Toggling the switch between cognitive engagement with "America's two climate changes"--not so hard in *the lab*
Thursday, March 24, 2016 at 10:33AM
Dan Kahan

So I had a blast last night talking about “America’s 2 climate changes” at the 14 Annual “Climate Predication Applications Workshop,” hosted by NOAA’s National Weather Service Climate Services Branch, in Burlington Vermont (slides here).

It’s really great when after a 45-minute talk (delivered in a record-breaking 75 mins) a science-communication professional stands up & crystallizes your remarks in a 15-second summary that makes even you form a clearer view of what you are trying to say! Thanks, David Herring!

In sum, the “2 climate changes” thesis is that there are two ways in which people engage information about climate change in America: to express who they are as members of groups for whom opposing positions on the issue are badges of membership in one or another competing cultural group; and to make sense of scientific information that is relevant to doing things of practical importantance—from being a successful farmer to protecting their communities from threats to vital natural resources to exploiting distinctive commercial opportunities—that are affected by how climate is changing as a result of the influence of humans on the environment.

I went through various sorts of evidence—including what Kentucky Farmer has to say about “believing in climate change” when he is in his living room versus when he is on his tractor.

Also the inspired leadership in Southeast Florida, which has managed to ban conversation of the “climate change” that puts the question “who are you, whose side are you on?” in order to enable conversation of the “climate change” which asks “what do we know, what should we do?”

But I also featured some experimental data that helped to show how one can elicit one or the other climate change in ordinary study respondents.

The data came from the study (mentioned a few times in previous entries) that CCP and the Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted to refine the Ordinary Climate Science Intelligence assessment (“OSI_1.0”).  

OSI_1.0 used a trick from the study of public comprehension of evolutionary science to “unconfound” the measurement of “knowledge” and “identity.” 

It’s well established that there is no correlation between the answer survey respondents give to questions about their belief in (acceptance of) human evolution and what they understand about science in general or evolutionary science in particular. No matter how much or little individuals understand about science’s account of the natural history of human beings, those who have a cultural identity that features religiosity answer “false” to the statement “human beings evolved from an earlier species of animals,” and those who have a cultural identity that doesn’t  say “true.”  

But things change when one adds the  prefix “according to the theory of evolution” to the standard true-false survey item:

At that point, religious individuals who manifest their identity-expressive disbelief in evolution by answering “false” can now reveal they are in fact familiar with science’s account of the natural history of human beings (even if they, like the vast majority of those who answer “true” with or without the prefix, couldn’t pass a high school biology exam that tested their comprehension of the modern synthesis).

What people say they “believe” about climate change (at least if they are members of the general public in the US) is likewise an expression of who they are, not what they know.

That is, responses to recognizable climate-change survey items—“is it happening,” “are humans causing it,” “are we all going to die,” “what’s the risk on a scale of 0-10,” etc.— are all simply indicators of a latent cultural disposition. The disposition is easily enough measured with right-left political orientation measures, but cultural worldviews are even better and no doubt plenty of other things (even religiosity) work too.

There isn’t any general correlation—positive or negative—between how much people know either about science in general or about climate-science in particular and their “belief” in human-caused climate change.

Click me ... or Donald Trump will become President!But there is an interaction between their capacity for making sense of science and their cultural predispositions.  The greater a person’s proficiency in one or another science-related reasoning capacity (cognitive reflection, numeracy, etc.) the stronger the relationship between their cultural identity (“who they are”) and what they say they “believe” etc. about human-caused climate change.

Why? Presumably because people can be expected to avail themselves of all their mental acuity to form beliefs that reliably convey their membership in and commitment to the communities they depend on most for psychic and material support.

But if one wants to “unconfounded” identity-expressive from knowledge-evincing responses on climate change, one can use the same trick that one uses to accomplish this objective in measuring comprehension of evolutionary science.   OSI_1.0 added the clause “climate scientists believe” to its batery of true-false items on the causes and consequences of human-caused climate change. And lo and behold, individuals of opposing political orientations—and hence opposing “beliefs” about human-caused climate change—turned out to have essentially the equivalent understandings of what “climate science” knows.

Click me ... and Bernie will become President!In general, their understandings turned out to be abysmal: the vast majority of subjects—regardless of their political outlooks or beliefs on climate change—indicated that “climate scientists believe” that  human CO2 emissions stifle photosynthesis, that global warming will cause skin cancer, etc. 

Only individuals at the very highest levels of science comprehension (as measured by the Ordinary Science Intelligence assessment) consistently distinguished genuine from bogus assertions about the causes and consequences of climate change. Their responses were likewise free of the polarization--even though they are the people in whom there is the greatest political division on “belief in” human-caused climate change.


But in collecting data for OSI_2.0, we decided to measure exactly how much of an impact it makes in response to use the identity-knowledge “scientists believe” unconfounding device.

The impact is huge!

