Pew on Climate Polarization: Glimpses of cognitive dualism . . .

I’ve now digested the Pew Research Center’s “The Politics of Climate” Report. I think it’s right on the money—and delivers a wealth of insight.

What most readers seem to view as the highlights are interesting, certaintly, but you have to dig down a bit to get to the really good
“believe it or not” stuff. . . .

1. Conservation of polarization. People have been focusing on what is in fact the Report headline, namely, that there’s deep political polarization on all matters climate.

That’s not news, of course.

Still even in the “not news” portion of the Report there is something of informational value.

The Report documents the astonishing level of stability in public attitudes—with individuals of diverse political outlooks being highly divided, and only about 50% of the population accepting human-caused global warming overall—for over a decade.

It’s easy for people to get confused about immense inertia of public opinion on climate change because advocacy pollsters are constantly “messaging” an “upsurge,” “shift,” “swing” etc. in public perceptions of climate change.

Likely they are doing this based on the theory that “saying it will make it so.”  It doesn’t.  It just confuses people who are trying to figure out how to improve public engagement with the best evidence.

Good for Pew for recognizing that the most valuable thing a public opinion researcher can do is tell people what they need to know and not just what they want to hear.

2. New & improved science literacy. There’s also been a fair amount of attention to what Pew finds on science literacy: that more of it doesn’t mitigate polarization but in fact accentuates it across a range of climate change issues.

Again, that’s not news.  The perverse relationship between science literacy and climate change was emphasized in a recently issued National Academy of Sciences report, which synthesized data that included various CCP studies, including the one featured in our 2012 Nature Climate Change paper.

But what is new and potential really important about the Pew Report is the measure that it has constructed to measure public science literacy.

The need for a better public science literacy measure was the primary message of the National Academy Report, which concluded that the NSF Science Indicators battery—the traditional measure—is too easy and lacks sufficient connection to critical reasoning.  Addressing these shortcomings was the motivation behind the development of CCP’s “Ordinary Science Intelligence” assessment.

It’s really great that Pew is now clearly devoting itself to this project, too. Its new test, it’s clear, contains items that are more difficult than the ones in its previous tests. Moreover, the Report indicates that Pew  is using item response theory, a critical tool in developing a valid and reliable science comprehension assessment, to determine which array of items to include.

It would be super useful to have even more information on Pew’s new science literacy test. I’ll say more about this “tomorrow.”

But it is certainly worth noting today that this is exactly the sort of work that distinguishes Pew, a genuine creator of insight into public opinion, from the pack of 5&dime commericial public opinion purveyors.

3.  Cognitive Dualism.  As the 14 billion readers of this blog know, “cognitive dualism” refers to the phenomenon in which people who use their reason for “identity-protective” ends switch to using it for “science-knowledge acquiring” ones when they are engaged in activities that depend on the latter.

One example is Salman Hameed’s Pakistani Dr, who disbelieves in evolution “at home,” where he is a practicing Muslim, but believes in it “at work,” in order to be an oncologist and also a person who takes pride in his identity as a science-trained professional.

We see the same thing in science curious evolution non-believers who, when furnished with a superbly done documentary that doesn’t proselytize but just wows them with human ingenuity, can appreciatively agree that it has deepened their insight into the natural history of our species.

Cognitive dualism is also on display in the reasoning of the Kentucky Farmer: his experience of membership in his cultural group is enabled by believing that climate change “hasn’t been scientifically proven”; but to succeed as a farmer he engages in no-till farming, buys more crop insurance, changes his crop selection and rotation, and excitedly purchases Monsanto Fieldview Pro “climate forecaster” (powered by the world’s best climate change science!)—because he accepts the best available evidence on climate change for purposes of being a successful farmer.

Well, Pew’s survey tells us that there are a lot more cognitive dualists out there.

E.g., although only 15% of “conservative Republicans” say they believe that the “earth is warming mostly due to human activity,” almost double that percentage agree that “restrictions on power plant carbon emissions” (29%) and “international agreements to limit carbon emissions” (27%) would “make a big difference” in “address[ing] climate change”!

Plainly, many who are answering the “do you believe in human-caused climate change?” question in an identity protective fashion are answering the “what would make a difference in reducing climate change” in a “what do you know, what should we do?” one.

Outside of SE Florida, the question posed by our politics is the first and not the second.

That’s what has to change if we are to make progress as a self-governing society in addressing the issues that climate change poses about how to secure our well-being.

4.  Attitudes toward climate scientists.  Last is definitely not least: there is some really grim news for scientists in this poll . . . .

Generally speaking, I’ve been very skeptical that distrust of scientists, by anyone, explains conflict over decision relevant science.  The U.S. is a pro-science society by any sensible measure (including multiple ones that Pew has developed).  On climate change in particular—as on other contested science issues—both sides think their position is consistent with scientific consensus.

But this survey had some responses that are making me reassess my understanding.

The survey items in question weren’t ones that have to do with the skepticism of conservative climate change disbelievers, though. They were ones suggesting that even liberal climate change “believers” are a bit skeptical about what “climate scientists” are saying.

According to the survey, only 55% of “Liberal Democrats”—a group 79% of whom accept human-caused climate change is occurring—believe that climate scientists “research findings . . . are influenced by” the “best available evidence . . . most of the time . . . .”

That’s really an eye opener. Apparently, even among those most disposed to believe in” human-caused climate change, there are a substantial number of people who think “climate scientists” aren’t being entirely straight with them. . . .

What could explain this sort of cognitive dualism?

More study is warranted, certainly, to figure this out.

But since we know that “liberal Democrats” don’t watch Fox News and instinctively dismiss everything that conservative advocacy groups say, a plausible hypothesis is that the advocates whom these individuals do credit have imprinted in their minds a highly politicized picture of who climate scientists are and what they are up to.

That wouldn’t be particularly surprising.  The principal groups speaking for climate scientists have played a central role in making “who are you, whose side are you on?” the dominant question in our climate-change discourse.

That’s a science communication problem that needs to be fixed.

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