Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Does The the Acceptance of Climate Science Increase with Science Literacy?

This post is in 2 parts. First the study done at the Yale Law School. Secondly from the respected blog Watts Up With That? They offer further information and perspective to my post yesterday entitled  Culture Splits Climate Views, not Science Smarts .  I would suggest reading all three. They have relevance to the current debate.

The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change 

The conventional explanation for controversy over climate change emphasizes impediments to public understanding: limited popular knowledge of science, the inability of ordinary citizens to assess technical information, and the resulting widespread use of unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A large survey of U.S. adults (N = 1540) found little support for this account. On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones. More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased. We suggest that this evidence reflects a conflict between two levels of rationality: the individual level, which is characterized by citizens’ effective use of their knowledge and reasoning capacities to form risk perceptions that express their cultural commitments; and the collective level, which is characterized by citizens’ failure to converge on the best available scientific evidence on how to promote their common welfare. Dispelling this “tragedy of the risk-perception commons,” we argue, should be understood as the central aim of the science of science communication.

Apathy and the climate change divide – it isn’t about science literacy

From Yale University,  it seems the climate debate has become completely tribal. On the plus side, this study blows the “if only we could communicate to the public better” meme out of the water. The great climate divide deepens even further.

Yale study concludes public apathy over climate change unrelated to science literacy

Are members of the public divided about climate change because they don’t understand the science behind it? If Americans knew more basic science and were more proficient in technical reasoning, would public consensus match scientific consensus?

A study published today online in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that the answer to both questions is no. Indeed, as members of the public become more science literate and numerate, the study found, individuals belonging to opposing cultural groups become even more divided on the risks that climate change poses.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the study was conducted by researchers associated with the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School and involved a nationally representative sample of 1500 U.S. adults.

“The aim of the study was to test two hypotheses,” said Dan Kahan, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School and a member of the study team. “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 findings supported the second hypothesis and not the first,” he said.

“Cultural cognition” is the term used to describe the process by which individuals’ group values shape their perceptions of societal risks. It refers to the unconscious tendency of people to fit evidence of risk to positions that predominate in groups to which they belong. The results of the study were consistent with previous studies that show that individuals with more egalitarian values disagree sharply with individuals who have more individualistic ones on the risks associated with nuclear power, gun possession, and the HPV vaccine for school girls.

In this study, researchers measured “science literacy” with test items developed by the National Science Foundation. They also measured their subjects’ “numeracy”—that is, their ability and disposition to understand quantitative information.

“In effect,” Kahan said, “ordinary members of the public credit or dismiss scientific information on disputed issues based on whether the information strengthens or weakens their ties to others who share their values. At least among ordinary members of the public, individuals with higher science comprehension are even better at fitting the evidence to their group commitments.”

Kahan said that the study supports no inferences about the reasoning of scientific experts in climate change.

Researcher Ellen Peters of Ohio State University said that people who are higher in numeracy and science literacy usually make better decisions in complex technical situations, but the study clearly casts doubt on the notion that the more you understand science and math, the better decisions you’ll make in complex and technical situations. 

“What this study shows is that people with high science and math comprehension can think their way to conclusions that are better for them as individuals but are not necessarily better for society.”

According to Kahan, the study suggests the need for science communication strategies that reflect a more sophisticated understanding of cultural values.

“More information can help solve the climate change conflict,” Kahan said, “but that information has to do more than communicate the scientific evidence. It also has to create a climate of deliberations in which no group perceives that accepting any piece of evidence is akin to betrayal of their cultural group.”

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