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.

Clifton Griffin

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.


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.

Clifton Griffin

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.

Matthew Philips

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.

Clifton Griffin

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.

Ian M

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?

Clifton Griffin

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*

Eric M. Jones

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....


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.


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.



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.

John B

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.


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.

Joshua Northey

"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.


Mike B

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.



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.


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

Or is it University of Illinois Press?


I am very science literate and am skeptical because I have seen too many times in "science" when the consensus was sure of itself and was wrong- from world being flat, earth being center of universe, to estrogens are good for postmenopausal women to protect against heart disease, to milk is good for ulcers, to a patient has to rest for 6 weeks after a heart attack, to ethanol fuel is good for the environment, to predictions hundreds of years ago we were going to run out of food. I think I recall in the 70s the experts predicted the earth cooling.


Regarding "experts predicting cooling in the 70's", you remember incorrectly.

A solid majority of the journal articles relevant to the subject predicted warming even back then. Furthermore, the most widely cited paper that skeptics claim predicted cooling back then (the Rasool/Schneider paper) did no such thing. That paper merely stated (incorrectly, in retrospect) that a *quadrupling* of sulfate emissions from their early '70s peak could cause enough cooling to bring an end to the current interglacial.

But sulfate emissions *didn't* quadruple; they started *declining* (due to antipollution measures in America and Europe). So the Rasool/Schneider paper basically made a projection for a scenario that never came to be.

Later on, Schneider realized that he and Rasool had erred by failing to apply Hansen's radiation/convection model to enough of the atmosphere -- when they extended it to the stratosphere (which they should have done in the first place), the projected CO2 warming *did* turn out to be enough to offset sulfate-driven cooling.

Details can be found on page 42 in Schneider's book, "Science as a Contact Sport".



Makes perfect sense. The average person has a poor understanding of how science really works. They don't understand the starts and stutters, the wrong roads sometimes taken, or the ...gasp... politics and money that can influence things.

People who are scientifically literate understand that the back room is full of ideas that we were gosh darn sure of until a better explanation came along. They've seen things they were taught as students 'revised' along they way.

Most mature scientists have a healthy dose of humble caution. The global warming crowd could use a bit of that.


Joe is correct. The global warmers certainly could use a little humility in their certainty about things. Al Gore was no great college student and does not have much of a scientific background but criticizes those that disagree saying it is accepted by scientists that there is definitely global warming. He is probably correct that there is global warming but perhaps not. Show a little humility as you may be wrong.


A big part of this is that as someone who is aware of just how ebb and flow science is (is salt bad for you or not?) I am extremely skeptical of anyone who claims to be so certain of anything short of a theory that's been tested as well as relativity or quantum mechanics. For instance, this type of flailing:

On the other hand I think we've seen more than enough evidence that evolution happens even if we're still arguing about the hows and whys - you just have to be careful on what you're claiming to have proven.


So what does this tell us about the real threat of AGW. Nothing, it's a psychology study and nothing more.

Another failure by Freakonomics justify conservative thought.

Mike B

I have noticed that people who are more math and science literate are simply able to come up with better excuses on why the problem should be ignored. Mostly it is along the lines of "the climate is changing, but there are uncertainties on the causation (insert some scientific or statistical factoids they read somewhere online) THEREFORE we shouldn't bother trying to curb CO2 emissions.

The fact that every person who follows this argument lasers in on how the whole CO2 reduction campaign is a giant waste of time completely highlights their bias. They aren't focused on the science or the real problems accosted with climate change, they simply don't want to give up/pay more for their energy.

In all honesty I find the less scientific arguments to be the most persuasive. We have a closed system and year after year we are burning up billions of tones of carbon and sticking it in the atmosphere. Once people get past the whole "Humans can't hurt God's creation" hangup this is a very persuasive argument. Once people are able to go out and find scientific "alternate explanations" that will latch onto them because its a way out of having to confront some hard choices.

My main disappointment with this is that people put so much energy into denial instead of technical solutions to the problem like Geoengineering or economic solutions...just paying the costs of a changed climate. For this I blame the the ecomentalists who have for decades presented the solution as giving up our modern way of life to live in a yurt eating bean sprouts and bicycling to work every day. They have so scared the rest of the population that they will mentally do whatever it takes to avoid this distorted vision of a Carbon Neutral future.


