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Scientific literacy and polarization on climate change

Posted on 15 June 2012 by Andy Skuce

It is not news that people are polarized over their assessment of the risks posed by climate change. But is it true that the most polarized people are those who are more scientifically literate? Counter-intuitive though it may seem, the answer is: Yes, it is. This is the result of a recent article by Dan Kahan and six colleagues in Nature Climate Change (henceforth, the Kahan Study).  This study has received a lot of attention, with blog articles, for example in The Economist, Mother Jones and by David Roberts at Grist.

At Skeptical Science, our goal is to debunk false arguments and explain the science behind climate change. In the light of this peer-reviewed research, we have to ask ourselves: if we are striving to increase scientific literacy, won’t we just be making the polarization that exists around climate change worse?  We will come back to that question at the end of this piece, but first, we’ll look in some detail at the Kahan Study itself.

Testing two hypotheses

Kahan et al identified two contrasting hypotheses that seek to explain the polarization in the public’s appreciation of the risks posed by climate change. (Note that the Kahan Study did not look at the public’s perception of the truth or reliability of climate science but, rather, the public’s assessment of the risks that climate change poses.) These hypotheses are:

  • The Science Comprehension Thesis (SCT).  This attributes people’s degree of comprehension to their level of scientific knowledge. The implication is that more scientifically and mathematically capable people should understand the science and appreciate the risks better, and that those who lack these skills will not be able to understand the science or correctly assess the risks.
     
  • The Cultural Cognition Thesis (CCT). People are motivated to fit their interpretations of scientific evidence into the value system of the group that they identify with.

These hypotheses are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Indeed, some partisans in the climate war will attribute their own beliefs to their comprehension of the science, while explaining the erroneous beliefs of the other side as being rooted in cultural factors. However, the two hypotheses do make distinct predictions about how risk perception, cultural groups and scientific literacy should be correlated; therefore, they can be tested.

Specifically, SCT would predict that, as scientific literacy increases, polarization of perceptions of the risk that climate change poses to human health and prosperity should decrease.  CCT predicts that perception of environmental risk should correlate primarily with value systems rather than scientific literacy. In this model, people with a hierarchical and individualistic world-view are expected to be naturally skeptical of environmental risks, since acceptance of such risks implies the need for regulation of industry and consumption.  On the other hand, those whose world-view makes them instinctively suspicious of unregulated commerce would be more inclined to accept the threat climate change poses.

Methods

A detailed description of the methods used in the Kahan Study can be viewed in the Supplemental Information. Here’s a quick summary.

Cultural world-views were measured by where individuals fit when plotted on two axes: the Hierarchy-Egalitarian Axis and the Individualism-Communitarianism Axis. See Figure 1. All the subjects were Americans and basically (but not exactly) this analysis placed people on a liberal-conservative spectrum. Liberal-conservative terminology will be used here for simplicity.

Perceptions of risk were determined by asking subjects to rate the seriousness of climate-change risk on a ten-point scale.

Scientific and mathematical ability were estimated using the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators (eight questions) as well as a set of fourteen mathematical questions.  As has been triumphantly reported in the Daily Mail, conservatives scored a little higher on the scientific literacy scores.

Figure1. (Adapted and simplified from Figure S2 in the Supplemental Information of Kahan et al, 2012; original figure can be seen here.) World-views are measured on two axes, based on a questionnaire. Political views and perceptions of the risks posed by climate change tend to cluster in different quadrants. 

Results

The data were subjected to multivariate regression analysis, with the science and mathematics measures being combined into a single factor. The results falsify the SCT hypothesis, increasing scientific literacy increases polarization. The main determining factor on climate risk perception is cultural, corroborating CCT.

 

Figure 2. (Kahan et al, 2012, Figure 2) The results quite clearly show that the prediction of the SCT model is falsified and that the perceived risk of climate change is not correlated with science literacy and numeracy. Not only is the world-view polarization on perception of climate risk evident in the right-hand graph, but this polarization actually is larger between people with opposed world-views but who have greater scientific literacy.

Psychological foundations

The widening polarization between subjects with high scientific literacy casts doubt on another prediction of the SCT hypothesis. The two-system model of mind (Daniel Kahneman’s  book Thinking, Fast and Slow is highly recommended) describes our thinking as if it were working as two separate systems: system 1, which makes snap, instinctive judgements and system 2, which is the conscious, deliberative and calculating part of the mind.  If we accept that system 1 instinctively responds in harmony with the subjects’ world-views, we should not be surprized that people with low scientific literacy tend to be polarized in line with their politics on technical issues such as climate change. But it would be expected under SCT that increasing scientific ability would overpower the instinctive response with the force of cold reason and dispassionate deliberation, reducing instinctive polarization. This is not the case.

