Scientific Literacy Does Not Increase Concern Over Climate Change; Now Go Shout About It


A new study by the Cultural Cognition Project, a team headed up by Yale law professor Dan Kahan, shows that people who are more science- and math-literate tend to be more skeptical about the consequences of climate change. Increased scientific literacy also leads to higher polarization on climate-change issues:

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.

 ADDENDUM: See our Freakonomics Radio podcast on this topic.

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  1. Clifton Griffin says:

    I hope that this means NPR will have less nauseatingly patronizing coverage of this issue in the future.

    There is a dangerous line that has been crossed that is revealed even in this summary: the implied belief that the scientific community should be as involved in persuasion that their conclusions are correct as they should be in collecting and analyzing data that forms the basis of their conclusions.

    This positions the scientific community as ideologues and gives them a dog in the collective fight.

    In other news, I can see NPR leading tomorrow’s news with the headline “Why You Don’t Believe In Global Warming: A startling breakdown in risk-perception”. Which will prove to be equally nauseating.

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  2. ScoWes says:

    Since we don’t know what the actual question posed to people was we have to be careful on how we interpret the results.

    People with increased scientific literacy might interpret a question about the threat of climate change as less important because they would realize that life will continue to persist on the planet, even if it is without us. Climate change isn’t a threat to life on earth, although it may be a threat to our current way of living or dominance as a species.

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    • Clifton Griffin says:

      Based on the conventional view they were testing, I think it is safe to assume their questions focused on climate change as a threat to humankind (as this is the primary way the cultural conversation is framed) and not more abstract implications of the value of a planet without humans.

      If their questions were so open as to leave room for such a wide variety of reasoning, I think their credibility is in serious question.

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      • Matthew Philips says:

        People were asked to rank their perception of the risk posed by climate change on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being no risk and 10 being extreme risk. Average was 5.7.

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      • Clifton Griffin says:

        Hmm, it seems the study is free. Didn’t expect that.

        The question that was asked was: “How much risk do you believe climate change poses to human health, safety, or prosperity?”

        Pretty straightforward and in keeping with the premise of the study.

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    • caerbannog says:

      The questions for the most part don’t go past the high-school level.

      The most difficult question (involving a straightforward application of Bayes’ Rule) was answered correctly by only 3 percent of the participants.

      So the actual level of scientific/mathematical expertise assessed by the study (relative to what one would actually need to assess the work of climate-scientists) ranges from zero to very little.

      The only conclusion that can be reached runs along the lines of, “A little knowledge is dangerous”. Those who accept the scientific consensus are generally aware of the limitations of their expertise, while those who don’t are much less aware of their own limitations.

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  3. Ian M says:

    I have a chemical engineering degree.

    I believe climate change is very real and in large part caused by increased CO2 in the atmosphere as a result of human activity. I also believe there is very little we can do about it. We would need to reduce our CO2 emissions by about 60% to START decreasing atmospheric CO2. This will not happen. It’s as simple as that.

    I DO try to conserve all forms of energy because our fossil fuels are finite. No sane person can argue with that, no matter which side of global warming they land on.

    I think the only hope to reduce global warming is to partially block sunlight. If, of course, reducing global warming is necessary at all. Why is it assumed to be necessarily a bad thing in its entirety?

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    • Clifton Griffin says:

      Because it serves the means of the powerful.

      By this measure, everyone is part of the problem and can be reasonably subjugated for the purpose of saving us all.

      Unsurprisingly, most proposals (except for the partial sunblock theory that a few of us Freakenomics fans happen to be familiar with :) ) focus on wealth destruction and transference. Example A: Take money from rich, pollution societies and transfer it to poor, non-polluting societies to compensate them for the problems we’re creating. Example B: Reduce production, transportation, and every other industrial activity.

      Which ignores the more scary people in this discussion that believe overpopulation is the real problem. *shudders*

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    • pawnman says:

      More nuclear power, less coal power. Unfortunately, many in the environmental lobby see nuclear power as an even worse boogeyman than global warming or even mundane air pollution.

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  4. Eric M. Jones says:

    No surprise. I also note that sailors and pilots–people who view the vastness of the world, are rarely concerned about AGW.

    I am constantly amazed that “Climate Change” has left the science sphere and crawled over to the public-opinion sphere. Sunspots, or Xray stars, for example, don’t seem to have done this. When I hear people who have virtually no real understanding of science expound on AGW, I am mortified. Better that they spend their time on overpopulation or financial collapse, which they might actually be able to do something about.

    As far as AGW, maybe humans caused much of it. The numbers don’t indicate that humans can fix it, nor are likely to fix it, in this century or the next.

