How We Perceive the Weather

(Photo: Edwin S)

A new study looks at how ideological and political beliefs affect people’s perceptions of the weather. The authors surveyed 8,000 people across the U.S. between 2008 and 2011 and found that while floods and droughts were remembered correctly, temperature changes were a different story. From Ars Technica:

In fact, the actual trends in temperatures had nothing to do with how people perceived them. If you graphed the predictive power of people’s perceptions against the actual temperatures, the resulting line was flat—it showed no trend at all. In the statistical model, the actual weather had little impact on people’s perception of recent temperatures. Education continued to have a positive impact on whether they got it right, but its magnitude was dwarfed by the influences of political affiliation and cultural beliefs.

And those cultural affiliations had about the effect you’d expect. Individualists, who often object to environmental regulations as an infringement on their freedoms, tended to think the temperatures hadn’t gone up in their area, regardless of whether they had. Strong egalitarians, in contrast, tended to believe the temperatures had gone up.

The authors conclude that climate change has become perceived as a form of cultural affiliation for most people: their acceptance of it is mostly a way of reinforcing their ties to the political and ideological communities they belong to. And, since temperatures have become the primary thing the public associates with climate change, people now interpret the temperatures through a filter based on their affiliations, a process termed “cultural cognition.” In other words, we tend to interpret the temperatures in a way that reinforces our identity, and our connections with others who share similar political persuasions.

That’s what Dan Kahan and Ellen Peters of the Cultural Cognition Project told us in our podcast “The Truth Is Out There…Isn’t It?” In fact, Kahan and Peters have found that people who are more scientifically literate are better at collecting information that confirm their beliefs, and it happens because people want to fit in with friends and colleagues.

(HT: Scott Kominers)

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  1. Molly says:

    In my opinion, the reason “scientific fact” (I’m not even talking about global warming – oops, climate change – here, just temperature change) is not universally believed it because of the lying alarmists. They make movies and spread exaggerations that are designed to make people afraid, and then people find out they are liars, and then, naturally, tend to be dismissive of any possible real claims. Fool me once…

    When people realize that Al Gore bought a house that he “claims” will be underwater in a few years, or has a $1000/month light bill, people start to get suspicious that maybe the situation isn’t as dire as he says. When the Kyoto Accords exempted China, Russia, and India, Americans started to wonder why we should have a massive wealth transfer to corrupt governments. When the EPA is given the power to regulate carbon dioxide, climate change continues to feel like a political football.

    And all the alarmists who are caught in lies? You are responsible for making people reject climate change. Sort of “Boy Who Cried Wolf.” How can we trust liars to tell us the truth?

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    • climate-ology says:

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    • James says:

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      • J1 says:

        ?

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      • Molly says:

        James, I didn’t say anything about my beliefs, neither climate, religious, nor computer. What I DID say is that when people try to scare us through lies, those people are much harder to take seriously. Whether they are telling the truth or not. “Okay, LAST time, I lied, but THIS time, it’s true, I swear.” So when you find out data has been suppressed, misreported, or altered, the whole climate debate becomes suspect.

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    • Travis says:

      You realize there’s “boy who cried wolf” on both sides of the fence, right? When one side argues (reasonable) prudence, the other cries it will be the end of the economy, everyone will lose their jobs, and the US will be over.

      The fact is, your post just confirms the article: we seek out justification for theories that match the tenor of our ideology.

      The “alarmists” on one side of the fence are no more responsible for climate change deniers than the “alarmists” on the other side of the fence who claim doing anything will be the end of the world as well. It just seems you’ve latched onto one, rather than the other (based entirely on who you’re criticizing), based on what is presumably your political ideology.

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  2. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Just FYI:

    Noon, July 1913. Furnace Creek (so named because the springwater comes out of the ground at 85-95 degrees.) in Death Valley, California, is 134F degrees. People exaggerate when describing heat, but this was truly other-worldly. This had been a record-hot summer. Several times the temperature has passed 130F. To walk any distance in the sun sucked the water out of the body at quarts-per-hour. The weather station’s white louvered instrument box where the official Death Valley temperature was recorded every day is about a mile out on the salt flat from the road several miles distant where it runs past the brine pool called Badwater. It typically runs about three degrees hotter than Furnace Creek since it is almost 100 feet lower elevation–the lowest point in the western hemisphere. So on that July day, the Death Valley meteorologist steps looks outside at noon and says….”I sure as hell ain’t going out there….” Thus the official highest temperature ever reached in the Western Hemisphere, 137F degrees, was actually, and unapologetically, absolutely unofficial.

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  3. weatherwoman says:

    I don’t know about you, but I have always loved `climate’ changes so long as not detrimental to human health and well-being (such as a rainy day in the Hamptons, the first snow, Maine in October), the big snow day (when it’s impossible to dig out) and London on a rainy day. Reminds me of that movie “Singing in the Rain.” when I think of Palm Beach in the early morning, that tempting beach and the windy movements of the Palm trees, I think of Peter Pan and Captain Hook singing as he’s running from the ticking clock of the alligator.

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  4. Caleb B says:

    @ Molly

    Thank you. This exactly encompasses my belief. I’ll grant climate change, but to what consequence? Why do I care if the ocean rises 10 feet, or 30, or 100? Won’t people just move further inland? Venice has been underwater for a while…they are okay.

    1) how bad will it really get?
    2) humans will survive anyway, we’re like cockroaches in that way.

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  5. Daniel says:

    Everyone asked made up whatever they wanted to believe. No one remembers the weather last Tuesday much less remembers the weather a year ago, or even more crazy the general temperature trend over the past few years. This is why we collect data, so we don’t have to rely on biased recollections.

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  6. Rib says:

    I may be a skeptic about the actual rate of climate change but pollution is an undeniable man-made fact happening all over the world. I’d like to one day go to Bejing and actually see the skyline. I can’t dip my toes into the Potomac River without fear of losing them. There are steps we can take now that may satisfy both sides of the political/ideological fence.

    Affordable rooftop solar panels that supply all of my household electrical needs? I’ll buy them. Electric cars/trucks that can pull my boat? Sign me up. How about a lawnmower that runs on biofuels? Done.

    I know we are heading in this direction anyway but why not the bigger push? There are JOBS here just waiting to be created. And I dont care who does it, Oil companies, utilities, MIT, or some startup in Idaho. Just somebody make it happen. Whether your incentives are environmental or economic, why are we not all on board here?

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  7. robyn says:

    The limitation of research to data is already a bias.

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  8. Joe J says:

    There is also a releatively unexplored location bias. People with common beliefs often live near each other. The fabled red state blue state is partially a myth, when you look at the red/blue map on a county basis you see a more dramatic location shifting. Which pretty much is urban are very blue, non urban is very red.
    In a city you get high concentrations of people, cars (heat sources), no trees (heat sinks), blacktop covering everything (heat absorber/storer) and a million AC units running at full blast ( pouring heat into the outside, and making a noticeable difference between temp inside and outside).
    In non-urban areas you have the opposite, shady trees, people working outside in the elements more, (less radical difference between inside and outside temp)
    I’ve heard that cities are about 10 degrees warmer than if the same location were country.
    SOme of the warming hype is purely due to local weather of cities becoming even hotter, while the rest of the weather, not so much.

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