How do Americans think about climate change? In six different ways.

As divisive issues go, global climate change is a bit unusual. Often when there is a controversy, it’s because scientists disagree. However, as far as the human origins of climate change, there is actually almost no debate about the core issue; nearly all scientists, and all major scientific bodies, agree that the climate is changing and the primary causes are  “anthropocentric” – that is, caused by human activity.

But  the way much of the the American public sees it is very different. Evidence for just how diverse our views are comes from a scientific survey of the American public conducted  by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, which looked at “The Six Americas” and how their beliefs on climate change vary.

The study found that there are six distinct audiences in the United States, each of which responds to global warming in different ways.  The figure below (from the report) shows the six types and the percentages of Americans in each type.

In general, the Alarmed and the Concerned are more likely to answer questions about climate change correctly than the other groups. Whereas 98% of the alarmed say global warming is happening, only 12% of the Dismissive accept this fact. Similarly, 87% of the Alarmed understand that global warming results mostly from human activities, compared to 3% of the Dismissive.

The same pattern is found on one of the most objective facts about global warming: the degree of scientific consensus. Of the Alarmed, 79% understand that most scientists agree that global warming is actually happening, as do 54% of the Concerned. However, only 16%  of the Doubtful and 7% of the Dismissive think that most scientists agree on this issue.

But the study also found that all groups have misconceptions about global warming, indicating that many Americans know relatively little about climate change. Given that this is one of the most important issues of our time, getting scientifically accurate information out to the public clearly should be a high priority. Understanding how the “Six Americas” differ in their views can help target the information where it is needed most.

A move toward evidence-based criminal justice

Earlier this month, the state of Illinois abolished its death penalty, the fourth state in the U.S. to remove the sentence in the past decade.  Among public leaders, consensus has grown slowly to support the decision not due to questions of morality, but of accuracy. Since 1973, nearly 140 death row inmates across the nation have been found innocent and released from prison before they were executed. 

Case reviews have found some common reasons why inmates are wrongfully-convicted such as eyewitness error, police and prosecutor misconduct, mishandled evidence, faculty testimony by another inmate in exchange for a reduced sentence and false confessions.

The increasing awareness that our criminal justice system doesn’t always get it right has spurred universities and non-profits across the country to reopen investigations for inmates who claim their innocent.  Cornell’s own Death Penalty Project is among the groups that work on such cases.

Maybe more importantly, publicity about wrongful conviction cases has created a movement toward evidence-based crime policy – using research on criminal justice issues to put policies into place that help to ensure our criminal justice system gets it right the first time around. For example, one systematic review of eyewitness testimony procedures found that high levels of stress negatively impact the accuracy of eye-witness testimony.

Researchers at the College of Human Ecology have partnered with Cornell faculty members in psychology and law to conduct basic research on some of these topics relevant to these issues including false memory, child testimony and jury decision-making and offer classes to students interested in this type of research.

The Campbell Collaboration – a clearinghouse for systematic reviews on social policy issues – has a crime and justice group that is working to broaden the information available on criminal justice issues. And other institutions, such as George Mason University, have created centers aimed at translating this research into policies and practices that local law enforcement officials are use in the field.

It’s a good start on a topic that should be pursued vigorously until changes are made.  In many cases our police officers, judges and juries are making life-or-death decisions about people’s lives.  If there’s ever a time to rely on evidence-based practices, this is it.

Professor Dan Lichter: Census drives evidence-based decisions

As the U.S. Census bureau continues to release data on state demographics, researchers, public officials and program managers across the country are digging into the new information to make decisions about everything from construction projects to quality-of-life issues and emergency services.

EBL sat down this week with Professor Daniel  Lichter, an expert in population studies and public policy at the College of Human Ecology, to talk about the 2010 census and its implications for using data to drive real-life decisions. 

Lichter called the decennial  census “the most important statistical gathering exercise in the entire United States.”  Here are some of this other thoughts about the event.

EBL: Can you describe the historical significance of the census?

