There is good and bad news for climate scientists. The good news: Most Americans (79 percent) say that science and scientists are invaluable.

The bad news: On controversial topics such as climate change, a significant number of Americans do not use science to inform their views. Instead, they use political orientation and ideology, which are reflected in their level of education, to decide whether humans are driving planetary warming.

This comes from a public opinion poll released yesterday by Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The poll captured a significant split between what scientists and the general public believe on climate change.

In 2014, the vast majority (87 percent) of scientists said that human activity is driving global warming, and yet only half the American public ascribed to that view. And 77 percent of scientists said climate change is a very serious problem. In comparison, only 33 percent of the general public said it was a very serious problem in a 2013 poll.

That a split exists is common knowledge among social scientists who puzzle over the gridlock on climate change in the United States. More interesting is the fact that the gap has not lessened since 2009, when Pew last did this poll. Back then, 84 percent of scientists and 49 percent of the public said human activity drives warming.

This could be interpreted as a failure by scientists to better communicate with the public, said Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS. In an editorial in the journal Science, Leshner said scientists should not shy away from polarizing topics in public.

"And the way to do that is not to have big town hall meetings where everybody's lecturing but rather to meet in smaller groups and have sessions that go through this," he said in a press conference. "I myself have frequently met with community clubs, religious groups, retirement communities and tried to have these kind of discussions as opposed to monologues."

When ideology trumps science
While the issue remains cloudy, there is some silver lining behind these numbers. Social scientists such as Dan Kahan, a professor of psychology at Yale University, have noted that asking people about their climate beliefs can be tricky since ideology can guide people's answers (ClimateWire, July 24, 2014).

So, when the pollsters questioned people differently, asking whether there is solid evidence the Earth is getting warmer, 72 percent of people said it was, up from 57 percent in 2009. Only 25 percent said the Earth is not getting warmer, up from 11 percent in 2009.

Only 3 percent of people were still undecided, which means most people have made up their minds already on the climate. Of the people who agreed the Earth is warming, about half (46 percent) said it is caused by human activity.

The increased belief in climate change was reflected last week in the Senate, when 98 senators from both parties voted that climate change is real and not a hoax. Only one, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), voted otherwise. Going on the record on their beliefs was a historic step for Republicans who have otherwise insisted that "they are not scientists" when questioned on climate change.

But about half the senators still maintained that climate change is not driven by human activity (E&ENews PM, Jan. 21). That vote was along partisan lines.

Among the public, too, climate beliefs correlate with ideology, the Pew pollsters noted. People who vote Republican are less likely to believe in climate change than people who vote Democratic.

Belief in 'silly things' is not OK
Teaching scientists how to communicate with the public on controversial science is a key priority for AAAS, Leshner said. He prescribed small group interactions, particularly ones that include religious leaders to reach people across ideological borders. Whether this will be effective is not yet known (ClimateWire, Nov. 25, 2014).

Other than climate change, AAAS is also trying to educate people on genetically modified crops, evolution, vaccination, the Big Bang and other controversial topics where science loses out.

It is important to bring people around to scientists' way of thinking, not for scientists' self-aggrandizement but because science can help people and policymakers make informed decisions, Leshner said. It is not OK for a percentage of the people to believe "silly things," he said.

"That diminishes our ability to contribute to the betterment of humankind," he said. "We need to have what science is showing be represented accurately and for people to at least have that in their toolbox when they make their own decisions."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500