Joshua Northey

"The fact that every person who follows this argument lasers in on how the whole CO2 reduction campaign is a giant waste of time completely highlights their bias. They aren’t focused on the science or the real problems accosted with climate change, they simply don’t want to give up/pay more for their energy. "

I don't think that is entirely fair. From a personal perspective:

I think that we will eventually decide we do want to warm the planet.
I am very skeptical about some of the proposed consequences of the warming.

Yet I don't think we should just be changing the atmosphere without thought and should get our emissions under control so that we can do things with intention and purpose instead of on accident.
I also think we need to get population growth under control, and stop being so focused on solving societal problems with economic growth (at least the type of growth that requires more and more energy/material/land).
I don't use an air conditioner or car unless absolutely necessary (for years I have biked 5-15 miles to work each day, kept the air conditioner at 80 and the heat at 64).
I am perfectly willing to pay 10 times as much for my electricity if it would mean none of it was produced by burning stuff (I am not going to do it unilaterally as that will change nothing and cost me a large amount of money).

So here is an example of someone who would supposedly has "bias" according to your position, yet is perfectly willing to adopt lifestyle changes that in my experience maybe <5% of the people in my class are willing to adopt.



The trouble with climate change is simply that we don't know what we don't know. Are human activities impacting phenomena like the greenhouse effect? To what extent? It's difficult to really see what is natural and what is caused by man. The same goes for efforts to reduce human impact on the environment, do these efforts really work? Or do they just make us feel better about ourselves for trying?

Fiona Hamer

I like the bathtub analogy.
If water is flowing into a tub and flowing out at roughly the same rate, give or take a few surges or blockages , it will remain at a similar level.
If you turn on an extra tap, no matter if it's just a trickle in comparison, the same tub will overflow eventually.
Human emissions are that extra trickle.


Very pity that he had so little information.

Harold Faulkner


People in the USA, are being told by the U.S. government and media that global warming is man-made. If that is true, how can the government and media explain the high temperatures the earth has experienced in past years when there were far fewer people? Let us look back in the world's history: for example, between roughly 900AD and 1350AD the temperatures were much higher than now. And, back then there were fewer people, no cars, no electric utilities, and no factories, etc. So what caused the earth's heat? Could it be a natural occurrence? The temperature graph at the bottom of this article shows the temperatures of the earth before Christ to 2040.

In the book THE DISCOVERERS published in February 1985 by Daniel J. Boorstin, beginning in chapter 28, it goes into detail about Eric the Red, the father of Lief Ericsson, and how he discovered an island covered in green grass.

In approximately 983AD, Eric the Red committed murder, and was banished from Iceland for three years. Eric the Red sailed 500 miles west from Iceland and discovered an island covered in GREEN grass, which he named Greenland. Greenland reminded Eric the Red of his native Norway because of the grass, game animals, and a sea full of fish. Even the air provided a harvest of birds. Eric the Red and his crew started laying out sites for farms and homesteads, as there was no sign of earlier human habitation.

When his banishment expired, Eric the Red returned to congested Iceland to gather Viking settlers. In 986, Eric the Red set sail with an emigrant fleet of twenty-five ships carrying men, women, and domestic animals. Unfortunately, only fourteen ships survived the stormy passage, which carried about four-hundred-fifty immigrants plus the farm animals. The immigrants settled on the southern-west tip and up the western coast of Greenland.

After the year 1200AD, the Earth’s and Greenland’s climate grew colder; ice started building up on the southern tip of Greenland. Before the end of 1300AD, the Viking settlements were just a memory. You can find the above by searching Google. One link is:

The following quote you can also read about why there is global warming. This is from the book EINSTEIN’S UNIVERSE, Page 63, written by Nigel Calder in 1972, and updated in 1982.

"The reckoning of planetary motions is a venerable science. Nowadays it tells us, for example, how gravity causes the ice to advance or retreat on the Earth during the ice ages. The gravity of the Moon and (to a lesser extent) of the Sun makes the Earth's axis swivel around like a tilted spinning top. Other planets of the Solar System, especially Jupiter, Mars and Venus, influence the Earth's tilt and the shape of its orbit, in a more-or-less cyclic fashion, with significant effects on the intensity of sunshine falling on different regions of the Earth during the various seasons. Every so often a fortunate attitude and orbit of the Earth combine to drench the ice sheets in sunshine as at the end of the most recent ice age, about ten thousand years ago. But now our relatively benign interglacial is coming to an end, as gravity continues to toy with our planet."