Lichter:  We’ve had census every year since 1790. It’s required by U.S. Constitution.  It is conducted to insure the one person, one vote idea – to determine the number of seats each state would receive in the U.S. House of Representatives and to realignvoting districts in each state every ten years.

EBL: How has our use of the information changed over the years?

Lichter: The census is also vital for program planning and public policy. It’s always been used in some sense for those sorts of things, but it’s used now more than ever before. How do we know where to build new highways or schools or whether we need a new waste water treatment plant?

“Today, increasingly, we use census data for identifying particular populations and areas with specific needs so we can more effectively target resources to those areas.  The census is vital for earmarking public funds. It also has a huge constituency in the private sector in terms of marketing. It helps companies decide, for example, where to build new stores.

EBL: How did the 2010 census pan out?

Lichter: It’s probably the most successful census ever in terms of coverage. The census bureau has become very good at identifying hard-to-reach populations and reaching out them.

People should always fill out their census schedules when they get them because it reflects whether they’re accurately represented in Congress and whether they receive their fair share of revenues.  By law, these data are strictly confidential to insure completeness and accuracy.

(The U.S. Census Director recently spoke at Cornell about how his organization was able to collect accurate information. You can read about his talk by clicking here.)

EBL: How do you use census data in your research?

Lichter:  I’m very much interested in the changing racial and demographic composition of the U.S. population. We are almost to the point now where half of the births in the United States are to populations other than non-Hispanic whites.  We are rapidly moving toward a  majority-minority society.

I’m interested in what that means, not only in terms of educating children now, but what it means for the labor force 20 years out.  What we do or don’t do for minority populations today is going to have a major effect on our country 20 years from now.

I’m also interested in racial segregation, and to what extent racial and ethnic groups live near each other. Our population is becoming more diverse, but many communities and neighborhoods are also becoming more segregated. Some of my work tries to understand how race relations are reflected in the geographic distribution of people.

How to convince volunteers to care for trees

The evidence shows that trees are an important part of our landscape – whether here in forested Ithaca, or in densely populated urban areas.

Studies have found that trees help improve focus, promote a sense of community, and deter crime. So it’s no surprise that major cities across the nation are launching initiatives to plant trees. New York City is undertaking one such project.  Called the MillionTreesNYC initiative, it aims to plant one million trees across all five city boroughs by 2017.

But urban forestry projects typically encounter a problem, explained Gretchen Ferenz, a senior extension associate at Cornell Cooperative Extension in New York City.

“Capital project funds will support planting and immediate care of trees for a couple of years, but costs for longer term care to ensure a young tree’s growth often are not included in municipal budgets,” she told the Cornell Chronicle for a story. “As a result, many urban trees do not survive into maturity.”

Ferenz’s office has joined forces with Cornell’s Department of Natural Resources to create the Urban Forestry Community Engagement Model, a program that provides workshops about the importance of trees to community members in two New York City neighborhoods. The goal is to enlist residents and organizations to become stewards of their community’s trees and, ultimately, to develop resources to help groups around the country do the same.

As part of the program, they’re collecting evidence to learn how to get more community members involved in caring for trees in their neighborhoods. They recently published a study that examines motivations and recruitment strategies for urban forestry volunteers.

Through a survey and focus groups, as well as a review of existing literature on the topic, the team found volunteer who plant and care for trees in their communities are motivated by a wide range of factors.  And most have a limited knowledge of the benefits of urban forests.

This type of work is an important first step in helping cities learn how to engage community members to help care for trees in their neighborhoods – and ultimately in making our world a bit greener.

(You can learn more about the Urban Forestry Community Engagement Model by clicking here.)

New federal diet guidelines follow the evidence

Here at EBL, we’ve discussed how difficult it is to figure out what nutrition advice to follow, especially when there’s so much health and nutrition advice in the media that refers to anecdotes and simplistic inferences from single studies.

For those looking for real evidence about what to eat, there’s some good news.  The federal government has issued new dietary guidelines based on an extensive evidence-based review.

The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services appointed 13 nationally-recognized experts in nutrition and health to review the scientific literature on how nutrition impacts health and disease prevention.

