to be a game changer in the fight against climate change. Biologist Dr. Kerri Finlay and her team have found that pH levels in many of Saskatchewan’s algae-filled agricultural dugouts are optimal for quickly processing and sequestering greenhouse gases (GHG). The team uses the research to help develop water management processes that could combat harmful GHG emissions across the country. Dr. Finlay also researches how changing climate affects water quality in prairie aquatic ecosystems and how we can adapt to the effects of climate change on our water resources.
  • Dr. Margot Hurlbert, Canada Research Chair in Climate Change, Energy and Sustainability Policy, is the only Canadian Coordinating Lead Author chosen to contribute to the UN’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land. Dr. Hurlbert’s focus on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was on risk, decision-making and sustainable development. This included a study of climate change scenarios and pathways into the future.
  • Dr. David Sauchyn, director of the University of Regina’s Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative, investigates the climate and hydrology of the past millennium in Canada’s western interior and how that knowledge of the past can inform scenarios of future climate and water supplies.
  • Dr. Britt Hall, a professor of biology, examines contaminants in the environment as a result of human activities. Specifically, she studies the impact of climate change on neurotoxic mercury in prairie wetlands.

Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s Editorial Department was not involved in its creation.

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