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« More on the statistical illiteracy/inanity of trying to figure out "yeah, but whose is bigger" | Main | "How confident should we be ..." »

Who has a better comprehension of science--"skeptics" or "nonskeptics"?

Neither, as far as I can tell.

This wasn’t a question we tried to answer directly or reported data on in our Nature Climate Change paper.

But I have been asked a few times now about a Fox News report on our study that states that those who are less concerned about climate change scored “57%” and those who are more concerned “56%” in our measure of science comprehension.

I am guessing the reporter derived the conclusion from this graphic, which is one I produced and circulated to people, including the reporter, in response to questions about a working paper that reported data from the study ultimately published in NCC.

It shows the mean or average number of correct responses on the combined science literacy/numeracy scale (a measure of "science comprehension,” essentially) for study subjects whose responses put them in the top 50% & bottom 50% of the sample on "climate change risk perceptions," respectively.

The bottom 50% got, on average, 12.6 out of 22 correct. The top 50% got 12.3.

The "56%" & "57%" figures are not in the Figure--or in anything else related to our study. But they are the numbers one gets when one divides 12.3 & 12.6 by 22, respectively.  

As can can be seen, this difference is not statistically significant. Not even close. Indeed, I put the graphic together so that I could answer the stock "who knows more" query-- I call it the "yeah, but whose is bigger" question -- by saying "no one, see!"

If there are people out there (apparently there are; I'm getting lots of email...) who think this is meaningful evidence that one side knows more than the other about science, they really are missing the point. In fact, they are making the kind of mistake that helps explain how it is that the "smarter" half of the population gets a score of 57% on a measure like this.

The gap between those who know more science and those who know less doesn't explain conflict over climate change science in our society.

But it's beyond question that the low average state of science literacy is a condition that detracts from our capacity for enlightened self-government.

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Reader Comments (5)

Dan, so perhaps you should not have written in your paper

"As respondents’ science-literacy scores increased, concern with climate change decreased (r=−0.05, P=0.05). There was also a negative correlation between numeracy and climate change risk (r=−0.09, P<0.01). "

May 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Matthews

Okay, Paul, so now I'll have to a blog post on this...

Unless you want to take a stab at it. I bet, oh, $10,000, you can guess what I would say!

June 1, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

While we at the International Climate Science Coalition are probably on the opposite side of the climate science debate than most readers of this site, I think we have described the study results properly in my piece in Australia published today:

It is annoying to see so many people trying to score points on the "who is smarter" issue. All they should have said is that most people on both sides of the debate are equally illiterate scientifically.


June 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Harris

One thing you're leaving out of the cultural cognition issue as it intersects with the climate change "debate" is that the impetus for, and specific ideational content of, the climate change denier's claims and counter-narratives are not an organic product of their cultural leanings or interpretation of events.

Rather they're the end product of a specific, sustained and deliberate effort on the part of known individuals and organizations to create doubt on this topic. In what sense then is this a difference in cultural cognition as opposed to a difference in the trust given to the channels through which this doubt was disseminated?

These same channels could convince their captive audiences of nearly anything, even things which are on the opposite side of the cultural cognition spectrum just by asserting whatever it is they want to assert and framing the issue, however vacuously, as a matter of personal liberty (for instance) .

It seems to me that we ought to distinguish between how one does risk assessment (for instance) based on where you are on the cultural cognition grid and being victimized by propagandists who are operating with transparently financial, and therefore cynical, motivations.

Re-framing issues to better accord with the hypothetical preferred narrative of the climate change denier is only going to be met with a new counter-narrative being issued from the propagandists and carried forth into wide circulation and acceptance so long as the preferred narrative above still conflicts with their financial motivations. Cultural cognition is therefore not the controlling variable, the particular actions of the individuals and organizations are.

In other words, we don't have a cultural cognition problem, or more precisely, we don't have a problem we can cure with tweaking presentations to accommodate differences in cultural cognition. We have a problem with motivated liars and a public which is incapable of independently and personally adjudicating the issue on its technical merits.

This implies that we need a multi-prong approach, one prong of which has to be the defacto-criminalization and prosecution, either through public means or through say, a Presidential or U.N. finding, of those people and entities in our society who are effectively yelling "no fire ! " in a burning theater. The malefactors will not be talked out of their activities and as long as they're permitted free reign to simply lie in new and creative ways to meet whatever re-framing is offered, the end result is unlikely to change.

The reason engineering the climate appeals to deniers is because it implies a business as usual permit to the people creating the doubt who therefore are less resistant to its message and less inclined to issue a counter-narrative to their followers. The deniers are simply never receiving a new message to deny and resist.

This starts to sound a lot like giving into blackmail. "Either deal with the problem I am creating in the way which I prefer, or I will continue my assault on the truth", with the destruction of the earth's habitability for everyone being the effective threat.

June 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFrank Sharp

This is a fascinating piece of writing Frank. Who are these "climate change deniers'" you keep mentioning? Could you please show me somebody, anybody, on earth who says climate change doesn't exist? (Strictly speaking, 2 or more such people.)

I suppose if kids can have imaginary friends, adults are allowed to have imaginary enemies. Still, it's weird.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrad Keyes

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