Does “climate science literacy trump ideology” in Australia? Not as far as I can tell! Guy et al., Effects of knowledge & ideology part 1

It was so darn much fun to report my impressions on Stocklmayer, S. M., & Bryant, C. Science and the Public—What should people know?, International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 2(1), 81-101 (2012), that I thought I’d tell you all about another cool article I read recently:

Guy, S., Kashima, Y., Walker, I. & O’Neill, S. Investigating the effects of knowledge and ideology on climate change beliefs. European Journal of Social Psychology 44, 421-429 (2014).


GKW&O report the results of an observational study (a survey, essentially!) on the respective contributions that cultural cogntion worldviews and “climate science literacy” make to belief in human-caused global warming and to understanding of the risks it poses.

Performing various univariate and multivariate analyses, they conclude that both cultural worldviews and climate science literacy (let’s call it) have an effect.

Might not sound particularly surprising.

But it is critical to understand that the GKW&O study is a contribution to an ongoing scholarly conversation.

It is a response, in fact, to Cultural Cognition Project (CCP) researchers and others who’ve conducted studies showing that greater “science literacy,” and higher proficiency in related forms of scientific reasoning (such as numeracy and critical reflection), magnify cultural polarization on climate change risks and related facts.

The results of these other studies are thought to offer support for the “cultural cognition thesis” (CCT), which states, in effect, that “culture is prior to fact.”

Individuals’ defining group commitments, according to CCT, orient the faculties they use to make sense of evidence about the dangers they face and hwo to abate them.

As a result, individuals can be expected to comprehend and give appropriate effect to scientific evidence only when engaging that information is compatible with their cultural identities.  If the information is entangled in social meanings that threaten the status of their group or their standing within it, they will use their reasoning powers to resist crediting that information.

Of course, “information” can make a difference!  But for that to happen, the entanglement of positions in antagonistic cultural meanings must first be dissolved, so that individuals will be relieved of the psychic incentives to construe information in an identity-protective way.

GKW&O meant to take issue with CCT.

The more general forms of science comprehension that figured in the CCP and other studies, GKW&O maintain, are only “proxy measures” for climate science comprehension.  Because GKW&O measure the latter directly, they believe their findings supply stronger, more reliable insights into the relative impact of “knowledge” and “ideology” (or culture) on climate change beliefs.

Based on their results, GKW&O conclude that it would be a mistake to conclude that “ideology trumps scientific literacy.”

“The findings of our the findings of our study indicate that knowledge can play a useful role in reducing the impact of ideologies on climate change opinion.”


There are many things to like about this paper!

I counted 487 such things in total & obviously I don’t have time to identify all of them. I work for a living, after all.

But one includes the successful use of the cultural cognition worldview scales in a study of the risk perceptions of Australians!

Oh—did I not say the GKW&O collected their data from Australian respondents?  I should have!

I’ve discussed elsewhere some “cross-cultural cultural cognition” item development I had helped work on.  Some of that work involved consulation with a team of researchers adapting the cultural cognition scales for use with Australian samples.

So it’s really cool now to see Australian researchers using the worldview measures (which GKW&O report demonstrated a very high degree of scale reliability) in an actual risk-perception study.

Another cool thing has to do with the GKW&O “climate literacy” battery.  In fact, there are multiple cool things about that part of the study.

I’m very excited about this aspect of the paper because, as is well known to all 16 billion readers of this blog (we are up 4 billion! I attribute this to the Ebola outbreak; for obvious reasons, this blog is the number one hit when people do a google search for “Ebola risk”), I myself have been studying climate science comprehension and its relation to political polarization on “belief” in human-caused climate change and related matters.  I find it quite interesting to juxtapose the results of GKW&O with the ones I obtained.

But before I get to that, I want to say a little more about exactly what the GKW&O results were.

In fact, the data GKW&O report don’t support the conclusion that GKW&O themselves derive from them.

On the contrary, they reinforce the cultural cognition thesis.

GKW&O are incorrect when they state that general science comprehension was conceptualized as a “proxy” for climate change literacy in CCP study, Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L.L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change 2, 732-735 (2012) ( Nature Climate Change study),  that they are responding to.

On the contrary, the entire premise of the Nature Climate Change study was that members of distinct cultural groups differ in their climate science literacy:  they are polarized on the significance of what the best available evidence on climate change signifies.

The point of the study was to test competing hypotheses about why they we aren’t seeing public convergence in people’s understanding of the best available evidence on global warming and the dangers it poses.

One hypothesis—the “science comprehension thesis” (SCT)—was that the evidence was too hard for people to get.

People don’t know very much science.  What’s more, they don’t think in the systematic, analytical fashion necessary to make sense of empirical evidence but instead really on emotional heuristics, including “what do people like me think?!”

The use of a general science comprehension predictor in the study was selected as appropriate for testing the SCT hypothesis.

If SCT is right—if public confusion and conflict over climate change is a consequence of their over-reliance on heuristic substitutes for comprehension of the evidence—then we would expect polarization to abate as members of culturally diverse groups become more science literate and more adept at the forms of critical reasoning necessary to understand climate science.

But that’s not so. Instead, as general science comprehension increases, people become more polarzied in their understandings of the significance of the best evidence on climate change.

So this evidence counts against the SCT explanation for public contorversy over climate change.