The experts worked with a new resource – USDA’s Nutrition Evidence Library, a clearinghouse of systematic reviews designed to inform federal nutrition policy. (You can read more about the process the panel used to create the new nutrition guidelines by clicking here.) The library employs post-graduate level researchers with experience in nutrition or public health to build its content.  The researchers analyze peer-reviewed articles to build bodies of evidence, develop conclusion statements and describe research recommendations.  It’s an EBL dream! 

So what do the new guidelines recommend? 

The entire report from the committee of experts is more than 400 pages long, with specific advice on everything from energy balances to food safety.  Government officials distilled this report into 112 pages of dietary guidelines, and 23 recommendations for the general population. Among them are:

  • Focus on consuming nutrient-dense foods and beverages.
  • Reduce daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams (about 1 teaspoon).
  • Limit the consumption of foods that contain refined grains, especially refined grain foods that contain solid fats, added sugars and sodium.
  • Eat a variety of vegetables, especially dark-green and red and orange vegetables, and beans and peas.
  • Consume at least half of all grains as whole grains. Increase whole-grain intake by replacing refined grains with whole grains.
  • Increase the amount and variety of seafood consumed by choosing seafood in place of some meat and poultry.

As you can imagine, the EBL team is thrilled that the government is using systematic reviews to make national diet recommendations.  They’re worth reading to see if you can improve your own diet.  Even small changes can make a big difference when you consider the evidence.

Do gun control laws prevent violence?

Gun control laws are in the media spotlight once again in the wake of the Arizona shooting that killed six people and injured 13 including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.  Already, the Arizona Legislature has introduced two new bills that would loosen gun controls on college campuses. But what do we really know about gun control laws?  Is there evidence that they reduce violence?

As unsatisfying as it sounds, the answer is that we just don’t know.  One of the only systematic reviews available on this topic was published by the Community Guide, a resource at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for evidence-based recommendations on improving public health.  It reviewed more than 40 studies on gun control laws ranging from bans to restrictions to waiting periods.  (You can read a summary of the report here.)

The conclusion:  “The evidence available from identified studies was insufficient to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws reviewed singly or in combination.” 

Essentially, the review concludes that there is a lack of high-quality studies that evaluate specific gun control laws.  One challenge is that information about guns and who owns them is limited to protect the privacy of firearms owners.

So what do we know about firearms in the U.S.?

We know that firearms are present in about one-third of U.S. households, and that there are handguns in about half of those homes.

We also have a National Violent Death Reporting System, which collects information from death certificates, medical examiner reports and police reports in 19 states. According to the reporting system, 66 percent of all murders and 51 percent of suicides are committed with guns.  But that doesn’t tell us much – like whether the murders and suicides would occur by other means or, given stricter gun control laws, whether the perpetrators would find a way to obtain guns illegally.

The bottom line is that researchers and government officials need to step up to conduct more research and find a proven way to prevent gun violence from taking the lives of innocent citizens.

Video feature: Psyche 101 with Professor Stephen Ceci

To follow-up our post on Professor Stephen Ceci’s work on child testimony, we thought it would be useful to share a recent lecture Ceci gave to a Psychology 101 class at Cornell. 

In the lecture, he discusses five factors that can damage or change a child memory: 

  • Suggestive questioning.
  • Giving false expectations or stereotypes.
  • Confirmatory bias, or tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions.
  • Visually-guided imagery.
  • High levels of stress

“How can children come to believe something that’s wrong?” Ceci asked.

“When young children, ages 3 and 4, are questioned by neutral interviewers, they do very well. They recall events with 90 percent accuracy,” he explains. “However, when children are repeatedly interviewed over the course of weeks and months with misleading suggestions ­ which sometimes occurs in forensic cases ­ many come to remember the false events as true and provide detailed and coherent narratives about these false events.  So compelling did the children’s narratives appear that we suspected that some of the children had come to truly believe they had experienced the fictitious events. Neither parents nor researchers were able to convince 27 percent of the children that the events never happened.”

You can view the entire lecture by clicking here.