    Oh yes, the Sun has now gone into a cooling phase. Oops….

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  5. Gary says:

    A major component of scientific practice should be questioning and testing of results. The present situation has some prominent climate scientists attempting to reject this as exemplified by the following quotations:

    “Why should I show you my data when all you want to do is find something wrong with it?” – Dr. Phil Jones

    “Given that global warming is “unequivocal”, to quote the 2007 IPCC report, the null hypothesis should now be reversed, thereby placing the burden of proof on showing that there is no human influence [on the climate].” – Dr. Kevin Trenberth

    This study by Kahan supports the idea that people who are more science- and math-literate and haven’t become ideologues actually recognize how the scientific method works and has successfully advanced our knowledge for the last 400 years.

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    • caerbannog says:

      What’s really amazing about the whole Jones/CRU kerfuffle is that the CRU’s global-temperature results (the focus of most of the abuse leveled against the CRU) can be independently confirmed without access to a single sample of the CRU’s data or a single line of the CRU’s computer code.

      And it turns out that vetting the CRU’s global temperature results isn’t very difficult at all — all of the raw data needed to perform an independent check of the CRU’s results are freely available to the public (and have been for many years), as are all the necessary software-development/data-analysis tools.

      The temperature anomaly gridding/averaging procedure used by the CRU is straightforward and well documented, and for someone with programming experience, is easy to code up. You can get results surprisingly close to the CRU’s (or NASA’s, or NOAA’s) officially published results by running the publicly-available raw temperature data through this simple procedure.

      All you need are a laptop, and Internet connection, some software development experience, and some free time. For someone who is up to speed with C++/Java/whatever, the whole project should not take more than a few days.

      A good programmer/analyst could do all of this in far less time than skeptics have spent filing FOI requests.

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  6. James says:

    I have to wonder how the study determined how scientifically literate the respondents were. In my experience, at least, understanding the science of global warming moves the question from one of belief to one of simple calculation.

    Perhaps part of the problem here is linguistic. We’re stuck with the use of the word “belief” to cover a whole range of possibilites, from scientific certainties “I believe the Earth orbits the Sun” to statistical probabilities “I believe there’s a 60% chance of showers today” to completely untestable matters of faith “I believe in the Flying Spagetti Monster ’cause he touched me with His Noodly Appendage”. Scientifically calculable facts re global warming are thus, by a trick of linguistic, placed on the same footing as religious opinions.

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    • John B says:

      The word “belief” was coined by the AGW supporters.

      Belief belongs to religions, not science.

      Unfortunately, most AGW people treat global warming )sorry: climate change) in a religious manner.

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      • James says:

        Sorry, but no. The word “belief” has been in the English language for centuries, and AFAIK had the same (mis)usage.

        It’s also quite obvious that the AGW denialists resort to belief – in the negative “I don’t believe” sense – as much, if not more, than those who understand the science of AGW.

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    • Moptop says:

      Read the study. They asked respondents unrelated questions about science, non political ones, then asked the questions. Had you read the study, you might have realized that your own post is wishful thinking.

      There are questions to be answered, posed by people whose professional training require them to be answered before accepting a statement as proven, that simply have not been answered. It is that simple. Sorry if you can’t understand it. Have you studied math or a mathematically based science at the university level? “Computer science” doesn’t count, no matter what that guy at Deltoid says.

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      • James says:

        Yes, as a matter of fact my BS is in Math & Physics (though the MS & PhD are in Computer Engineering, alas, ’cause the pay’s generally better). I also worked in the atmospheric sciences field for several years, mostly doing analysis programs for regional-scale weather models. (Google “MM5″ (NCAR’s Mesoscale Model 5) if you want to know more.) You could even find my name as co-author on a few publications, if I didn’t like my privacy.

        Unfortunately for your thesis, there are only three important questions related to AGW, which have all been answered beyond any reasonable doubt:

        1) Is atmospheric CO2 increasing? Yes, because we’ve been measuring it daily for half a century, sporadically for a century or two before that, and through various proxies for some hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years.

        2) Is this CO2 coming from fossil fuels? Yes: the increase matches economic data on the amount of fossil fuel burned (after allowing for some oceanic absorbtion &c), radioisotope data show that the CO2 is from fossil sources, etc.

        3) Does CO2 block IR radiation? Yes, as shown by laboratory & real-world experiments.

        The rest is a simple matter of deduction.

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      • Sean Estey says:

        4) is the climate sensitive or insensitive to CO2 emissions? We know very little of the behavior of weather feedbacks (precipitation and cloud formation systems) in response, which may mitigate most of the warming, thus making accurate computer modeling impossible.

