Monday, May 28, 2012

Culture Splits Climate Views, not Science Smarts

Support for climate science doesn't increase with science literacy, a survey suggests. Rather, people with technical backgrounds just dig in harder on their views about global warming, finds the study in the Nature Climate Change journal. 

Overall, technically astute people are more "culturally polarized" than other folks and tend to side with the views of people in their social setting about global warming, concludes the survey of 1,540 people nationwide.

Testing science literacy with questions from the National Science Foundation's annual assessment of technical knowledge, the survey also collected cultural viewpoints from people in the study.

A great deal of climate science evidence supports the conclusion that global warming has occurred in the last century, driven by greenhouse gasses released by burning fossil fuels, as documented by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and other scientific groups. (As a result, around 97% of the most active climate researchers agree that global warming seems man-made, found a survey of scientists). Nevertheless, public opinion has long split, where about 53% of people in the most recent Gallup poll, "say global warming is caused by pollution resulting from human activities," and 41% blame natural changes in the environment instead.

Nature Climate Change:  home page

The study sought to test two explanations for the split, said Yale's Dan Kahan, who led the study, in a statement: "The first attributes political controversy over climate change to the public's limited ability to comprehend science, and the second, to opposing sets of cultural values."

The first notion doesn't wash, says the study, finding a small increase in the odds of folks seeing global warming as not too serious in the most science literate people in the survey.
Instead the best explanation for the split came from looking at response differences between people with individualistic viewpoints, less concerned about the environment, and people with more community-focused ones, who are more concerned, says the study. Even flipping things around and looking at support for nuclear power, typically disliked by the environmentally-minded, the study found similar effects:
"...the gap between subjects with these outlooks became larger, not smaller as scientific literacy and numeracy increased..."
What's going on? Basically people with technical smarts just use their abilities to better rationalize their already-held views. And why is that? Fitting in with your friends matters a lot more to people than getting climate science right, suggests Kahan, by email (see his Cultural Cognition website for more details):
"...what an ordinary member of the public believes -- or does, as consumer or voter -- has no practical impact on climate change, and hence no impact on the risk he or she faces. So any mistake that individual makes on the science is really immaterial to his or her personal well-being. What matters a lot more is having a belief that fits in with her group -- it can really ruin your life to hold a position that is at odds with your peers on a controversial issue. So it makes sense that people will pay more attention to "getting it right" relative to their group. It doesn't take a lot of sophisticated thought to be pretty good at that. But if you are capable of technical reasoning -- and you know a lot about science (we measured that too) -- you can do an even better job finding support for his or her group's position and rationalizing away evidence that challenges that position. If that is how things work, then people who are good at quantitative reasoning will be even more polarized."
And so they were. The effect was about more than politics, with personality-type predominating over party affiliation as the determining factor in people's positions.

Daniel Kahneman speech:  "Thinking that We Know"

What to do about it? Kahan points to the role that "Type 2" or analytical reasoning plays in decision-making (as opposed to "Type 1" or emotional reasoning described by Economics Nobelist Daniel Kahneman) among the science literate to argue that scientists should still let people know about the evidence for climate change, but look to ways to deliver the message that won't turn off people on the other side of the cultural divide from environment-minded ones.

"Perfecting such techniques through a new science of science communication is a public good of singular importance," concludes the study.

Americans were never very knowledgeable about science so these findings don't surprise me. I would like to see the discussion about climate change leave the political arena completely. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But in this instance it must be based on science. Unfortunately the science can be ambiguous when it comes to climate change, so people are able to choose a position. Whether they are familiar with the science or not.

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