One reason why this may not be so is because we have assumed that our deliberative system 2 acts as an impartial judge, using reason and argument to persuade the instinctive system 1 that its prejudices are wrong.  In fact, system 2 can act not as an impartial judge but as a lawyer, arguing a case on behalf of its client, system 1. A model like this has been proposed by Mercier and Sperber (2011) who assert that we use reason not so much to improve knowledge and to make better decisions, but instead to make arguments to persuade others—and ourselves—that our instincts are right. The weaker the case, the harder the system 2 lawyer must work to get an acquittal.

Chris Mooney, in his recent book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science--and Reality explores some of the differences in the psychology and reasoning between American liberals and conservatives.  One observation that he makes is that, even though everyone has their prejudices and blind spots, liberals tend to be relatively more open-minded and more easily persuaded by new arguments.  As a Daily Kos review of Mooney's book put it:

One manifestation is modern-day conservatives are more difficult to persuade than non-conservatives using documented facts or reasonable inferences, particularly on issues where there's a partisan axis, even in the face of a robust scientific consensus or just plain common sense.

 

Figure 3. (From the Supplemental Information of Kahan et al, 2012.) Comparing liberal and conservative assessments of the risks of climate change and nuclear power and showing how these responses vary with different levels of scientific literacy. Even though polarization increases with scientific knowledge in both cases, the degree of polarization is mainly driven by scientifically literate conservatives perceiving less risk in both cases.

The response of liberals to nuclear risks suggests that, in this case, liberals reduce their perception of risks away from the instinctive liberal position, the more scientifically literate they are. In contrast, scientifically literate conservatives tend to dig in deeper on both climate and nuclear risks. Perhaps this supports Mooney’s idea that liberals can be more easily persuaded away from their instinctive positions. It also suggests that for some subsets of people (scientifically literate liberals and less scientifically literate conservatives) and for some issues (nuclear power risks), the CCT hypothesis fails, but this is not a conclusion that Kahan et al have drawn from their work.

Caveats

The following points are my own observations. This is in a field that I am not very familiar with, so beware the Dunning-Kruger effect!

  1. The Kahan Study looked only at general scientific literacy using a selection from the  NSF Indicators (see the Supplemental Information, page 5), comprising just eight questions in physics, astronomy and biology. With the exception of one question, they were all questions with true/false choices. They were rather basic questions, too. For example one, which only 45% got right was: How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun [one day, one month, one year]?  [Added later: in fact the number who got this question right was 45% of the 72% who knew that the Earth goes around the Sun, so 32% of the total sample answered correctly, see comment #6, below.] To have achieved “high science literacy/numeracy” in a relative sense according to these indicators might not represent what many people would consider to be a high degree of competence in science.
  2. There were no questions in the NSF list on the scientifically uncontroversial aspects of evolution, the age of the Earth, or climate science. One wonders, had such questions been included, whether conservatives would have still have shown slightly greater scientific literacy overall and if some of the harder-line skeptics of climate change would have been classified as highly scientifically literate.
  3. It’s quite possible, however, that a broader study of scientific literacy would still show that climate skeptics are better informed about the science in general and even climate science than non-skeptics. There are cases in other areas where skepticism is positively correlated with knowledge about the subject. For example, surveys show that atheists have more knowledge about religion than the faithful do. Perhaps people who instinctively challenge the consensus view are more motivated to learn about it than are those who defer to it.
  4. The Kahan Study was careful not to draw inferences of causation between scientific literacy and the polarization of opinions of the risks of climate change. Just because they are correlated does not prove that increasing scientific literacy causes increasing polarization. It is, perhaps, conceivable that the correlation between the two factors could be because they are both consequences of other factors that were not measured, such as socio-economic status, ethnic background or general levels of education, for example.
  5. This is a recent American study and may not be applicable to the rest of the world, and the trends observed may have be due to recent cultural changes in the USA. For example, conservatives in Europe are much less likely to be dismissive of the risks that climate change poses than their American counterparts. Even a few years ago, it was acceptable for Republicans to publicly express their support for climate mitigation measures. No longer.

None of this is intended to challenge the Kahan Study itself. But what the study does not show is that attempting to increase an individual's knowledge of climate science necessarily causes that individual's instinctive views, pro or con, to become more extreme.

Despite this, it’s quite clear from the Kahan Study that there is nothing to support the idea that instinctive skeptics are likely to become persuaded of the urgency of the climate change problem by scientific education alone. So, if our goal is for the majority of the population to become concerned about climate change, what is to be done?

Kahan’s prescription

Kahan et al argue that it can be costly for an individual to change their mind on a polarized issue such as climate change. Holding certain beliefs is a condition of belonging to cultural groups. Adopting a position contrary to your peer group can threaten your social status, while having little effect on the collective opinion. They called this a “tragedy of the risk-perception commons”, in reference to Garret Hardin’s seminal idea from the 1960’s, according to which, in certain settings, individuals acting rationally in their individual interest produce a collective failure.

The conclusion of the Kahan Study reads as follows:

[…] simply improving the clarity of scientific information will not dispel public conflict so long as the climate-change debate continues to feature cultural meanings that divide citizens of opposing world-views.

It does not follow, however, that nothing can be done to promote constructive and informed public deliberations. As citizens understandably tend to conform their beliefs about societal risk to beliefs that predominate among their peers, communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group's values. Effective strategies include use of culturally diverse communicators, whose affinity with different communities enhances their credibility, and information-framing techniques that invest policy solutions with resonances congenial to diverse groups. Perfecting such techniques through a new science of science communication is a public good of singular importance.

There’s little doubt that “culturally diverse communicators” can be effective. Examples of such climate science communicators would include Katharine Hayhoe (Evangelical Christian), Kerry Emanuel (Republican) and Barry Bickmore (Mormon apologist), all of them scientists and communicators who are effective in addressing conservatives. They are effective not only because of what they say and how well they say it, but also because of who they are. 

A particularly powerful video by Peter Sinclair is one in which senior US military commanders speak about the climate crisis as a threat to US national security that requires military preparedness. The video is effective, not because the arguments the military officers make are especially insightful from a scientific standpoint, but because of who they are and because of the values that they represent.

Dan Kahan is a professor of law at Yale University. He has been an advocate of a Gentle Nudges vs Hard Shoves approach to enforcement of laws designed to change social norms, on issues such as date rape and drunk driving. He also wrote an article in Nature in 2010, Fixing the Communication Failure (open source here) on cultural cognition. He wrote:

[...] people find it disconcerting to believe that behaviour that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society, and behaviour that they find base is beneficial to it. Because accepting such a claim could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.

And, as a solution:

It would not be a gross simplification to say that science needs better marketing. Unlike commercial advertising, however, the goal of these techniques is not to induce public acceptance of any particular conclusion, but rather to create an environment for the public's open-minded, unbiased consideration of the best available scientific information.

As straightforward as these recommendations might seem, however, science communicators routinely flout them. The prevailing approach is still simply to flood the public with as much sound data as possible on the assumption that the truth is bound, eventually, to drown out its competitors. If, however, the truth carries implications that threaten people's cultural values, then holding their heads underwater is likely to harden their resistance and increase their willingness to support alternative arguments, no matter how lacking in evidence. This reaction is substantially reinforced when, as often happens, the message is put across by public communicators who are unmistakably associated with particular cultural outlooks or styles — the more so if such advocates indulge in partisan rhetoric, ridiculing opponents as corrupt or devoid of reason. This approach encourages citizens to experience scientific debates as contests between warring cultural factions — and to pick sides accordingly.

Kahan's consistent message is that you won't get through to people with a reasoned argument if you provoke them and they raise their cultural defences.

 What this means for Skeptical Science

Let’s return to the question posed at the beginning. Since Kahan et al have shown that increasing scientific literacy correlates with increases polarization on climate, are we, at Skeptical Science, doing more harm than good by focussing on rebutting climate myths and explaining new science?

Probably not.

To recap: The Kahan Study did not show that providing more information on climate science causes more polarization, just that, in the contemporary United States at least , polarization on the issue is mostly driven by cultural identity, and that the scientifically literate, as they defined those people,  tend to be the most polarized of all. Kahan recommends that the most effective and persuasive approach is to, above all, avoid threatening people's cultural norms.

SkS authors are a fairly diverse bunch but we are like-minded people from developed countries with science degrees.  We probably do not meet Kahan’s ideal of being “culturally diverse communicators”.  Although we try to keep most of our discussions politically neutral, we can’t avoid politics when discussing solutions and sometimes our personal political biases will be evident.

We are well aware that our blog readership mostly comprises people who have already made up their minds (see David Roberts; see also a video on this Preaching to the Converted by Theramin Trees). Occasionally, we hear from individuals who have changed their mind with the help of Skeptical Science, but those instances are rare. Our blog is endorsed by several scientists, some of whom read it regularly to catch up on news outside their speciality.

Even if we are mainly communicating with those already convinced by the evidence, we hope that there is some value in providing arguments and explanations that readers can use when they discuss climate change with family and co-workers. We hope, in effect, that our readers fill the role of "diverse communicators", using their adaptations of our arguments within their own communities, workplaces and families.

We know that we are unlikely to win over many hard-core contrarians with our rebuttals or blog posts. In reality, our target audience is that large group of people who are not yet committed or engaged. We hope that people who have questions about climate change will come here via a Google search or a reference from somewhere else. Our basic rebuttals, in particular, are aimed at people new to the climate discussion and are intended to nip misinformation in the bud.

But it’s not up to us to decide how effective we are.  We can do better. For that we need feedback. So please take the time and tell us in the comments what we are doing well and what we are doing badly; what we do too much of, or too little of.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 33:

  1. "In reality, our target audience is that large group of people who are not yet committed or engaged."

    Or perhaps who are not at the "poles" of the political spectrum?

    The Kahan study lumped people into two groups based on their Hierarchy-Egalitarian and Individualism-Communitarianism axes. What would be really interesting would've been to divvy the group up into quartiles for example, to see if scientific literacy correlated differently with the understanding in "the middle" of the political spectrum...In fact I'm sure they could've done that though I dont' see it on glancing through the paper. Maybe time for an email!
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  2. The Brookings Institute finds an upsurge in acceptance of AGW among US Independents

    Brookings Institute Poll

    Perhaps someone at Skeptical Science might comment on this poll as it finds that most people's opinions of AGW are shaped by the weather they experienced in the medium-to-recent past, rather than by scientific findings.

    Mother Jones Comment
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  3. I think that David Roberts addressed that poll very well in Why climate polls don’t mean much.

    Telling quote:

    The pollsters did get at that [social cues vs weighing of the argument] a bit. They asked about “federal regulations” to reduce greenhouse gases and got 42 percent approval from Republicans; when they rephrased the same thing as “the Obama Administration’s current policy to use the Clean Air Act,” Republican support fell to 28 percent. When Dems heard Obama’s name next to the policy, their support became more intense. Obama’s name, in an of itself, serves as a heuristic.

    The poll answers depend on the framing of the question. The response to the framing depends on cultural triggers.
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  4. I think there is a bit of conflating of different things going on in this paper. Some key distinctions are not being made. One is the distinction between understanding the results of science and understanding how science is done. The other is the distintion between communitarianism as social cohesion and communitarianism as universal altruism.

    I post a lot on a site with libertarian and conservative mebers all of whom are scintifically literate. I have noticed a big difference in the acceptance of AGW between actual scientists on that site and non scientists. The scientists nearly all accept the reality of AGW but I think a majority but not all of the non scientists do not.

    The scientists understand how other scientists do their work even if they are in other fields. They are much more sceptical about any attacks on the integrity of other scientists seeing them as attacks on science itself.

    I think a lot of scientiffically literate people are actually more interested in technology than in science. To them
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  5. Ooops! Incomplete post. Continued.

    To a lot of scientifically literate people science is more a basis for technology than it is a way of understanding nature. They aren't really interested in nature much. As well interest in some technologies can develop intuitions that actually hinder understanding of climate science. Since technology usually depends on the well understood aspects of science there is a tendency for those for whom it is thir primary interest to only deal with science which is alwmost certain and to dismiss anything else as speculation. I notice this in information technology people a lot.

    Also some people are mostly interested in the new discoveries and breakthroughs in science and not in the consolidation part where you check things out and see how any discoveries add to the overall picture. Scientists are more interested in how discoveries fit into the big picture.

    In conclusion, familiarity with the results of science without a real appreciation of its methods can be fuel for denialism. Familiarity with the methods tends to counter denialism.

    I'll talk about the ideas of communitarianism in this work later.
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  6. To avoid over interpreting these results, it is worthwhile actually looking at the questions used to grade numeracy and scientific literacy. In each case, the percentages given after each question is the percentage of respondents who have the correct answer.

    Numeracy:
    "EVENROLL. Imagine that we roll a fair, six-sided die 1,000 times. (That would mean that we roll one die from a pair of dice.) Out of 1,000 rolls, how many times do you think the die would come up as an even number?
    58%

    PCTTOFREQUENCY1. In the BIG BUCKS LOTTERY, the chances of winning a $10.00 prize are 1%. What is your best guess about how many people would win a $10.00 prize if 1,000 people each buy a single ticket from BIG BUCKS?
    60%

    FREQUENCYTOPCT1. In the ACME PUBLISHING SWEEPSTAKES, the chance of winning a car is 1 in 1,000. What percent of tickets of ACME PUBLISHING SWEEPSTAKES win a car?
    28%

    COMPFREQUENCY. Which of the following numbers represents the biggest risk of getting a disease?
    86%

    COMPPCT. Which of the following numbers represents the biggest risk of getting a disease?
    88%

    DOUBLEPCT. If Person A’s risk of getting a disease is 1% in ten years, and Person B’s risk is double that of A’s, what is B’s risk?
    64%

    DOUBLEFREQUENCY. If Person A’s chance of getting a disease is 1 in 100 in ten years, and person B’s risk is double that of A, what is B’s risk?
    21%

    PCTTOFREQUENCY2. If the chance of getting a disease is 10%, how many people would be expected to get the disease:
    A: Out of 100?
    84%

    B: Out of 1000?
    81%

    FREQUENCYTOPCT2. If the chance of getting a disease is 20 out of 100, this would be the same as having a __% chance of getting the disease.
    72%

    VIRAL. The chance of getting a viral infection is .0005. Out of 10,000 people, about how many of them are expected to get infected?
    48%