        5) even if the climate system turns out to be sensitive to CO2 and causes rapid warming, is switching to more expensive energy sources or reducing emissions worth the economic and social costs?(retarding economic growth of developing countries and thus making them less able to absorb the impact of climate change)

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  7. Joshua Northey says:

    “more skeptical about the *consequences* of climate change”.

    There is the rub.

    I think the science about *what is happening/current trends* is generally accurate, but when giving the accompanying narrative the research frequently gives completely inappropriate and scientifically unfounded narrative on the *consequences/human impacts*.

    I would consider myself highly literate and numerate. I don’t work in science, but did very well at it in school and devote a fair amount of leisure time to reading journals and listening to podcasts regarding recent developments. There are several things going on IHMO.

    1) This is news people don’t want to hear and there has been an active disinformation campaign about it, scientists in an effort to overcome this, try to personalize the stories in a way that leads to exaggerating consequences.
    2) Scientists studying the climate/ecosystem correlate extremely strongly with those people who value it intrinsically most highly, they see the loss of polar bears as a major loss to the world, others who don’t hold polar bears as intrinsically valuable don’t see it as an issue.
    3) Your article about how the climate in Iowa is getting slightly drier isn’t going to get picked up in a major journal. On the other hand your article called “THE END OF CORN” very well might.
    4) Grant applications and compensation committees depend on having big splashy research with large implications and media attention, not on accurate science.

    Just to be clear I think humans are warming the planet through there activity, and this will have a lot of noticeable effects on the world around us. I just don’t think those effects will be that important or difficult to manage. Habitat destruction is at least as much, if not more of a concern if you intrinsically value the ecosystem.

    When you see an article in a major journal stating sea level rise will make New York City is a total loss and we need to relocate everybody, and then later read the rise is 1.5ft over 100 years; You know that they are exaggerating consequences. New York City’s mean elevation is 15ft, sure some of the city might need to be given up, or expensive projects commissioned, but this is not some existential threat, it will not involve relocating the city. Subtle exaggerations like that happen all the time in the narrative sections of articles and it undermines the overall credibility of the science (which is regrettable).

    There is also the whole side issue of warming actually being good for the planet as it will increase the carrying capacity and free up a lot of unusable land, but that is a debate for 50 or 100 years from now.

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    • Mike B says:

      I blame the complete lack of intellectual debate and genuine options on how to mitigate climate change as the root case of this massive pushback on the generally accepted science. For both sides the debate takes the form of IF Greenhouse Gas Induced Climate Change THEN Reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions. Therefore the battle has been completely centered on the entire validity of Greenhouse Gas Induced Climate Change. The skeptics feel if they lose on that point the floodgates will be opened and they’ll be driving around on mopeds for the rest of their lives. To their detriment principle proponents of climate change have been trying to reduce “human impact” on the environment for decades and they view this as the best wedge through which to deal with a whole host of environmental problems from land use to transportation policy.

      What we need are some rational folks that can say that Climate Change IS real, humans DO have a hand in it, BUT it is not an excuse to give up our modern way of life. Instead of trying to raise the cost of climate change so that the benefit of CO2 reduction become viable, why not find cheaper alternatives? From reducing the emissions of warming gases that serve no useful purpose like methane to cheap geoengineering solutions such as ocean iron seeding or stratospheric particulate injection, we can have our cake and eat it to. That’s called progress.

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    • James says:

      “1) This is news people don’t want to hear and there has been an active disinformation campaign about it…”

      That’s the problem in a nutshell.

      “…sea level rise will make New York City is a total loss…”

      There’s another part of the problem: people who think New York City is not a total loss already :-) I suppose it goes along with the having to “give up our modern way of life” objection. It is, I admit, a lot easier to accept the need for change if you’re not all that attached to conventional ideas of the modern lifestyle.

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  8. Nosybear says:

    Could it be that we, the more scientifically literate, realize that journalists on the whole do not understand the technical information or even how a scientist would answer the question? For example, if you ask me what could happen, I will give you the “tails” of the distribution but if you ask me what’s likely to happen, I’ll give you the middle. So when I’m told the ocean “could” rise by fifty meters, I’m likely to think this is the unlikely scenario, an extreme. On the other hand, if you tell me the ocean is “likely to” rise two meters, I expect it. The “could” scenario is much more interesting than the “likely” scenario so is more likely to get reported. Much like reporting drug A doubles your chance of coming down with some disease so rare House couldn’t diagnose it, they just don’t quite understand what they’re saying, to the detriment of science as a whole.

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    • Roy says:

      Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method is a helluva book.

      Or is it University of Illinois Press?

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