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When experts talk, does anyone listen? essays on the limits of expert influence on public opinion Merkley, Eric Roman Owen

Abstract

There are large gaps in opinion between policy experts and the public on a wide variety of issues. Scholarly explanations for these observations largely focus on the tendency of citizens to selectively process information from experts in line with their ideology and values. These accounts are likely incomplete. This dissertation is comprised of three papers that examine other important limitations of expert influence on public opinion on topics featuring widespread expert agreement. The first paper looks at the degree to which information on expert agreement is available in the information environment of the average citizen – the news media – and whether or not such information is clouded by media bias towards balance and conflict. An automated and manual content analysis was conducted on over 280,000 news stories on 10 issues featuring widespread expert agreement. The results show that discussion of expert agreement is extremely rare in news content. On occasions when such discussion is featured, it is typically found in the midst of claims and counter claims by polarizing political actors. The second paper seeks to explain rising climate skepticism in the American public and related polarization of Democratic and Republican Party supporters on climate science. An automated content analysis was conducted on over 26,000 news stories to measure over time dynamics in polarizing information, such as party elite and ideological identity cues, messages from organized climate skeptics, and economic cost frames. Results show that the prevalence of party elite cues is strongly associated with aggregate levels of climate skepticism and polarization even after controlling for other possible factors. The third paper explores the role of anti-intellectualism as a predisposition that governs persuasion by expert agreement and the possibility that anti-elite rhetoric may prime this predisposition in information processing. Findings from the General Social Survey and an original survey of over 3,600 American citizens show that anti-intellectualism is strongly associated with opposition to a variety of positions of expert agreement. Results of an embedded survey experiment demonstrate that anti-intellectuals are less persuaded by messages of expert agreement and that this is particularly true when primed with anti-elite rhetoric.

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