Hobart and William Smith Colleges - Does Climate Literacy Persist?
The HWS Update
Fisher and Arens KColton-309

Does Climate Literacy Persist?

After taking a geoscience course, students are significantly less likely to use motivated reasoning (the phenomenon in which people use their group beliefs and psychological needs unconsciously to filter information, giving weight to information that supports pre-existing beliefs and discrediting information that contradicts) to describe climate change – Associate Professor of Psychological Science Emily Fisher and Professor of Geoscience Nan Crystal Arens observed in a groundbreaking new study. The pair co-authored an article about their findings titled “Geoscience Education and Motivated Reasoning: Learning about Climate Change” that was published by the Journal of College Science Teaching, a National Science Teaching Association publication, in May.

Fisher and Arens used a quasi-experimental design to study whether motivated reasoning, which is influenced by variables such as a person’s worldview or political affiliation, around climate change persists after a 14-week undergraduate course in geoscience.

Surveying 280 students in geoscience courses at Hobart and William Smith, Fisher and Arens compared students in geoscience classes that focus on climate, “Earth Systems Science,” with students in similar courses that did not address contemporary climate change, “Earth and Life through Time” and “Astrobiology.”

Participants in the study completed surveys at the beginning and end of the semester that assessed cognitive preferences, political affiliation, general science and climate science knowledge, and opinions on anthropogenic climate change.

Their results showed significantly diminished evidence of motivated reasoning by the end of the semester and reduced correlation between political and psychological preferences and climate change knowledge and opinions. “The effect was similar for both courses, demonstrating that a semester-long science course, irrespective of topic, may reduce motivated reasoning around climate change,” Fisher and Arens write.

The pair explain that geoscience education doesn’t fundamentally change who students are or what they believe in. What happens, Arens says, is that students decouple their knowledge and attitudes about climate change from their base assumptions. A significant finding, Fisher adds, because of how highly politicized climate change is in the United States.

Fisher and Arens conclude their article on a hopeful note. Reduced motivated reasoning around climate change after a semester of geoscience education is “promising information for promoting scientific literacy and evidence-based civic engagement.”

Results from the study have spirited new research questions for Fisher and Arens. All of the courses observed for this round of the study employed an active learning pedagogy – in which students interpret data, consider what constitutes good evidence for a scientific claim and practice these skills. Next, the pair would like to test different teaching strategies to better identify which elements of a class most effectively reduce motivated reasoning. They will also consider the role of the professor and the overall effect of being in a college learning environment. Since the results showed that motivated reasoning around climate change was diminished irrespective of course topic, they would also like to include subjects outside of geoscience.

In 2017, Fisher and Arens presented their early findings on science education and motivated cognition to the Society of Political Psychology Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. They later presented to the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues in Pittsburg, Pa. “Geoscience Education and Motivated Reasoning: Learning About Climate Change” also appeared in the Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs.