GSA Connects 2021 in Portland, Oregon

Paper No. 178-1
Presentation Time: 1:40 PM


ARENS, Nan, Department of Geoscience, Hobart & William Smith Colleges, Geneva, NY 14456 and FISHER, Emily, Department of Psychological Science, Hobart & William Smith Colleges, Geneva, NY 14456

Amid the discoveries of a scientific career, it is easy to overlook the role of the Professor in the Classroom. There the scientist touches scientific literacy directly. One threat to scientific literacy is motivated reasoning: an individual’s tendency to dismiss or ignore some observations because they conflict with group beliefs or one’s psychological needs. Opinions and knowledge about highly politicized topics like climate change and evolution correlate with political affiliation and individual cognitive preferences such as belief in a just world, authoritarianism (support for traditional authorities), and need for closure. We ask whether motivated reasoning about climate change diminishes during a 14-week college-level geoscience course. We further ask whether being in-person is important to the effect. We use a quasi-experimental design that compared three groups of students: in-person classes focused on climate change (N = 134, taught 2016–17), similar in-person science classes that did not address climate change (N = 94, taught 2016–17), and hybrid versions of the climate change course (N = 114, taught 2020–21). Before and after their courses, students completed surveys that assessed cognitive preferences, political affiliation, general science and climate change knowledge, and opinions on anthropogenic climate change. Students in the 2016–17 in-person classes showed clear tendencies toward motivated reasoning at the beginning of the class revealed as significant correlations (p < 0.05) between climate change knowledge/opinions and cognitive preferences. At the end of these classes, evidence of motivated reasoning diminished, irrespective of the topic of the course. We then used pandemic-induced changes in course modality to ask whether the same material presented in a largely asynchronous, on-line course would produce the same results. Some declines in motivated reasoning were observed but they were modest compared to those for the in-person courses. However, we observed less motivated reasoning at the beginning of the 2020–21 courses, which complicates interpretation. These data demonstrate that a semester-long course can significantly reduce motivated reasoning around climate change. However, a skilled Professor in the Classroom appears key to this effect.