Measuring the climate echo chamber

Continued media coverage of a faux climate change debate is often explained by the presence of an ‘echo chamber’ that upholds and repeats the flawed arguments of a handful of discredited deniers. But is this theory correct? Researchers from the University of Maryland (UMD) and the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) set out to test the climate science echo chamber hypothesis and recently published their findings in the journal Nature Climate Change.

This isn’t the first study to offer evidence of how the echo chamber effect is disguising scientific consensus on the existence and (human) causes of climate change. And in fact, this study is clear that echo chambers influence both those who support climate action and those who are opposed to it. What the study exposed in clear, empirical detail is how members of Congress who deny climate change rely on far fewer sources of information – including peer-reviewed science – to reinforce their positions on climate policy.

To determine whether echo chambers operated and whether they were effective in reinforcing existing beliefs and ideologies, Lorien Jasny, Joseph Waggle and Dana R. Fisher undertook a survey of U.S. federal representatives and academics who were involved in the 2009 attempt to pass cap and trade legislation through the U.S. Congress that would limit greenhouse gas emissions. The researchers received 64 responses that were analyzed based on how much the respondent agreed with the statement ‘There should be an international binding commitment on all nations to reduce GHG emissions,’ as well as which sources informed their view.

The ‘echo’ part of an echo chamber refers to information or views that are shared and repeated in ways that reinforce existing beliefs, similar to a confirmation bias. At the simplest level, there is an echo chamber effect happening when I seek out sports articles written by someone who supports my football team. At the insidious end of the spectrum, it’s when Senators who don’t accept climate change continue to call deniers to testify at congressional hearings because their ideas reinforce a pre-existing ideology (as opposed to representing credible science).

The ‘chamber’ of an echo chamber is the social network within which the information is disseminated. Interestingly, the research showed that the number of network connections (sources of information) for Senators or academics who dispute anthropogenic causes for climate change was far fewer than those who accept climate change. This could be the result of deliberately keeping a trusted information network small, or may reflect the fact that very few experts disagree with the scientific consensus of anthropogenic climate change. Democratic Representative Ed Markey (who put forward legislation to price carbon) had 17 people with 103 ties in his information network, while a University of Alabama scientist who disbelieves human causation had 15 people with only 56 ties.


Network examples of those who accept climate change (top) and those who don't (bottom). Image from paper.
 

“Echo chambers themselves are not a terrible thing,” Fisher, the director of the University of Maryland’s Program for Society and the Environment and co-author of the study, told ThinkProgress. “But because of the way some echo chambers form, minority opinions can be repeated and repeated, so it amplifies their perspective.”

This phenomenon is more dangerous than it sounds.

"Our research shows how the echo chamber can block progress toward a political resolution on climate change. Individuals who get their information from the same sources with the same perspective may be under the impression that theirs is the dominant perspective, regardless of what the science says," Fisher said in another article.

The good news from this is that scientists and academics were more frequently cited as sources of information in the debate around climate legislation in the U.S. Congress. The flip side of that coin is that many political actors are using junk science to substantiate their opposition to climate action.

As the researchers point out: “Our findings suggest that scientific experts are called on by political actors, not just for the completeness of their knowledge, but for how well they fit into particular political narratives.”
What does this mean for those of us working in climate change communications?

Knowing that facts don’t change minds (or beliefs), combined with this research’s conclusion that many political actors refuse to seek out opinions different from their own, I’m once again reminded of the importance of people. Only by finding common ground with those who hold different values and concerns (including those who don’t share my love of the Western Bulldogs Football Club) can we have the kinds of diverse conversations needed to guide a fossil fuel-free future.

 

image via (cc) flickr Michael Matti