    BAYESIAN. Suppose you have a close friend who has a lump in her breast and must have a mammogram. Of 100 women like her, 10 of them actually have a malignant tumor and 90 of them do not. Of the 10 women who actually have a tumor, the mammogram indicates correctly that 9 of them have a tumor and indicates incorrectly that 1 of them does not have a tumor. Of the 90 women who do not have a tumor, the mammogram indicates correctly that 81 of them do not have a tumor and indicates incorrectly that 9 of them do have a tumor. The table below summarizes all of this information. Imagine that your friend tests positive (as if she had a tumor), what is the likelihood that she actually has a tumor?
    3%

    SHANE1.
    A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
    12%

    SHANE2. In a lake, there is a patch of lilypads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?
    27% "


    Even given that these results are obtained from a demographically representative sample of the US population, these results are stupefying! It is known that people, even well trained people find Bayesian reasoning counter intuitive, so the 3% success rate for Bayesian reasoning is the least surprising result; but based on this survey, just 3% of the US's population is not functionally innumerate, with around 25% not being numerate at all.

    Science:
    "EARTHOT The center of the Earth is very hot [true/false].
    86%

    HUMANRADIO All radioactivity is man-made [true/false].
    84%

    LASERS Lasers work by focusing sound waves [true/false].
    68%

    ELECATOM Electrons are smaller than atoms [true/false].
    62%

    COPERNICUS1 Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
    72%

    COPERNICUS2 How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? [one day, one month, one year]
    45%

    DADGENDER It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl [true/false].
    69%

    ANTIBIOTICS Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria [true/false].
    68%"


    Bear in mind that only respondents who successfully answered question COPERNICUS1 where asked COPERNICUS2. That means only 32.4% of a representative sample of US citizens know both that the Earth goes around the Sun, rather than the reverse; and that it takes a year to do so.

    Given the very poor scores for scientific literacy and numeracy, the proper analysis of this paper is that it shows that the abysmally misinformed on science and mathematics have stronger opinions on the risk, or lack thereof, of climate change than do the completely ignorant. It tells us nothing about the opinions of the genuinely scientifically literate and numerate, for they appear to have escaped the net cast by this survey.
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    Moderator Response: [AS]I have added a comment to the post to clarify that not everybody was asked the COPERNICUS2, as Tom correctly points out.45% of those asked the question got the answer correct but only 72% were asked it.
  7. Tom, I agree and I made much the same point, but in less detail, in my "Caveat" #1 above. But, the genuinely scientifically literate or numerate were present in this sample, they just were not distinguished as a sub-category by the tests. Remember, also, that the "conservative" people were very slightly more scientifically literate on average.

    My hunch is that the number of people who are genuinely (as you put it) scientifically literate and numerate, and with some specific knowledge of climate science (which wasn't measured at all in the survey), are probably very few in a sample of 1500.

    They could have included some non-controversial climate-related questions, for example: What causes the seasons? Sunspots/the Sun getting closer to the Earth in summer/the tilt of the rotation axis. My guess is that of the 32% who know that the Earth goes around the Sun, many would not get that right. If we could get everybody to understand that, surely that would be a good start?
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  8. Andy S #3,

    Roberts' comments were related to energy policy aspects of the Brookings poll, not to the climate change aspects.

    I thought the question regarding the drivers of changed opinions on climate change tells us something, allied with the Kahan paper.

    The public do not see climate change through the lens of scientific findings, but (1) thought the perspective of their group (Kahan), and/ or (2) their personal experience of climate as long term weather (Brookings). That represents a challenge to educators of the public on climate change, but it is also an opportunity.

    For example, what changed public perspectives on nicotine? Was it scientific findings reported (with opposition) in the media, or personal knowledge of a nicotine-addicted friend or relative dying of lung cancer or emphysema? Or was it both?
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  9. Thanks Tom, I had guessed that the bar for competence might be lower than I imagined, but I had no idea it was that low. Wondering what the cutoff was between the high and low groups.

    I think this leaves some room for non-linearity between a different set of groups:

    a) Not at all competent.
    b) Competent enough to be right more often than not.
    c) Highly competent.

    One could speculate that those who typically have no idea how things work would be more willing to agree with authority figures than those who are marginally competent. I would expect that the ones who are highly competent tend to agree with each other, if only because the same information processed through a consistent set of rules tends to lead to similar conclusions, and science rules are designed to be consistent. Within this framework, you would expect the highest polarization amongst the marginally competent; the members of the group have the same information, but their rules for how to process it are not highly consistent with respect to other members of the same group, and they are used to being right.

    Sorry, it's probably in the supplementary information, but did they say what the cutoff was between an individual being assigned to the Low or High groups, and were the groups of equal size? In a normal population sample, highly skilled (at whatever the skill is) individuals will be a small fraction of the general population.
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  10. From the paper:

    "...highly science-literate and numerate hierarchical individualists are more sceptical, not less, of climate change risks..."