Here are a couple of examples of just how much a difference it makes:

Subjects of opposing political outlooks—and hence opposing “beliefs” about human-caused climate change--don't disagree about whether “human-caused global warming will result in flooding of many coastal regions” or whether “nuclear power generation contributes to global warming” when those true-false statements are introduced with the prefix “according to climate scientists” (obviously, the "nuclear" item is a lot harder--that is, people on average, regardless of political outlook, are about as likely to get it wrong as right; "flooding" is a piece of cake).

But when the prefix is removed, subjects of opposing outlooks answer the questions in an (incorrect) manner that evinces their identity-expressive views.  

That prefix is all it takes to toggle the switch between an “identity-expressive” and a “science-knowledge-evincing” orientation toward the items.

All it takes to show that for ordinary members of the public there are two climate changes: one on which their beliefs express “who they are” as members of opposing cultural groups; and another on which their beliefs reflect “what they know” as people who use their reason to acquire their (imperfect in many cases) comprehension of what science knows about the impact of human behavior on climate change.

Now what’s really cool about this pairing is the opposing identity-knowledge "valencess" of the items. The one on flooding shows how the “according to climate scientists" prefix unconfounds climate-science knowledge from a mistaken identity-expressive “belief” characteristic of a climate-skeptical cultural style.  The item on nuclear power, in contrast, uncounfounds  climate-science knowledge from a mistaken identity-expressive “belief” characteristic of a climate-concerned  style.

I like this because it answers the objection—one some people reasonably raised—that adding the “scientists believe” clause to OSI_1.0 items didn't truly elicit climate-science knowledge in right-leaning subjects.  The right-leaning subjects, the argument went, were attributing to climate scientists views that right-leaning subjects themselves think are contrary to scientific evidence but that they think climate scientists espouse becasuse climate scientists are so deceitful, misinformed etc.

I can certainly see why people might offer this explanation.

But it seems odd to me to think that right-leaning subjects would in that case make the same mistakes about climate scientists' positions (e.g., that global warming will cause skin cancer, and stifle photosynthesis) that left-leaning ones would; and even more strange that only right-leaning subjects of low to modest science comprehension would impute to climate scientists these comically misguided overstatements of risk, insofar as high science-comprehending, right-leaning subjects are the most climate skeptical & thus presumably most distrustful of "climate scientists."

Well, these data are even harder to square with this alternative account of why OSI_1.0 avoided eliciting politically polarized responses.

One could still say "well, conservatives just think climate scientsts are full of shit," of course, in response to the effect of removing the prefix for the “flooding” item.

But on the “nuclear power causes climate change” item, left-leaning subjects were the ones whose responses shifted strongly in the identity-expressive direction when the “according to climate scientists prefix” was removed.  Surely we aren’t supposed to think that left-leaning, climate-concerned subjects find climate scientists untrustworthy, corrupt etc. , too! 

The more plausible inference is that the “according to science prefix” does exactly what it is supposed to: unconfound climate-science knowledge and cultural identity, for everyone.

Thus, if one is culturally predisposed to give climate-skeptical answers to express identity, the prefix stifles incorrect "climate science comprehension" responses that evince climate skepticism—e.g., that climate change will cause flooding.

If one is culturally predisposed to give climate-concerned responses, in contrast, then the prefix stifles what would be the identity-expressive inclination to express incorrect beliefs about the contribution of human activities to climate change—e.g., that nuclear power is warming the planet.

The prefix turns everyone from who he or she is when processing information for identity protection into the person he or she is when induced to reveal whatever "science knowledge" he or she has acquired.

This inference is reinforced by considering how these responses interact with science comprehension. 

As can be seen, for the "prefix" versions of the items, individuals of both left- and right-leaning orientations are progressively more likely to give correct "climate science comprehension" answers as their OSI scores increase.  This makes a big difference on the “nuclear power” item, because it’s a lot harder than the “flooding” one.

Nevertheless, when the “prefix” is removed, those who are high in science comprehension (right-leaning or left-) are the most likely to get the wrong answer when the wrong answer is identity-expressive! 

That’s exactly what one would expect if the prefix were functioning to suppress an identity-expressive response, since those high in OSI are the most likely to form identity-expressive beliefs as a result of motivated reasoning.

Suppressing such a response, of course, is what the “according to scientists” clause is supposed to do as an identity/science-knowledge unconfounding device.

This result is exactly the opposite of what one would expect to see, though, under the alternative, “just measuring conservative distrust of/disagreement with climate scientists” explanation of the effect of the prefix: the subjects who such an explanation implies ought to be most likely to attribute an absurdly mistaken "climate concerned" position to climate scientists--the right-leaning subjects highest in science comprehension--were in fact the least likely to do so.

But it was definitely very informative to look more closely at this issue.

Indeed, how readily one can modify the nature of the information processing that subjects are engaging in—how easily one can switch off identity-expression and turn on knowledge-revealing—is pretty damn amazing.

Of course, this was done in the lab.  The million dollar question is how to do it in the political world so that we can rid our society once and for all of illiberal, degrading, welfare-annihilating consequences of the first climate change. . . .

Update on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 2:56PM by Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Some modeling of these data here.

Article originally appeared on cultural cognition project (
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