Scientific literacy and climate concern: An inverse relationship?

This story has been around a while, but I haven’t been blogging much lately so I am only getting around to it now.

“..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.”

So says a new paper. Troubling findings. Something’s not quite right, and am hoping to nail it down. “The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change,” by Harvard’s Dan Kahan et al. tested a sufficiently large sample size of Americans on basic science questions — questions that anyone with a high-school education should be able to answer correctly — and matched them up against the level of concern each had about climate change. The more science they knew the less worried they were. Huh.

My first thought was, what about that survey that found that the more educated Republicans were, the less likely they were to accept the science behind anthropogenic climate change:

Yet for Republicans, unlike Democrats, higher education is associated with greater skepticism that human activity is causing global warming. Only 19% of Republican college graduates say that there is solid evidence that the earth is warming and it is caused by human activity, while 31% of Republicans with less education say the same.

The Kahan team didn’t break down their respondents along party lines, but their conclusion hints at an explanation:

As ordinary people learn more science and become more proficient in modes of reasoning characteristic of scientific inquiry, they do not reliably converge on assessments of climate change risks supported by scientific evidence. Instead they more form [sic] beliefs that are even more reliably characteristic of persons who hold their particular cultural worldviews.

In other words, people don’t like to stand out. I suppose. And it’s obvious that there is less diversity among Republicans than Democrats, so that would explain some of the findings.

But I don’t follow Kahan and his team when they get deeper into the psychology of all this (emphasis mine):

That does not mean, however, that the ordinary member of the public will be harmed if she herself ignores or misinterprets scientific data relating to climate change. Her well-being will likely depend critically on whether her society, and others around the globe, implement policies consistent with the best available scientific evidence. But it would be peculiar for her to conclude that the likelihood that any society will adopt such policies will be affected by her own formation of correct beliefs. Nor is it plausible for the typical member of the public to imagine that anything she, as an individual, does–as a producer of carbon emissions, say, or as a voter in democratic elections–will by itself aggravate or reduce the dangers that climate change might pose. She is just not consequential enough one way or the other to matter (Downs 1957). Indeed, if the typical member of the public concluded that the scientific accuracy of her own perception of climate change risks was either a necessary or a sufficient condition for abatement of those risks, that belief would itself be evidence of irrationality.

Well yes, but does anyone outside a few crazies with messianic complexes believe that they can change the world single-handedly? No. What environmental activists believe is that change will only come about if a sufficient number of individuals act in concert. To define rational behavior so narrowly as to exclude accepting the wisdom of collective action seems odd to me.

Kahan et al. write a lot about the difference between “Individual expressive rationality” and “Collective welfare irrationality” but I am unimpressed. Surely embracing reality, regardless of the opinions of your peers, is more rational that rejecting it?

There is also the matter questions posed to evaluate scientific literacy were all that useful/ True or false?

  • The center of the Earth is very hot
  • All radioactivity is man-made
  • Lasers work by focusing sound waves
  • Electrons are smaller than atoms
  • Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
  • How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? [one day, one month, one year] 45%
  • It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl?
  • Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria

Perhaps another set of questions might have been invented that better gauged scientific literacy in matters related to the climate change?

31 Replies to “Scientific literacy and climate concern: An inverse relationship?”

  1. “CO2 Climate Change” isn’t about a changing climate. Climate Change is about CONTROLLING a changing climate. It comes from the New Age logic that we can CONTROL our climate since Humans are capable of “affecting” our climate and so therefore are “changing” it. “We must be doing something to the planet.”, is the grunt of modern day Omen Worshipping as they chant; “We see the changes. We see the changes….”
    The UN solution is to hand over the management of the temperature of the planet to Carbon Trading Markets run by corporations and politicians. Meanwhile, the UN had allowed carbon trading to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over 25 years of INSANE attempts at climate CONTROL.
    As we speak countless thousands of scientists are busy studying the effects of climate change and every single one of them including the science organizations all have their own special and unique definition of what climate change effects will be. This was a consultant’s w%t dream and when these lab coat consultants start studying causes instead of effects and when they are seen marching in the streets and ACTING like this is the “crisis” they say it is. Name one crisis that could be worse than a climate crisis because unstoppable warming is the death of the planet on the scale of a comet hit or nuclear war. You can’t have a little catastrophic climate crisis.

  2. ““CO2 Climate Change” isn’t about a changing climate.”

