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Study: Republicans can be persuasive when correcting climate change misinformation

Apr 26, 2018

Credit NASA

Republicans who correct misinformation on climate change can be even more persuasive than scientists.

Salil Benegal is an assistant professor of political science at DePauw University in Indiana. He and his colleague Lyle Scruggs studied what happened when they gave people articles with incorrect information on climate change, and then also gave different groups of those people the correct information that was attributed to a Democrat, a Republican, or a scientist. 

“We found that the corrections coming from Republicans were most persuasive in getting Republican respondents and independent respondents to report greater agreement that there’s a scientific consensus on climate change, that climate change is affected by human activity and that it’s a serious issue,” he says.

“A big reason for this is we think opinion formation about an issue like climate change isn’t really based on just climate science alone or knowing the facts, but a lot of these opinions form based on tribal messaging or social identification," says Benegal. "So partisans don’t just take information from scientists or any neutral sources and consistently hold them at face value. But they often look at sources when they’re endorsed by members of their own political groups and then view them much more favorably."

He says in the study, the largest shifts were among Republicans.

"Most Democrats already agree that climate change is an issue. As a result, it’s Republicans who are primarily swayed by these corrections. With Democrats there wasn’t really as much room for them to move," he says. 

Benegal says they also found independents were more likely to have their minds changed when misinformation was corrected by Republicans.

The bottom line? The messenger matters.

"We’re finding that you need both scientists and Republicans to speak up on climate change. That providing the scientific consensus is a critical part of correction, and we did in all of these cases find that the scientific correction was generally effective in changing opinions among Republicans and independents. So we can’t discount that," he says. "But what we did find was that the effect sizes were even larger when we had Republicans providing those corrections."

You can listen to our interview with Salil Benegal on today's Environment Report above.