by Phil Roeder
Last week, an intriguing study emerged from Dan Kahan and his colleagues at Yale and elsewhere–finding that knowing more about science, and being better at mathematical reasoning, was related to more climate science skepticism and denial–rather than less.
Kahan’s team simply structured a survey in a way that no one—to my knowledge, at least—has done before. In a sample of over 1,500 people, they gathered at least four different types of information: how much scientific literacy they possessed (e.g., how well they answered questions about things like the time it takes for the Earth to circle the sun and the relative sizes of electrons and atoms), how “numerate” they were (e.g., their ability to engage in mathematical reasoning), what their cultural values were (how much they favored individualism and hierarch in the ordering of society, as opposed to being egalitarian and communitarian), and what their views were on how serious a risk global warming is.
The surprise—for some out there, anyway—lay in how the ingredients of this stew mix together. For citizens as a whole, more literacy and numeracy were correlated with somewhat more, rather than somewhat less, dismissal of the risk of global warming. When you drilled down into the cultural groups, meanwhile, it turned out that among the hierarchical-individualists (aka, conservatives), the relationship between greater math and science knowledge and dismissal of climate risks was even stronger. (The opposite relationship occurred among egalitarian communitarians—aka liberals).
This is now the fifth study to show essentially the same thing – the more math and science a liberal has, the more likely they are to acknowledge AGW; the more math and science a conservative has, the less likely they are to acknowledge AGW.
The data from all these surveys show that this dichotomy, which is only seen in the US and not in Europe, derives from what political – especially conservative – leaders espouse. As the conservative leadership has become more and more disconnected with the science, so has the educated conservative population.
This is not to pick on conservatives as many liberals can be found espousing views about alternative medicine that hold no scientific validity.
It simply shows the common human trait of relying on leaders to provide simple heuristics and rules of thumb to deal with a complex world.
It also means that solving the problem is not a simple matter of convincing those who refuse to recognize the science that the science is correct. They do not acknowledge the science because of the fear that to do so would likely require them to acknowledge policy changes they find abhorrent.
As Upton Sinclair stated: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”
At base, it is not the science but the policy changes that the science might lead to that determines a skeptic’s views.
It is easier to deny AGW than to envision how to correct the problem using conservative principles. If, for the sake of argument, cap and trade was the only solution to AGW – I know it is not but this is a hypothetical – it becomes easier to simply deny AGW for a conservative. Just as a liberal would have a problem if the only solution was to give all our money to our billionaires.
But the real problem here is that there might be a conservative solution, or a moderate solution or one better than has been proposed. But since one side refuses to acknowledge the problem, that solution may never be espoused.
We are starting to see a few conservative leaders begin to acknowledge AGW. I expect more will in the next few years, simply because it is harder and harder to ignore the changes.
Perhaps then this dichotomy will reverse itself and we can actually have a discussion on how to fix the problem.