    Yes it is.

    “Climate Change is about CONTROLLING a changing climate.”

    No it isn’t.

  3. mm69 is a prime example of what this issue is about. Everywhere you turn, there’s another ill-informed rant claiming that all the science is wrong, and/or there’s a vast conspiracy. I’m impressed that he or she is able to post so much drivel in so many different places – it must be a full-time job.

    Here’s another relevant article for this topic: The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research I think this goes some way towards explaining the irrationally anti-science part of frank denialism.

  4. “Surely embracing reality, regardless of the opinions of your peers, is more rational that rejecting it?”

    The *rational* position is whichever one optimizes your over all well being. An individual being wrong about climate change as essentially zero effect on their well being*. Disagreeing with your cultural group can be psychologically painful.

    Similarly it is completely rational for utilities to run dirty old coal plants.

  5. Isn’t this just an instance of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”?

    It reminds me of creationists. Learning a little bit of genetics jargon just enables them to follow the pseudo-arguments of creation “scientists” or IDers.

  6. C02 climate change IS about a changing climate. If people looked more at the big picture instead of focusing on small details of their individuals’ lives, we could possibly help to slow down the increasing C02 levels. Simple changes could make a difference, but it would only work if a large group of people were dedicated to the cause.

    Also the world has been going through climate changes ever since it was first formed. The earth has gone through ice ages and warm periods for millions of years. C02 climate change could just be the world going through its cycle.

  7. What exactly is the “question”? I can imagine that more educated people might be more inclined to believe that climate change is happening and still be EVEN MORE inclined to believe that it can be coped with. Is that something they controlled for?

    And what was the level of education we’re talking about here? More then what? First grade to seventh grade?

    On the other hand, I have little trouble believing that somewhat educated people can be idiologically hardened. I can’t remember the reference but somewhere I came across a paper that tried to test the point that “reason” was generally taken by people not as a goal but as a tool for arguing a preconceived end, or to control others.

  8. 1: Most if not all research is into “effects” not causes. Thus the “consultant’s w^t dream”.
    2: All publicly funded research is believer and studies effects only.
    3: All private funded research is denier and of course only studies “causes”.
    4: Proof of exaggeration is the not just the fact that the number of scientists outnumbers the climate change protesters, but rather the fact that these concerned experts refuse to march in their countless thousands in the streets to convince us that even “THEY” think the crisis is real.
    NOTE: It was science and scientists who denied the harmful effects of their pesticides they gave us that polluted and poisoned the planet in the first place.

  9. Demanding we lower our imapact on the planet with our Human CO2 means climate change is about CONTROL of the climate. Insane!

  10. Nelly, what in the world are you talking about? Loads of publicly funded studies are dedicated to determining changes in aerosols, CO2, methane, solar output etc. etc. These are all causes of climate change. Tons of “private research” attempts to argue that 1) there is no effect 2) its minimal 3) its beneficial 4) it can’t be stopped (generally in that order as each preceding argument falls apart).

    As far as scientists marching, I get the feeling that you (like others) would attack the scientists as no longer objective and unbiased for following your advice. However, if you tried you could easily see that they are tearing their hair out trying to convince the world of the need to act.

    Finally, “science and scientists denied” is a nonsense statement. Which scientists? What evidence did they present? Are they the same “scientists” currently telling us that the mainstream climate change science is wrong?

  11. Grand excuses to avoid the obvious conclusion, that the more people know about climate science, the more they realize its mostly hype.

    Conversely, the less you know about science, the easier it is to scare you with scientific sounding propaganda.

    That would be the obvious conclusion.

  12. I think this is the same “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” phenomenon that leads many engineers to think that they know more about biology than biologists* and more cosmology than astrophysicists. There is a certain type of person who gets a broad but shallow education and then assumes they are universal experts.

    *I am an engineer and it baffles me how any competent engineer can argue for “intelligent design” unless they are totally ignorant of basic anatomy. And if after I retire I start sending physics professors pages of equations disproving Relativity, just shoot me.

  13. What about the possibility that highly educated Republicans are actually lying? Knowing that acceptance of the reality of Global Warming by the public at large will eventually hurt their team, they might decide to lie about it: the results of this survey may only affect the public opinion very marginally, but since the act of lying about one’s opinion in a survey is pretty much devoid of any cost, you can’t really say that it is too much effort for what it’s worth.

