Climate ChangeTrusting Our Own Knowledge

21 February 2020

Heidelberg researchers have investigated how non-experts assess their own level of knowledge

What do we know about the topic of climate change and how great is our trust in our own knowledge? An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Heidelberg University has explored this question in a representative study involving around 500 participants. It turned out that those interviewed mainly were uncertain of their own level of knowledge when confronted with false statements. The results were published in the journal “Nature Climate Change”.

“We need to trust what we know in order to be able to take responsible decisions, to evaluate information and to recognise the limits of our own knowledge,” says Dr Helen Fischer, who led the study at Heidelberg University’s Institute of Psychology. “This is of particular importance in the area of climate change where scientifically correct information exists alongside substantial misinformation in public discourse.” In order to find out how great people’s trust in their own knowledge is, the researchers confronted the participants of the study with eight statements on the topic of climate change. The participants’ task was to decide whether these statements were true or false. In a second step they were asked to state how certain they were of their reply – the six-point scale ranged from “Not at all sure, I was guessing” to “Certain, I know the answer”.

The results of the study show that, when confronted with true statements, the participants were able to assess their own level of knowledge well. This was not the case, however, when they were confronted with false statements. Here the uncertainty was clearly greater, as the replies showed. The uncertainty is less great when it comes to topics other than climate change. “That is shown by results of a comparative study in which, on the same principle, we confronted another group of around 500 people with general science statements from subjects like biology and physics. Here the participants estimated their own knowledge much more confidently and accurately,” says co-author Dr Nadia Said, who is a researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center for Scientific Computing of Heidelberg University.

As the researchers underline, the uncertainty relating to people’s own level of knowledge on climate change is not fundamentally due to a lack of knowledge of the subject. “Our results show that the accuracy of the participants’ confidence in their ability to separate true statements from false statements was only half of what it could be based on their actual knowledge,” says Dr Fischer, who is currently doing research at Stockholm University (Sweden). The situation was different in a comparative test when the researchers confronted about 200 scientists with the same questions on climate change – the latter estimated their knowledge as more certain than the non-experts who had been questioned before. “Uncertainty may have detrimental consequences because only if we trust our knowledge, we can use it confidently, which also plays a key role in public debates,” says Dr Fischer.

According to the researchers, the results may not necessarily hold true for all possible statements about climate change. Consequently, in a follow-up study they want to examine whether their results also apply to statements referring to more action-related knowledge, and not just to general facts.

Original publication

H. Fischer, D. Amelung, N. Said: The accuracy of German citizens’ confidence in their climate change knowledge. In: Nature Climate Change 9, 776–780 (2019)