Summary: A recent study concludes that individuals with greater scientific comprehension tend to apply that skill in ways that reinforce their existing value commitments. This is an example of what is known as motivated reasoning. Ironically, a ‘skeptical’ climate change blogger misconstrues the study to claim that it supports the cause of climate change skeptics (read denialists), when in fact precisely the opposite is the case. Now read on…..
The blogosphere has become one of the prime arenas for furious disagreement about climate change and for attacks on the ‘establishment’ institutions of peer-reviewed science. The strong feelings aroused by this particular topic, combined with the easy anonymity afforded by the Internet — particularly for those submitting comments about blog posts — create the perfect conditions for the expression of highly charged and polarized opinions.
What are the factors contributing to such vehement rejection of mainstream scientific findings in this case? Is it simply a problem of people not being scientifically literate enough to understand the agreed facts of the situation as described by the overwhelming majority of climate scientists?
This question has been explored in a recent paper by Dan Kahan et al published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change, entitled ‘The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risk‘.
I will get to the findings of this paper in a moment. The findings in themselves are fascinating, but what makes them doubly fascinating is how they were interpreted in a recent post on Australian Climate Madness (ACM). ACM is a blog maintained by Simon Turnill, who states that he is not a climate change denialist — although that may be a matter for debate.
Of particular interest for our purposes is the ACM post on 29 May 2012, Climate fears decrease with increasing scientific literacy. This post offers the following comment about the paper, including interpolations next to graphs extracted from the paper:
Who’da thunk it? The more you know about science, the less likely you are to worry about “global warming”. One of the great myths is that people are sceptical of the global warming scare because they are scientifically ignorant – people like me for example, with a degree in Engineering from the University of Cambridge.
So they assumed that as scientific literacy increased, fear of climate catastrophe would similarly increase:
So it was a bit of a blow when the results were precisely the opposite:
One small problem. The ACM post has thoroughly misunderstood the research results and their significance. The paper is actually a scientific test of two competing explanations for how people develop opinions on climate change. One explanation is the ‘scientific comprehension thesis’, which says that people who understand more about science and scientific reasoning will be more likely to be concerned about the risks of climate change. The other explanation is the ‘cultural cognition thesis’, which holds that people’s degree of concern about climate change will be a result of their psychological world view which is in turn influenced by the values of the groups with which they identify.
The research tested these propositions in a representative sample of 1500 American citizens. In the aggregate, the study found that ‘higher degrees of science literacy and numeracy are associated with a small decrease in the perceived seriousness of climate changes risks’. Thus at first glance, the scientific comprehension thesis seemed to be disproved — as per the conclusion of the ACM post.
However, the researchers then dug deeper and tested the cultural cognition thesis. To do this, they used questionnaire items to measure two dimensions of cultural cognition: the ‘hierarchical, individual world view’ and ‘egalitarian, communitarian worldview’. These dimensions are well-studied in the psychological literature. Repeated research findings show that hierarchical individualists tend to support more regimented forms of social organisation, oppose government interference in commerce and industry, and are sceptical of environmental risks. Egalitarian communitarians are more likely to favour less regimented forms of social organisation and favour collective regulation of commerce and industry, including regulation to reduce risks.
As expected, these two groups had very different perceptions of the risks of climate change: the hierachical individualists rated climate change as much less of a concern than did the egalitarian communitarians. Kahan et al conclude that cultural cognition factors explain more of the variation in perceptions about climate change risk than does scientific literacy and numeracy.
But the researchers then went one step further. They looked at the levels of scientific literacy and numeracy within each of these cultural cognition groups, and at how these levels correlated with degree of concern about climate change. And here they found a very interesting result: Within the egalitarian communitarian group, concern about climate change increased with increasing scientific literacy and numeracy. But for the hierachical individualists, concern decreased with increasing scientific literacy. See the results portrayed in the graphs on the right, below.
This result confirms the explanatory power of the cultural cognition thesis. People tend to select, process and interpret information in ways that are consistent with the values of the social and cultural groups with which they identify. For those who have greater scientific literacy and numeracy, it merely means that they will be more skillful in fitting incoming information into their pre-existing cognitive frameworks:
For ordinary citizens, the reward for acquiring greater scientific knowledge and more reliable technical reasoning capacities is a greater facility to discover and use — or explain away — evidence relating to their groups’ positions.
This conclusion is consistent with the growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience about ‘motivated reasoning’, in which we tend to select, interpret and react to information and evidence in such a way as to confirm our prior emotional commitments and values.
In summary, the ACM blog post has misconstrued the findings of the Kahan et al study, which does not confirm the scientific comprehension thesis in any straightforward way (in either a positive or negative direction). Contrary to what the ACM post implies, greater scientific literacy does not simply reduce the perceived risks of climate change — to draw this conclusion is to ignore the true complexity of the various factors at work.
Ironically, the ACM post is itself a classic case of motivated reasoning, which seeks to frame the Kahan et al findings as somehow supporting the cause of climate change deniers (or ‘skeptics’), by implying that those who know more about science are more likely to perceive less risk in climate change.
In fact, this is quite the opposite to Kahan et al’s interpretation of their own findings. The authors suggest that cultural cognition, which is based the ‘personal interests’ of individuals in relation to fitting in with their peer and reference groups in daily life, can create a barrier to appreciating the true import of scientific information — in this case the findings of peer-reviewed climate change science:
Even if cultural cognition serves the personal interests of individuals, this form of reasoning can have a highly negative impact on collective decision making. What guides individual risk perception, on this account, is not the truth of those beliefs but rather their congruence with individuals’ cultural commitments. As a result, if beliefs about a societal risk such as climate change come to bear meanings congenial to some cultural outlooks but hostile to others, individuals motivated to adopt culturally congruent risk perceptions will fail to converge, or at least fail to converge as rapidly as they should, on scientific information essential to their common interests in health and prosperity. Although it is effectively costless for any individual to form a perception of climate-change risk that is wrong but culturally congenial, it is very harmful to collective welfare for individuals in aggregate to form beliefs this way.
Here the authors are getting towards the heart of the matter, the root of the unfortunate polarization of views about climate change. In short, if a set of scientific findings takes on additional meaning attributes which are not favoured by a particular cultural-cognitive group, then that group is likely not to accept the implications of those scientific findings. If, for example, climate change science is perceived as a ‘liberal’ (in the American sense of left-wing) plot to increase regulation of commerce and industry, then hierarchical individualists will likely not accept climate science.
The problem we face, therefore, is quite a bit more complex than just getting people to become more informed and learn about the findings of climate science. The question is how, or whether, this information can be presented in such a way that it does not overly polarize the debate by threatening the identify of various cultural-cognitive groups. Can we, as a human collectivity, rise above our inevitable differences in cognition and worldview, to agree on some actions to avoid what is shaping up to be a major threat to our continuing existence on this planet? Kahan et al make one practical suggestion, that we “create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values”. An encouraging thought, but we are still a long way from this.