This is in the department "recurring misunderstanding that I should say something about in a single place so that I can simply refer people to it."
Last May, CCP researchers published a study in Nature Climate Change presenting evidence suggesting that political controversy over climate change in the US cannot be attributed to any sort of deficit in the public's comprehension of science.
As science literacy and numeracy (a technical reasoning disposition associated with more discerning perception of risk)increase, members of the general public do not converge in their perceptions of the risks posed by climate change. Instead, they become even more culturally polarized.
This finding fit the hypothesis that individuals can be expected to engage information in a manner that fits their interest in forming and maintaining beliefs that reflect their membership in, and loyalty to, important affinity groups.
Competing positions on climate change, unfortunately, are now conspicuously associated with opposing cultural groups. Being out of line with one's group on this issue exposes an individual to a social cost, whereas forming a mistaken view on the science of climate change has zero impact on the risk that individual, or anyone or anything she cares about, faces, insofar as one individual's personal behavior (as consumer, voter, public discussant, etc.) has no material effect on the climate.
One doesn't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what side of the issue one's cultural group is on in a debate like the one over climate change. But if one is, well, not a rocket scientist, but someone who has an above-average command of basic science and an above-average ability to make sense of fairly complicated technical and quantitative information, then one necessarily has skills --an ability to search out supportive evidence, fight off counterarguments, etc.-- that one can use to be even more successful at forming and persisting in group-convergent beliefs.
The survey data reported in the Nature Climate Change study supported this conjecture. The experimental findings in the most recent CCP study -- on ideology, motivated reasoning, and cognitive reflection--supply even more support for it.
Now, the response to the Nature Climate Change study that I have in mind says, "Wait -- you didn't measure climate change literacy! Regardless of their worldviews, if people knew more about climate change science they surely would converge on the best understanding of the risks that climate change poses!"
That response is in fact a non sequitur.
Yes, of course, people who are "climate science literate," by definition, understand and accept the best scientific evidence on climate change.
The whole point of the study, though, was to test hypotheses about why members of the general public haven't converged on that evidence -- or why, in other words, they aren't uniformly climate-science literate.
We measured their general science literacy to assess the (widespread) claim that a general deficit in science comprehension explains this particular aspect of confusion about science. What we found -- that members of the general public who display the greatest general science comprehension are the most culturally polarized on climate change risks -- is flatly inconsistent with that claim.
Imagine we had measured "climate change literacy" instead and used it to predict "climate change risk perception." We would have found that the former predicts the latter quite well -- because in fact, they are, analytically, the same thing.
But then we'd still be left with the key question -- what explains deficits in "climate science literacy"? By measuring general science literacy--something that is analytically distinct from climate change risk perception--we were able to help show that one common conjecture about that -- that people are not "climate change science literate" because they can't comprehend basic science -- is inconsistent with empirical evidence.
If one genuinely wants to explain public conflict over climate change, one has to offer and test explanations that don't just amount to redescribing the phenomenon.
And if the goal is to promote public recognition of the best available evidence on climate change -- and other societal risks -- then the sort of science illiteracy we need to remedy relates to our collective ability to protect our science communication environment from the sorts of toxic cultural meanings that make it individually rational for ordinary citizens -- including the most science literate ones -- to pay more attention to what positions on risk say about who they are than to whether those positions are true.
Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L.L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change 2, 732-735 (2012).
Kahan, D.M., Wittlin, M., Peters, E., Slovic, P., Ouellette L.L., Braman, D., Mandel, G. The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change. CCP Working Paper No. 89 (June 24, 2011).