The beginning of the end: The demise of cooperative extension in Canada

Cooperative Extension in the United States is a flagship program for connecting public “land-grant” universities to the general public. The goal of the Cooperative Extension System is to move knowledge created by researchers to groups who need it. A major audience has historically been agriculture, but other program areas deal with nutrition, child development, families, the environment and a variety of other issues.

I’ve worked as a faculty member in the Cooperative Extension program for 20 years, and I deeply admire the system. Like everyone with Extension responsibilities, I’ve been watching the changes that are going on nationally and at the state level. So I took notice of a very important cautionary note from our neighbors in Canada.

Writing in the Journal of Extension, Lee-Anne Milburn, Susan Mulley, and Carol Kline document the demise of agricultural extension in the province of Ontario. Their article, “The End of the Beginning and the Beginning of the End: The Decline of Public Agricultural Extension in Ontario,” shows how by the year 2000, “Extension in Ontario was moribund.”

How did this happen? According to Milburn and colleagues, some reasons are:

  • The decline of people involved in farming; fewer than 2% of Canada’s population are now involved in agriculture.
  • The decline in the agricultural sector in turn reduced political support for extension. Population changes “make agriculture less politically relevant and therefore create difficulties in accessing necessary funding for agricultural research and Extension.”
  • A key point: Extension was unable to document economic benefits; without clear “return on investment,” the government was unwilling to fund it.
  • Farmers now have access to many other information sources, making the Extension agent more of a “peer information consultant,” helping the farmer to access information rather than being seen as the source of expertise.
  • Universities focus increasingly on scholarship; in the words of the authors this relegates “Extension to the academic hinterland of ‘service and outreach.’”

It’s clear that these issues confront Cooperative Extension in the United States. Fortunately, the authors have some suggestions for what people involved in Extension should do:

  • Respond to the needs of rural non-farm residents. They point out that there are all kinds of issues in rural life Extension could respond to, like wetland and woodlot management, sustainable economic development, and conservation and stewardship.
  • Recognize that Extension programs have a life cycle and redirect resources away from failing or outdated programs.
  • Make creative use of new information technologies.
  • And a very interesting point: They suggest that reducing Extension field staff can be a mistake, and replacing one-on-one contact with consumers “is a recipe for decline.” They recommend in-person training and discussions rather than fact sheets and web-based information alone.

All food for thought as we enter a new era in Cooperative Extension!



Video Feature: How the physical environment affects children

Here at Evidence-Based Living, we’ve written before about the research of Gary Evans, a Cornell professor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis who has spent much of his career researching how the physical environment impacts child well-being – especially for children in poverty.

Evans, an environmental psychologist, has completed a large body of research that examines the relationship of crowding, noise, housing and neighborhood quality on the lives of children.  His research reveals that these factors can have a lot of impact on a child’s academic achievement, as well as cognitive and social development.

Last year, Human Ecology undergraduate student Kyler Wilkins earned a first place finish in the College of Human Ecology’s 2010 Elsie Van Buren Rice Awards public speaking competition for his presentation of Evans research entitled “The Hard Knock Life: The Environment of Poverty and Children’s Development.”  In it, Wilkins describes how Evans research is being used by policy-makers to improve children’s access to healthy foods in schools and conduct cognitive interventions in to improve the memories of children in poverty. You can see it here:

To learn more about Evans’s work, you can also view a one-hour lecture he delivered to extension professionals by clicking here.

Evidence-based health reform: Sometimes research really does matter!

Sometimes, people committed to evidence-based approaches and to the translation of research findings into practice can feel a bit down. Research findings seem to move into real-world settings at a glacial pace, and policy makers and the general public can seem dismissive of the empirical evidence.

So it’s very encouraging to note that the Health Reform bill was explicitly based on scientific findings from health services research. The Academy Health website features a special session from the 2010 AcademyHealth Annual Research Meeting that looked at how health services research helped inform Congressional health reform discussions. Experts report on how such research influenced design decisions about health insurance, payment and delivery systems.

Despite controversy about the health reform bill, you have to hand it to those who crafted it for taking research evidence seriously.

Skip to toolbar