    I'm having a hard time finding just what was their cutoff for determining 'high' from 'low'.

    Another way of saying my alternate explanation is that how an individual arrives at a belief is not necessarily the same within all individuals within a population. Both social coherence (agreeing with members of the group) and scientific literacy are strategies that people can use; there is no guarantee that all individuals within a population use the same strategy.

    It could be that if you are very highly skilled, your own skills tend to dominate the conclusions you reach, and if you have low skill, you tend to rely more on what your group thinks. In between, there would be a mix of people not only using different strategies, social versus rational, but even the ones attempting to arrive at a science-based conclusion might not applying the same set of rules (choosing to focus an clouds and discount water vapor, or vice versa). It could be also that the rules applied are unconsciously filtered based on social group compliance.

    Hah, let's test those with limited social coherence tendencies (on the Asperger scale) in comparison with those at the opposite end of that spectrum.
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  11. Just to weigh in here, Skeptical Science is a remarkably valuable resource for understanding the peer-reviewed science on climate change. The Kahan paper doesn't cause me to question SkSc in any way. You guys and gals do us a great service--don't ever go away!

    What the paper *does* do is reinforce for me the need to seek ways to respectfully engage Americans with diverse worldviews. All Americans must be part of the solution to climate change, so maybe we who understand where the science is on this controversial topic can do a better job of reaching out to those who think differently from us. This really tests our commitment to diversity, no?
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  12. shoyemore@8

    The Kahan Study dealt with the perception of climate change risk, not whether people thought the climate was changing or not. What policies people are prepared to support is, I would guess, closely aligned with the level of risk they perceive. So, I think the energy policy parts of the poll are more comparable to Kahan's study, particularly because the responses were more politically polarized than the purely climate focussed questions.

    But I certainly agree, perceptions of the reality of climate change have a lot to do with the weather trends they are experiencing.

    I suspect that on the subject of smoking it was both personal experience and the clear scientific evidence that caused the shift in public opinion. The fact that smoking also affects others nearby makes it an easier bad habit to portray as anti-social than, say, overeating/obesity, where the damaging health effects are confined to the individual (Michael Bloomberg, take note).
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  13. Chris G @ 9&10

    I found the reporting of the statistics in the Kahan Study hard to understand. A few more tables, bar charts and crossplots would have made things much easier to grasp. Also, some of their classifications were not very clearly defined. On their Figure S4 there are supposed to be dotted red lines showing standard deviations, which don't appear on the document I downloaded.
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  14. Andy S,

    Yes, the perceptions of risk in climate change, and the policies you are prepared to support are closely aligned (as you say). However, Roberts did not make any remarks refuting the useful observation of the Brookings poll that personal experience counts more than scientific evidence, to which the public get only limited exposure.

    If anything, it shows the importance of highlighting the scientific explanation on occasions where public attention is held by important weather events.
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  15. This is a somewhat political opinion but all this talk of the need to defer to the delicate sensibilities of the alleged conservatives is simply a manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome...and in the long run is counter productive. You don't end temper tantrum politics by coddling the miscreants.
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  16. One point about the Kahan study is that it is US only.

    The US has the most "structured" right-left (or right-centre) divide in the democratic world. Boundaries are much more fluid in Europe, and I think the Kahan results would not be duplicated there. However, I could not hazard a guess on how different - probably the alignment of minimizing climate risk and hierarchical-individualism would be weaker.

    Here is a recent Eurobarometer Poll, where (in general) Europeans rate climate change as a worse problem than the economy, but behind provision of food and water for the world's poor.

    Eurobarometer Poll on AGW

    Australia seems to more resemble the US rather than Europe. But I could be wrong there.
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  17. Dave123 @ 15

    I don't quite see it that way, but what does bother me in some of this analysis is that there's a bit of a patronizing air to it; at the extreme, treating your opponents' views as being the manifestation of some kind of social or psychological pathology that needs to handled with kid gloves, could easily appear condescending. To be sure, if I detected some "skeptic" trying to administer sugar-coated medicine to me, I'd be offended.

    I think that there are potential sources of blow-back if a culturally sensitive approach to communication is done clumsily. For it to work, your respect for the opponents' cultural values has to be genuine and I'm sure I'm not the only one in the climate debate who finds that kind of authenticity hard to fake.
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  18. The Kahn et al study corroborates other studies and observation in social psychology; Jonathan Haidt's, The Righteous Mind is worth a look. We're not rational creatures and are excellent at bending the facts to suit our ends, and we don't like being pushed. Community, friendship, commonly shared problems drive our social network. We're great warriors too, but wars cost lives and treasure.

    The best you're ever going to do is to engage people in making their own observations, and using their powers of reasoning, and one has to build on these innate skills and foster their use through practice.