The above points out that the universe is too huge and the earth is too small for the earth’s population to have any effect on the earth’s temperature. The earth’s temperature is a function of the sun’s temperature and the effects from the many massive planets in the universe, i.e., “The gravity of the Moon and (to a lesser extent) of the Sun makes the Earth's axis swivel around like a tilted spinning top. Other planets of the Solar System, especially Jupiter, Mars and Venus, influence the Earth's tilt and the shape of its orbit, in a more-or-less cyclic fashion, with significant effects on the intensity of sunshine falling on different regions of the Earth during the various seasons.”

Read below about carbon dioxide, which we need in order to exist. You can find the article below at:


Of the 186 billion tons of carbon from CO2 that enter earth's atmosphere each year from all sources, only 6 billion tons are from human activity. Approximately 90 billion tons come from biologic activity in earth's oceans and another 90 billion tons from such sources as volcanoes and decaying land plants.

At 380 parts per million CO2 is a minor constituent of earth's atmosphere--less than 4/100ths of 1% of all gases present. Compared to former geologic times, earth's current atmosphere is CO2- impoverished.

CO2 is odorless, colorless, and tasteless. Plants absorb CO2 and emit oxygen as a waste product. Humans and animals breathe oxygen and emit CO2 as a waste product. Carbon dioxide is a nutrient, not a pollutant, and all life-- plants and animals alike-- benefit from more of it. All life on earth is carbon-based and CO2 is an essential ingredient. When plant-growers want to stimulate plant growth, they introduce more carbon dioxide.

CO2 that goes into the atmosphere does not stay there, but continuously recycled by terrestrial plant life and earth's oceans-- the great retirement home for most terrestrial carbon dioxide.

If we are in a global warming crisis today, even the most aggressive and costly proposals for limiting industrial carbon dioxide emissions and all other government proposals and taxes would have a negligible effect on global climate!

The government is lying, trying to use global warming to limit, and tax its citizens through “cap and trade” and other tax schemes for the government’s benefit. We, the people cannot allow this to happen.

A temperature graph normally goes here that shows the Earth's Temperature from -2400 to guesses in +2400.

If the Earth's temperature graph is not shown above, you can see this temperature graph at the link:


Fiona Hamer

Once again, a long collection of unrelated or incorrect "facts" leading to a false conclusion. The Medieval Warm Period was not warm all over the globe (as now). A few areas were as warm as current (local) temperatures but most were not. The fact that climate has varied in the past does not mean that current changes are free of human causation.
I think this is a perfect example of the original premise, that people with some scientific literacy may use the information they find to reinforce their own existing beliefs.
There are, however, increasing quantities of really useful information out there.


Woefully late to the party (bad Freak, reading the book so long after release), but I was really disappointed that the earlier theme of "I don't know" was not addressed.

The question of "How much risk do you believe climate change poses to human health, safety, or prosperity?" is not readily answered. I'd go so far as to say it's a bad question and a big part of the reason people ignore the issue. Credibility of those making claims on either side is questionable. How much risk over what time frame? In my lifetime: none. In 5 generations: maybe up the middle. At some point long in the future: critical. Adjunct question: can anything we do make a significant impact? I don't know. What I do know is a 10% reduction in what humans generate won't matter, and though we should continue to influence, America putting themselves at a serious economic disadvantage to cut at best 25% while China adds 10 times that amount makes no sense. Not to mention consideration of the next country to modernize.



I simply couldn't depart your web site prior to suggesting that
I really loved the usual info an individual supply onn your
visitors? Is going to be back frequently to inspect new posts

Feel free to surf to my homepage: Employment Regulations

[WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us '0 which is not a hashcash value.


Keep on working, great job!

Visit my website:

[WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us '0 which is not a hashcash value.


Very descriptive article, I liked that a lot. Will there be a part 2?

Feel free to surf to my blog post - Denese

[WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us '0 which is not a hashcash value.