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Epistemic engagement: examining personal epistemology and engagement preferences with climate change in Oregon


Engaging politically polarized publics surrounding climate science is a vital element in the effort to enact climate mitigation policy. Science communication experts have identified several models of public engagement with science, including the deficit, dialogue, participation, and lay expertise model. Existing research suggests that the deficit model in particular is a largely ineffective model of engagement for controversial science like climate change. There is very little research, however, regarding the engagement preferences of political groups, or how those preferences differ. This study assesses preferences for climate change engagement in the state of Oregon in the United States and examines the relationship between those preferences and epistemic beliefs about climate science. Overall, we find that liberals are significantly more likely than moderates or conservatives to view climate science as certain and simple and to rely on expert knowledge more than their own direct experience. By contrast, conservatives are significantly more likely than liberals or moderates to view climate science as uncertain and complex and to rely on their own direct experience over the knowledge of content experts. We also find that perceived certainty and simplicity are positive predictors of a preference for the deficit model of science communication. Implications for public engagement with climate change and suggestions for future research are discussed.

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  1. 1.

    Importantly, these models of public engagement with science focus exclusively on the relationship between scientists and lay publics. These models do not aim to capture the broad and heterogeneous science communication environment that exists beyond these two groups.

  2. 2.

    For an in-depth review and discussion of domain specificity and domain generality, see Muis, Bendixen, and Haerle (2006).

  3. 3.

    Survey items used to measure epistemic complexity are similar to climate change consensus beliefs. To assess covariance between these two variables and ensure our operationalization of complexity is distinct from consensus perceptions, we ran a correlation analysis between the complexity index and two measures of consensus that were used within the same survey effort. Consensus perceptions were measured by asking participants what percentage of climate scientists agree that climate change is happening, and what percentage agree that climate change is human caused. We found that the complexity index is significantly and negatively correlated with both measures of consensus (r=-0.197, p<0.001; r=−0.228, p<0.001, respectively), such that higher complexity beliefs were associated with lower consensus perceptions. However, the shared variance of these variables (indicated by r2) demonstrates little covariance, indicating that complexity perceptions are distinct from consensus beliefs.

  4. 4.

    The models used capture response location dependence with location-specific random effects using the zip code of the latest address of residence from each respondent. We model the responses using multivariate linear models. In order to assess the uncertainty in the parameter estimates resulting from the model, we take a Bayesian approach and models were fitted using the rstan package in R.

  5. 5.

    This model accounts for location and within-subject dependence.


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The research leading to these results received funding from the Faculty Development Program at Portland State University.

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The authors both made substantial contributions to this study. BS led research design and manuscript preparation. DTR led data analysis and aided in manuscript preparation.

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Correspondence to Brianne Suldovsky.

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This study was reviewed and approved by the Portland State University Institutional Review Board (Office of Research Integrity), Reference no. 196349-18.

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Suldovsky, B., Taylor-Rodríguez, D. Epistemic engagement: examining personal epistemology and engagement preferences with climate change in Oregon. Climatic Change 166, 48 (2021).

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  • Public engagement
  • Climate change
  • Personal epistemology