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« Whoa, slow down: public conflict over climate change is more complicated than "thinking fast, slow" | Main | Cultural consensus worth protecting: robots are cool! »

Do people with higher levels of "science aptitude" see more risk -- or less -- in climate change?

The answer — as it was for “do more educated people see more risk or less”—is neither. Until one takes their cultural values into account.

The data were collected in a survey (the same one discussed in the earlier post) of 1500 US adults drawn from a nationally representative panel. My colleagues and I measured the subjects’ climate change risk perceptions with the “Industrial Strength Measure.”

We also had them complete two tests: one developed by the National Science Foundation to measure science literacy; and another used by psychologists to measure “numeracy,” which is the capacity to engage in technical reasoning (what Kahneman calls “System 2”). Responses to these two tests form a psychometrically valid and reliable scale that measures a single disposition, one that I’m calling “science aptitude” here.

As we report in a working paper, science aptitude (and each component of it of it) is negatively correlated with climate change risk perceptions—i.e., as science literacy and numeracy go up, concern with climate change goes down. But by an utterly trivial amount (r = 0.09) that no one could view as practically significant—much less as a meaningful explanation for public conflict over climate change risks.

A reporter asked me to try to make this more digestible by computing the number of science-aptitude questions (out of 22 total) that were answered correctly (on average) by individuals who were less concerned with climate change risks and by those who were more concerned. The answer is: 12.6 vs. 12.3, respectively. Still a trivial difference.

But as we make clear in the working paper, the inert effect of science literacy and numeracy when the sample is considered as a whole obscures the impact that science aptitude actually does have on climate change risks when subjects are assessed as members of opposing cultural groups.

Egalitarian communitarians—the individuals who are most concerned about climate change in general—become more concerned as they become more science literate and numerate. In contrast, hierarchical individualists—the individuals who are least concerned in general—become even less concerned.

The result is that cultural polarization, which is already substantial among people low in science aptitude, grows even more pronounced among individuals who are high in science aptitude.

Or to put it another way, knowing more science and thinking more scientifically doesn’t induce citizens to see things the way climate change scientists do. Instead, it just makes them more reliable indicators of what people with their values think about climate change generally.

This doesn’t mean that science literacy or numeracy causes conflict over climate change. The antagonistic cultural meanings in climate change communication do.

But because antagonistic cultural meanings are the source of the climate-change-debate pathology, just administering greater and greater does of scientifically valid information can't be expected to cure it.

We don’t need more information. We need better meanings.

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Reader Comments (5)

Apparently "science literacy" includes many different fields of science. Are any questions on the test concerned with climate specifically? It would seem that your bottom-line conclusion is about knowledge of climate science. Does anyone think that providing people with more information about (say) microbiology will change attitudes about global warming? I would like to see either the complete data set - perhaps you can tell us where they are - or an analysis of the climate questions alone, if any.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJon Baron

Concerning my last comment, I looked at the paper. Sorry for not doing that. The science literacy test contains zero items about climate, so it seems irrelevant.

Also the CRT is not supposed to be about numeracy but rather about cognitive reflection. Purely verbal items (logic problems) seems to measure the same thing, as the theory of the test would imply.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJon Baron

Hi, Jon.

Thanks for your comments.

I'm not quite sure why, now that you have looked at the paper, you think the measures we used are "irrelevant" or how you could believe that a "climate change knowledge" or "literacy" measure would have made more sense. But let me identify the hypotheses that we were testing (obviously, it's with reference to those that the relevance of measures have to be judged) & maybe that will help.

Many commentators (academic & otherwise) believe that a deficit in scientific knowledge or ability to understand science (or to reason in a systematic as opposed to a heuristic fashion) is at the root of public dissensus over climate change risk. Science literacy & numeracy (CRT is a subcomponent of numeracy) are measures one can use to test that conjecture: if it is correct, one would expect that people high in science knowledge & numeracy (a measure of "system 2" reasoning capacity) would have views more in line w/ climate scientsts & in any case be less divided.

The data show otherwise: people who are high in science literacy & system 2 reasoning (numeracy & CRT) are more culturally divided, not less.

You suggest using a "climate change literacy" measure. That would make the study circular: climate change literacy presumably would be measured by the conformity of one's views with the scientific consensus on climate change, so by definition, as that increases, people would be converging on the view of the facts that climate change scientists hold.

Why members of the public are *not* converging on that view of the facts, however, is exactly what we are trying to explain. Our study supplies evidence that the answer, contrary to what many think, is not a deficit in the public's knowledge of science generally or in their ability to engage in system 2 reasoning. Rather is the motivating impact of conflicting cultural outlooks -- which generate *even more* dissensus over climate change as individuals' scientific knowledge & system 2 reasoning ability go up.


February 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk

I want to get better in my science class and math class

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJuan

@Juan: That's an admirable desire. In what ways do you feel you aren't doing as well as you should? One thing to realize is that you really can't go wrong by just following the lead of your curiosity. If something seems puzzling & intriguing -- then listen to that sensibility & try to satisfy the urges & desires to know that it is creating. Figure out what you need to do to satisfy those & do those things (often it will involve learning new bits of statistics or substantive science knowledge; motivated, task-specific learning works better, I think, then trying to learn massive bodies of related knowledge unrelated to any immediate need or problem). Could take a while; indeed, might involve reckless disregard for all manner of social responsibility if you really let curiosity carry you away on such expeditions. But you'll very likely end up doing better in science class as you become the sort of person who engages the world this way. And in any case, you'll also just end exerpiencing lots of happiness, wonder, & fulfillment.

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

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