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Climate and environment

Want people to care about the environment? Don’t overplay the power of science

When people are presented with a picture of rapid scientific progress, they are less likely to engage in environmentally friendly behaviours.

03 September 2014

By Alex Fradera

When people are presented with a picture of rapid scientific progress, they are less likely to engage in environmentally friendly behaviours. This is the conclusion reached across a series of experiments in which students were presented with a short newspaper article on science's achievements and future prospects.

The news article came in two flavours. Participants in the "progress" condition read a uniformly positive perspective, lauding medical advances and new technologies to combat climate change. In the "undermine progress" condition, the article emphasised how killers such as cancer remain insoluble and the limited nature of technological solutions to environmental problems. Of more than one hundred students from the University of Amsterdam, those who read the pessimistic article subsequently agreed more with the idea that "our lives are ruled by randomness".

Researchers Marijn Meijers and Bastiaan Rutjens say this attitude has consequences for how we act. We relax when the world appears well-ordered and the future predictable, whether thanks to our own efforts or because we trust others can manage things. These agents could be family, government, or God; and according to this new research, "scientific progress" can now be added to the list.

In another experiment with more participants, those who read the scientific progress article went on to report fewer pro-environmental attitudes and intentions than those in the undermining condition, agreeing with statements such as "I believe waste sorting is unnecessary".

Yet more participants were confronted with hypothetical decisions. In this case, students who read about scientific progress chose to spend less money on factory air filters, and were less likely to select organic options when shopping (although note that the comparison for this latter result only reached a marginal level of significance).

"If they're doing something, I don't have to" is a lazy rubric in most situations, but it's hard to think of a more misguided application than to the maintenance of our living environment. Science cannot fully mitigate the ongoing environmental crises, so – whether through the day-to-day habits of energy efficiency or one-off decisions to invest in a home away from a flood plain – we need to be prepared to get stuck in ourselves. To support this, science communicators should be wary of presenting science as an unstoppable force, and instead highlight the fascinating truth: it's a process of inquiry that makes no promises.

Further reading

Affirming belief in scientific progress reduces environmentally friendly behaviour