By the same token, this evidence supports the “cultural cognition thesis”—that “culture is prior to fact”: if critical reasoning is oriented by and otherwise enabled by cultural commitments, then we’d expect people who who are more proficient at scientific reasoning to be even more adept at using their knowledge and reasoning skills to find & construe evidence supportive of their group’s position.

There is nothing in GKW&O that is at all at odds with these inferences.

On the contrary, the evidence they report is precisely what one would expect if one started with the cultural cognition thesis.

They found that there was in fact a strong correlation between their respondents’ cultural worldviews and their “climate science literacy.”

That is what the cultural cognition thesis predicts: culturally diverse individuals will fit their understanding of the evidence to the positition that predominates in their group.

It’s exactly what other studies have found.

And it was, as I said, the premise of the Nature Climate Change study.

Of course, in itself, this correlation is consistent with SCT, too, insofar as cultural cognition could be understood to be a heuristic reasoning alternative to understanding and making use of valid scientific information.

But that’s the alternative explanation that the  Nature Climate Change study—and others—suggest is unsupported: if it were true, then we’d expect culturally diverse people to converge in their assessments of climate change evidence, not become even more polarized, as they become more science comprehending.

The basis for GKW&O’s own interpretation of their data—that it suggests “information” can “offset” or “attenuate” the polarizing impact of cultural worldviews—consists in a series of multivariate regression analyses. The analysies, however, just don’t support  their inference.

There is, of course, nothing at all surprising about finding a correlation between “climate science literacy”—defined as agreement with claims about how human activity is affecting the climate—and “belief in human caused climate change.”

Indeed, it is almost certainly a mistake to treat them as distinct.  People generally form generic affective orientations toward risks. The answers they give to more fine-grained questions—ones relating to specific consequences or causal mechanisms etc.—are just different expressions of that.

In our study of science comprehension & climate change beliefs, we used the “Industrial Strength Risk Perception Measure” because it has already been shown to correlate 0.80 or higher w/ any more specific “climate change” question one might ask that is recognizable to people, including whether global warming is occurring, whether humans are causing it, and whether it is going to have bad consequences.

Psychometrically, all of these questions measure the same thing.

GKW&O conclude that the effect of cultural worldviews and climate-science literacy are “additive” in their effect on climate change “beliefs” because their climate-science literacy scale correlates with “belief climate change is occurring” and “belief climate change is human caused” even after “controlling” for cultural world views.

But obviously when you put one measure of an unobserved or latent variable on the right-hand (“independent variable”) side of a regression formula and another measure of it on the left (“dependent” or “outcome variable”) side, the former is going to “explain” the latter better than anything else you include in the model!

At that point, variance in the unobserved variable (here an affective attitude toward climate change) is being used to “explain” variance in itself.

The question is –what explains variance in the latent or unobserved variable for which “belief” in human caused climate change and the climate literacy scale items are both just indicators?

As noted, GKW&O’s own data support the inference that cultural worldviews—or really the latent sense of group identity for which the worldview variables are indicators!—does.

GKW&O also present a regression analysis of “beliefs” in climate change that shows that there are small interactions between the cultural outlook scales and their measure of climate-science literacy.

Because in one of the models, the interaction between climate-science literacy and Individualism was negative, they conclude that “knowledge dampen[s] the negative influence of individualist ideology on belief in climate change.”

An interaction measures the effect of one predictor conditional on the level of the other.  So what GKW&O are reporting is that if relatively individualist people could be made to believe in evidence that humans cause climate change, that increased belief would have an even bigger impact on whether they believe climate change is happening than it would on relative communitarian people.

It’s very likely that this result is a mathematical artifact: since communitarians already strongly believe in climate change, modeling a world in which communitarians believe even more strongly that humans are causing it necessarily has little impact; individualists, in contrast, are highly skeptical of climate change, so if one posits conditions in which individualists “believe” more strongly that humans are causing climate change, there is still room left in the scale for their “belief in human caused climate change” to increase.

But even if we take the result at face value, it doesn’t detract at all from the cultural cognition thesis.

Yes, if a greater proportion of individualists could be made to believe that scientific evidence shows humans are causing climat echange, then more of them would believe in climate change.

The question, though, is why don’t they already believe the evidence?

GKW&O’s own data suggest that cultural worldviews “explain” variance in acceptance of evidence on climate change.

And we know that it’s not plausible to say that the reason individualists don’t believe the scientific evidence isn’t that they can’t understand it: in the real world, as they become more science comprehending and better at critical reasoning, persons with these outlooks become even more skeptical.

Finally, there are now considerable experimental data showing that people—of all cultural outlooks—selectively credit and discredit evidence on climate change and other culturally polarized issues conditional on whether it supports or conflicts with the view that is predominant in their group.  Indeed, the more science comprehending, the more numerate, and the more cognitively reflective they are, the more aggressively they culturally filter their appraisals of empirical evidence.

GKW&O in fact recognize all of this.

At the end of the paper, they qualify their own conclusion that “specific climate change knowledge positively influences people’s belief in climate change,” by noting that “it is possible the reverse is true”: their correlational data are just as consistent with the inference that individuals are selectively crediting or discrediting evidence based on its cultural congeniality, a process that would produce precisely the correlation they observe between cultural worldviews and “climate science literacy.”

As I indicated, that’s the causal inference best supported by experimental data.

But none of this detracts from how interesting the study is, and in particular how intriguing GKW&O’s data on climate-science literacy are.

I’ll have more to say about that “tomorrow”! 

Part 2

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