If your mind is made up about climate change, it will take more than scientific data to persuade you otherwise.

My friend Bob insists there’s nothing unusual about our cycle of global warming. Certainly it isn’t caused by human activity: “This has been happening for hundreds of thousands of years!” he says, without a doubt. “Earth goes through gradual, long periods of warming and cooling. It’s a natural rhythm. There’s nothing to worry about.” 

You might be tempted to throw some scientific data at Bob. This impulse is called the information deficit model, and it will probably fail. (I say probably because new research finds the scientific consensus can be a “Gateway Belief.”)

“The deficit model assumes that gaps between scientists and the public are a result of a lack of information or knowledge,” writes Dr. Brianne Suldovsky, Assistant Professor of Science Communication at Portland State University and an expert on the topic. “As a remedy for this gap, the deficit model is a one-way communication model where information flows from experts to publics in an effort to change individuals’ attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors.”

We reasonably assume more facts will be convincing! We think a tidy lecture might do the trick. It will not. Many people who already have an opinion about climate change seek information that bolsters their existing belief and “self-identity.” Behavior scientists call this confirmation bias; on the street we might call it stubborn, ego-centric, or maybe worse. We are talking about the future of human civilization, after all!

According to John Cook of George Mason University, who has extensively researched the issue of climate misinformation, psychological “inoculation” can help. “This borrows from the logic of vaccines: A little bit of something bad helps you resist a full-blown case…. Inoculating text requires two elements. First, it includes an explicit warning about the danger of being misled by misinformation. Second, you need to provide counterarguments explaining the flaws in that misinformation.” Learn more here.

The more pronounced an individual’s views, the more dug-in he will be. “We’re wired to remain consistent with our pre-existing beliefs, particularly when we’ve expressed them in public. Once we’ve staked a claim, once we’ve invested sunk costs in the form of time and energy defending that claim, our pride and ego tell us to stand our ground,” says Ozan Varol of Lewis & Clark law school. Due to “the well-documented confirmation bias, we tend to undervalue evidence that contradicts our beliefs and overvalue evidence that confirms them. We filter out inconvenient truths and arguments on the opposing side. As a result, our opinions solidify, and it becomes increasingly harder to disrupt established patterns of thinking.”

Deniers and dismissives are perniciously active on channels like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Dr. Marshall Shepherd, the Director of the University of Georgia’s (UGA) Atmospheric Sciences Program, has compiled a list of these tactics. Shepherd notes that “while their numbers are small [9% at last count], they are often very loud, persistent, aggressive and vitriolic in social media.”


Climate Change: A Timeline, by Brendan Leonard, Outside magazine columnist. Instagram and Twitter @semi-rad.

Sarah Finnie Robinson