    A story is worth way more than a pile of facts.
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  19. I'm a bit of a fence-sitter - interestingly both politically and on the subject of climate change risk.

    I find SkS to be a beacon amongst the many sources of dodgy and biased information on the subject - so you do a great job - thanks!

    I don't mind the personal bias of authors being evident, but at times authors stray beyond bias and make the occasional slightly barbed comment. This has certainly annoyed skeptic friends who I've referred to SkS in order to back up an argument. Therefore it does seem that, at least occasionally, the hard work you do explaining the science is spoiled by allowing your political opinions to taint otherwise politically unsullied argument.

    Keep up the good work. As far as possible keep out the politics.
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  20. Using different survey data, analytical methods and "science literacy" indicators, we also found that more scientifically-literate respondents tend to be more polarized.
    Hamilton et al. (2012) "Public knowledge and concern about polar-region warming" in Polar Geography.
    http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1088937X.2012.684155

    There are some differences between our conclusions and those of Kahan et al., however.

    1. In our analysis of both 2006 and 2010 General Social Surveys, the 2011 NCERA national survey, and 2012 statewide polls in New Hampshire, despite the polarizing effects we also found positive main effects for science literacy on concern/belief regarding climate change. It does not appear that science literacy's effects are totally overthrown by politics, although they are moderated.

    2. Explanations for these patterns emphasize that science knowledge is not one thing. General background knowledge helps one to acquire and frame, perhaps selectively, true or false "facts" that reinforce one's prejudices. However, the specific content of those facts -- a more detailed kind of science literacy -- can be significantly different depending on politics.

    A new paper examining the behavior of more detailed climate science knowledge or is currently in review.
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  21. L. Hamilton: Thanks for those comments. I'm looking forward to reading your paper when it's published.

    An open access version of Lawrence Hamilton's Polar Geography paper is available here.
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  22. I think their world view measures both confound some different variables.

    Is communitarianism a concern for and identification with the community as an entity itself that should be cherished? Or is the community seen as a means to look after the welfare of its individual members? That is, is it really universal altruism? A couple of the questions used to measure it were definitely the latter. The others could be measuring either.

    Is egalitarianism a desire for equality of outcomes? Or is it a desire for equality of rights and opportunity? Or is this axis about authority and responsibility? Some of the questions concern the first of these. Some concern the second. None as far as I can see have much to do with the third.

    The way these axes were conceived and the questions asked reflect the political viewpoints and concerns of those who asked them. In this case it looks like how a progressive would frame things.

    Interestingly, I've seen libertarian attempts at a two dimensional array of political orientations. These are motivated by not feeling that they are accurately represented by the usual left-right political axis. Quite fair enough, but what they choose for axes does reflect their concerns and others may see them as not the most useful ones.
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  23. Lloyd, you might check our Polar Geography paper cited above for a different take on these issues, based not on worldview but on self-identification ranging from 1=extremely liberal to 7=extremely conservative. We also use the 11-item GSS "science literacy" scale, different from the 8-item science literacy (w/o old-Earth questions) + 15 math word problems that Kahan et al. use for "science & numerical literacy." Anyway, our findings (highlighted in our Figure 1 and Table 3) replicate theirs in certain respects while differing in others.

    A journalist asked me recently for a more detailed comparison. That could appear online as a footnote somewhere soon, I'll link to it here if so.
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  24. To elaborate, my experience thus far leading public discussions on climate literacy suggests that respect for differences will open the door to a populace that is more accepting of the scientific consensus on climate change. Most conservatives are people of good will, just like most liberals. I don't see how I can play a role in opening minds to the science of climate change if I am criticizing or demonizing people with ideologies that differ from mine. Furthermore, while I may not agree with the solutions my conservative friends propose, they have a right to bring to the table, those solutions that fit their values.
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  25. From the paper about the survey: "Hunting is more likely than climate change to make polar bears become extinct.”

    It's a trick question. Before polar bears could be hunted to extinction in the 1970's there was a treaty banning their being hunted from airplanes, etc. and they were not endangered by climate change at that time. Similarly, efforts to prevent their extinction from climate change would be similarly successful although with the criticism that it would result in a limited preserve and not a geographically wide and sustainable habitat.

    In general the survey is biased against respondents who believe in adaptation, e.g. "“Sea level may rise by more than 20 feet, flooding coastal areas.” By when? Hundreds of years from now?
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  26. Eric, those polar questions were designed by other researchers back in 2005-6, for use on the 2006 and 2010 GSS. I've taken a different, very specific and present-oriented tack when designing new questions for 2011 and 2012 surveys.

    But in terms of the general conclusions, it appears that details of question wording matter less than one might think.
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  27. L. Hamilton, thanks for the explanation. I guess the fact that it is just wording in a survey means the questions can be simplified. But to my eye the presence of a number of simplifications implies the possibility of oversimplification.
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  28. "What would be really interesting would've been to divvy the group up into quartiles for example, to see if scientific literacy correlated differently with the understanding in "the middle" of the political spectrum...In fact I'm sure they could've done that though I dont' see it on glancing through the paper."

