The relationship between primary children's scientific attainment and climate change sceptical beliefs

Allen, Michael and Parry, Simon (2023) The relationship between primary children's scientific attainment and climate change sceptical beliefs. In: 25th Annual International Conference on Education; 15-18 May 2023, Athens, Greece. (Unpublished)


An overwhelming majority of meteorological and environmental scientists agree that the Earth has become warmer over the past 50 years and this warming trend is, at least in part, linked to recent industrial development and technological advance (Dell et al., 2008). Global warming is seen as having a harmful effect on the climate; a mean increase of even a few degrees centigrade could result in rising sea levels, extreme weather conditions and drought, with concomitant effects on the biosphere including extinctions of species, food shortages, and poverty and displacement of human populations (Habibullah et al., 2022). There is convincing evidence for the link between global warming and human activity, alongside indicators of how the changing climate is affecting the environment (ibid.). Most governments and a majority of laypeople have acknowledged the existence of climate change and the need to limit its effects, based on acceptance of the scientific evidence that underpins the claims. However, a vocal minority have rejected the scientific consensus. Climate change sceptics distrust what scientists have to say, claiming either that scientists have ‘got it wrong’ or that governments are conspiring with scientists to convey dishonest information to the populace (Bertin et al., 2021). Little research has been carried out focusing on children’s and adolescents’ views on conspiracy theories (Hayward & Gronland, 2021) though evidence suggests that they may only start to become seriously considered from 14 years (ibid.). It is unlikely that many primary-aged children will have fully-formed, strongly-held unwarranted beliefs centred on government conspiracies. However, the rationale of the current study is to investigate 10-11 y/o views on climate change that may act as precursors that lay foundations for subsequent, more firmly-held climate change scepticism. The theoretical underpinning for the current study is an epistemological discussion of the comparative nature of beliefs versus knowledge (Hofer & Pintrich, 2012). The research questions were: 1. Do 10-11 y/o children hold beliefs that may reflect scepticism of the science underpinning climate change? 2. Are 10-11 y/o children’s climate change beliefs linked with their knowledge and understanding of NC science concepts? The method was devised to investigate primary children’s beliefs that may indicate scepticism towards climate change, and determine whether these beliefs have links with their knowledge of National Curriculum science concepts that underpin climate change mechanisms. Year 6 children in the southeast of England (10-11 y/o, n=194) completed a questionnaire that probed their views about climate change, alongside their knowledge of these aspects of National Curriculum science. Analysis is ongoing but early findings have uncovered statistically significant correlations between a lack of understanding of these National Curriculum science concepts, and a propensity to believe fallacies that support climate change scepticism. One message to teachers is to be cognisant of this link; when children attain lower scores in tests that assess their knowledge of climate change mechanisms, this could be an indicator of them being susceptible to climate change fallacies. Long-term outcomes centre on the possibility of teachers improving children’s science knowledge to align their views on climate change more towards the scientific consensus and away from climate scepticism. References Dell, M., Jones, B. F., & Olken, B. A. (2008). Climate Change and Economic Growth: Evidence from the Last Half Century (No. w14132). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Habibullah, M. S., Din, B. H., Tan, S. H., & Zahid, H. (2022). Impact of climate change on biodiversity loss: Global evidence. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 29(1), 1073-1086. Bertin, P., Nera, K., Hamer, K., Uhl-Haedicke, I., & Delouvée, S. (2021). Stand out of my sunlight: The mediating role of climate change conspiracy beliefs in the relationship between national collective narcissism and acceptance of climate science. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 24(5), 738-758. Hayward, J., & Gronland, G. (2021). Conspiracy Theories in the Classroom: Guidance for Teachers. London: Institute of Education, UCL. Hofer, B. K., & Pintrich, P. R. (2012). Personal Epistemology: The Psychology of Beliefs about Knowledge and Knowing. Abingdon: Routledge.

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