Do people with higher levels of “science aptitude” see more risk — or less — in climate change?

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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