    I just noticed the lead-off question by Utahn; it seems worth mentioning that's exactly what Figure 1 in our paper does.
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  29. "But to my eye the presence of a number of simplifications implies the possibility of oversimplification."

    Eric, survey questions have to be simplified, though it's a matter of degree. To my ear this question is too simple:

    'Would you say the polar ice caps have gotten larger or smaller over the last 25 years?'

    whereas this one is just right:

    'Which of the following three statements do you think is more accurate?
    Over the past few years, the ice on the Arctic Ocean in late summer ...
    Covers less area than it did 30 years ago.
    Declined but then recovered to about the same area it had 30 years ago.
    Covers more area than it did 30 years ago.'

    But either one correlates with respondent knowledge, politics and background characteristics in very similar ways.
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  30. L. Hamilton, thanks for the details. I agree the second question is just right and a "no brainer". My only quibble with the observation in your last sentence is that those similar correlations may come from the respondent's view of the questions as a whole. Will the respondent answer in "contrarian" ways because some questions (not your latest example but the prior one) appear oversimplified? If that is the case then the correlation is not from respondent qualities to each question but from respondent qualities to the whole set of questions.
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  31. That's a well-known pitfall for survey research, called "response set bias." It's something to always keep in mind when designing a survey, or when looking at data from a survey designed by others.

    My "just right" example above, for instance, has been carried on two different surveys, neither of which said another word about ice or polar regions. Despite different samples (one statewide and one national) and otherwise mostly different questions on each survey, they produced similar results. These conclusions I'm talking about are pretty robust.
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  32. I think my post is somewhat political, maybe a little bit ad-hominem-ish, but pretty much on topic...

    It would be interesting if instead of just a proxy for overall scientific literacy, they had done some questioning about how informed they are about this specific subject, aiming to be somehow as neutral as possible -- evaluating mere awareness of the main arguments and counter-arguments of both sides, regardless of which side one think is scientifically correct. I have a gut feeling that even though "skeptics" may score higher on overall scientific literacy, they perhaps have more biased and even superficial sources of information in this subject specifically.

    I'm also curious on how the things would be regarding the acceptance of evolution -- I'm not trying to imply that climate skepticism is equivalent to creationism in terms of scientific validity/unscientific absurdity, I just think that there may be underlying mechanisms (the one I described above) that could cause similar results. For example, I've seen quite a few MDs who are creationists, I assume they would score high on overall scientific literacy (perhaps higher than average, not creationists MDs specifically, but MDs in general), but I can attest that they can be nevertheless utterly ignorant when it comes to the relevant evidence for evolution, and they would repeat even the most flawed anti-evolutionist arguments ("then why still there are monkeys"), exposing a lack of relevant knowledge even in the most basic foundations, and also some sort of "intellectual laziness" and bias towards confirmation.

    I think something similar may occur with the issue of climate change, people who can be in fact very scientific literate, but who haven't examined this specific subject very carefully, falling for logically sound arguments (and coming up with their own), but not investing much time checking their validity.


    It surprised me a little bit that in "the other side" the less scientifically literate who still find global warming potentially dangerous don't exaggerate the threat, along the lines of "the day after tomorrow" (or even "inconvenient truth" to some degree). I guess that's perhaps because even though there may be quite a bit of those, they're "smoothed" on the average by the effect of a majority that just have a superficial grasp of the thing, but good enough to sort science from science fiction catastrophe movies.
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  33. Learning is a slow process if you have to keep re-discovering the same things over and over. Let's recall Robert Park's 2000 book Voodoo Science on the subject of outrageous "scientific" claims and the people who make them and the people who believe them. In Chapter 6 (Perpetuum Mobile) Park takes several pages on one free energy scheme because he went to a promotional event, and thanks to long hot delays spent several hours with the believers.

    "It was classic flimflam." (p 129) But finally on page 132:

    "It is easy to dismiss the people who packed that stuffy makeshift auditorium in Hackensack for almost five hours as foolish, and even to feel that they deserve to be fleeced. But I came away with the impression that these people were somewhat more knowledgeable about technology than the average citizen, and mistrust of authority is not at all unreasonable; all sorts of outrageous claims are made in the name of science. Extending mistrust of scientific claims to include mistrust of the underlying laws of physics, however, is a reckless gamble. And yet, as we will see in the next section, people who have technical backgrounds and hold highly responsible positions fall into the same trap."

    I think the lesson is simply that it is easier for those with a little more knowledge than average to convince themselves that they know more than the real experts. Thus they may be slightly more inclined to believe flimflam and to reject either the basic laws of thermodynamics or their extended application on a planetary scale.

    [also posted just now at Eli's, where another comment reminded me of this thread.]
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