Is the culturally polarizing effect of science literacy on climate change risk perceptions related to the "white male effect"? Does the answer tell us anything about the "asymmetry thesis"?!
In a study of science comprehension and climate change risks, CCP researchers found that cultural polarization, rather than shrinking, actually grows as people become more science literate & numerate.
A colleague asked me:
Is it possible that some of the relationships with science literacy/numeracy in the Nature Climate Change paper might come from correlations with individual differences known to correlate with risk perception (e.g., gender, ethnicity)?
I came up with a complicated analytical answer to explain why I really doubted this could be but then I realized of course that the simple way to answer the question is just to "look" at the data:
Nothing fancy: just divided the sample into hierarchical & egalitarian (median split on worldview score) "white males," "women," and "nonwhites" & then plotted the relationship between climate change risk perception (y-axis) & score on the "science literacy/numeracy" or "science comprehension" scale (x-). I left out individualism, first, to make the graphing task simpler, and second, b/c only hierarchy correlates w/ gender (r = 0.10) and being white (r = 0.25); putting individualism in would increase the effects a bit -- both the cultural divide & slopes of the curves -- but not really change the "picture" (or have any impact on the question of whether race & gender rather than culture explain the polarizing impact of science comprehension).
Some of the things these scatterplots show:
1. The impact of science comprehension in magnifying polarization in risk perception is not restricted to white males (the answer to the question posed). The same pattern--polarization increasing as science comprehension increases -- is present in all three plots.
2. The "white male effect" -- the observed tendency of white males to perceive risk to be lower -- is actually a "white male hierarch" effect. If you look at the blue lines, you can see they are more or less in the same place on the y-axis; the red line is "lower" for white males, in contrast. This is consistent with prior CCP research that suggests that the "effect" is driven by culturally motivated reasoning: white male hierarch individualists have a cultural stake in perceiving environmental and technological risks to be low; egalitarian communitarians -- among whom there are no meaningful gender or race differences--have a stake in viewing such risks to be high.
3. The increased-polarization effect looks like it is mainly concentrated in "hierararchs." That is, the blue lines are flatter -- not sloped upward as much as the red lines are sloped downward.
This is a pattern that would bring -- if not joy to his heart -- a measure of corroboration to Chris Mooney's "Republican Brain" hypothesis (RBH), since it is consistent with the impact of culturally motivated reasoning being higher in more "conservative" (hierarchs are more conservative; but the partisan differences among egalitarian communitarians and hierarch individualists aren't huge!). Actually, I think CM sees the paper as consistent with his position already, but this look at the data is distinctive, since it suggests that the magnification of cultural polarization is concentrated in the more conservative cultural subjects.
As I've said a billion times (although not recently), I am unpersuaded by RBH. I have done a study that was designed specifically to test it (this study wasn't), and it generated evidence that suggests ideologically motivated reasoning--in addition to being magnified by greater cognitive reflection-- is politically symmetric, or uniform across the ideological spectrum.
But the point is, no study ever proves a proposition. It merely furnishes evidence that gives us reason to view one hypothesis or another as more likely to be true or less than we otherwise would have had (or at least it does if the study is valid). So one should simply give evidence the weight that one judges it to be due (based on the nature of the design and strength of the effect), and update the relative probabilities one assigns to the competing hypotheses.
If this pattern is evidence more consistent with RBH, then fine. I will count it as such. And aggregate it with the evidence I have that goes the other way. I'd still at that point tend to believe RBH is false, but I would be less convinced that it is false then before.
Now: should I view this evidence as more consistent with RBH? I said that it looks like that. But in fact, before treating it as such, I'd do another statistical test: I'd fit a polynomial model to the data to confirm both that the effect of culturally motivated reasoning increases as subjects become more hierarchical and that the increase is large enough to warrant concluding that what were looking at isn't the sort of lumpy impact of an effect that could easily occur by chance.
I performed that sort of test in the study I did on cognitive reflection and ideologically motivated reasoning and concluded that there was no meaningful "asymmetry" in the motivated reasoning effect that study observed. But it was also the case that the raw data didn't even look asymmetrical in that study.
So ... I will perform that test now on these data. I don't know what it will reveal. But I make two promises: (a) to tell you what the result is; and (b) to adjust my priors on RBH accordingly.