  14. It’s a dismally low standard for judging “scientific literacy”. Those are basic facts that everyone should know. A real gauge of scientific literacy would range into much deeper topics.

    And yeah, I know, the saddest thing is that some (many? most?) people do fail that test, even as simple as it is.

  15. Perhaps educated Republicans’ views on climate change have more to do with politics than science, in that they want to follow the party line rather than closely examine the fact and evidence.

  16. Nemo @15

    It’s a dismally low standard for judging “scientific literacy”.

    They set the bar so low that the Trinidad and Tobago Limbo Champion couldn’t go under it.

  17. Scary but this concerns a study with Americans, I am not sure it would be the same elsewhere, for example with Europeans or Africans. There is something strange sometimes with Americans in relation to their understanding of science when it comes in conflict with some of their beliefs (religious often) or when it directly impacts their vision of the American dream with happiness often linked to the possession of goods and the capacity to have, buy and consumme everything one wants, inverse notions of sobriety and frugality at the heart of sustainability.

  18. C02 climate change could just be the world going through its cycle.

    If only there were some kind of scientists who studied climate. I’ll bet they could figure out if it’s just the world going through its cycle or not. Oh well. Until that happens, I guess we’re just left with AlyssaL’s ponderings…

  19. Jim, I think one answer to your question is in the paper, where the authors say: “[t]he reliable capacity of individuals to conform their personal beliefs to those that predominate within their respective cultural groups prevents those groups from converging on beliefs that make all of their members materially better off.” I’ve only skimmed the paper, but I wonder if they stratified their survey population by income.

  20. “C02 climate change could just be the world going through its cycle.”


    CO2 affected the climate in the past and it will do so today and into the future.

    We’re producing an increase in CO2 now.

    Therefore the current climate is the earth responding to CO2 now like it always did. It’s not a “natural cycle”. It’s us.

  21. I tend to feel that you’re burying the lead here. The shocking finding of this study is not that people with a little scientific knowledge are less prone to panic. The shocking finding is this:

    Electrons are smaller than atoms. 62% correct
    Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? 72% correct
    How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? 45% correct
    Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. 68% correct

    The fact that, in the year 2011, one out of four people do not know that the Earth goes around the sun should be absolutely mind-blowing. That more than half of the country does not know how long it takes the Earth to go around the sun is positively insane.

    And how can we expect voters to make sensible decisions on health care policy when 1/3 of us don’t know the difference between viruses and bacteria?

    I realize this isn’t new information – these type of surveys come out every year and Americans consistently do horribly. But that doesn’t make it any less shocking.

  22. Largely agreeing with earlier commenters,

    1. Science literacy *should* equate to knowing enough about science to act as an informed citizen.

    2. Maybe acquisition & retention of a set of facts from publicly-undisputed scientific fields used to be sufficient, but it no longer is.
    (Epitome: earlier this year, Science Literacy proponent (and science textbook consultant and Smithsonian Magazine contributor) James Trefil of George Mason University told me he doubts climate science; saying “I’m not sure there is a reliable source per se for that field”.(link)

    3. Scientific literacy now needs to include assessing credibility of ‘experts’ – which requires a) an understanding that science works, & why (Peter Watts’s “science is alchemy” and b) the development of “street smarts” about PR tactics.

  23. “I realize this isn’t new information – these type of surveys come out every year and Americans consistently do horribly. But that doesn’t make it any less shocking.”

    I’ve seen those results, but typically they are from phone polls. So 28% think geocentrism may be correct – or are too busy making dinner, watching tv or whatever to know what the question actually was. Or they just like messing with someone who interrupted their dinner.

    But I haven’t read the methods for this paper.

  24. MathSkeptic “The fact that, in the year 2011, one out of four people do not know that the Earth goes around the sun should be absolutely mind-blowing.”

    It’s worse than that. This question was asked of a population which probably has darn few geocentrists (unlike Creationists, who actively believe incorrect things, and number in the tens of millions), and they only had two choices. I’m guessing that 28% got it wrong by guessing wrong, which means… 28% of those who got it right got it right by mindlessly guessing.

    Note the higher percent of wrong answers when asked how long this took, when they had more choices.

  25. Also (begin bloviate) an “abnormally high % of correct answers on science facts” contingent will be enriched (compared to lower-scoring ones) with fact-collector folk who’re prone to having trees-accurate-but-forest-deficient mindsets.
    (end bloviate)

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