As their science comprehension increases, do members of the public (a) become more likely to recognize scientific consensus exists on human-caused climate change; (b) become more politically polarized on whether human-caused climate change is happening; or (c) both?!

So CCP and the Annenberg Public Policy Center just conducted a humongous and humongously cool study on climate science literacy. There’s shitloads of cool stuff in the data!

The study is a follow up to an earlier CCP/APPC study, which investigated whether it is possible to disentangle what people know about climate science from who they are.

“Beliefs” about human-caused global warming are an expression of the latter, and are in fact wholly unconnected to the former.  People who say they “don’t believe” in human-caused climate change are as likely (which is to say, extremely likely) to know that human-generated CO2 warms the earth’s atmosphere as are those who say they do “believe in” human-caused climate change.

They are also both as likely– which is to say again, extremely likely–to harbor comically absurd misunderstandings of climate science: e.g.,  that human generated  CO2 emissions stifles photosynthesis in plants, and that human-caused global warming is expected to cause epidemics of skin cancer.

In other words, no matter what they say they “believe” about climate change, most Americans don’t really know anything about the rudiments of climate science.  They just know — pretty much every last one of them–that climate scientists believe we are screwed.

The small fraction of those who do know a lot—who can consistently identify what the best available evidence suggests about the causes and consequences of human-caused climate change—are also the most polarized in their professed “beliefs” about climate change.


The central goal of this study was to see what “belief in scientific consensus” measures—to see how it relates to both knowledge of climate science and cultural identity.

I’ll get to what we learned about that “tomorrow.”

But today I want to show everybody something else that surprised the bejeebers out of me.

Usually when I & my collaborators do a study, we try to pit two plausible but mutually inconsistent hypotheses against each other. I might expect one to be more likely than the other, but I don’t expect anyone including myself to be really “surprised” by the study outcome, no matter what it is.

Many more things are plausible than are true, and in my view, extricating the latter from the sea of the former—lest we drown in a sea of “just so” stories—is the primary mission of empirical studies.

But still, now and then I get whapped in the face by something I really didn’t see coming!

This finding is like that.

But to set it up, here’s a related finding that’s  interesting but not totally shocking.

It’s that the association between identity and perceptions of scientific consensus on climate change, while plenty strong, is not as strong as the association between identity and “beliefs” in human-caused climate change.

This means that  “left-leaning” individuals—the ones predisposed to believe in human-caused climate change—are more likely to believe in human caused climate change than to believe there is scientific consensus, while the right-leaning ones—the ones who are predisposed to be skeptical—are more likely to believe that there is scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change than to actually “believe in” it themselves.

Interesting, but still not mind-blowing.

Got that?

First, as science comprehension goes up, people become more polarized on climate change.

Still not surprising; that’s old, old, old,  old news.

But second, as science comprehension goes up, so does the perception that there is scientific consensus on climate change—no matter what people’s political outlooks are!

Accordingly, as relatively “right-leaning” individuals become progressively more proficient in making sense of scientific information (a facility reflected in their scores on the Ordinary Science Intelligence assessment, which puts a heavy emphasis on critical reasoning skills), they become simultaneously more likely to believe there is “scientific consensus” on human-caused climate change but less likely to “believe” in it themselves! 

Whoa!!! What gives??

I dunno.

One thing that is clear from these data is that it’s ridiculous to claim that “unfamiliarity” with scientific consensus on climate change “causes” non-acceptance of human-caused global warming.

But that shouldn’t surprise anyone. The idea that public conflict over climate change persists because, even after years and years of “consensus messaging” (including a $300 million social-marketing campaign by Al Gore’s “Alliance for Climate Protection”), ordinary Americans still just “haven’t heard” yet that an overwhelming majority climate scientists believe in AGW  is patently absurd. 

(Are you under the impression that there are studies showing that telling someone who doesn’t believe in climate change that “97% of scientists accept AGW” will cause him or her to change positions?  No study has ever found that, at least with a US general public sample.  All the studies in question show — once the mystifying cloud of meaningless path models & 0-100 “certaintly level” measures has been dispelled– is that immediately after being told that “97% of climate scientists believe in human-caused climate change,” study subjects will compliantly spit back a higher estimate of the percentage of climate scientists who accept AGW.  You wouldn’t know it from reading the published papers, but the experiments actually didn’t find that the “message” changed the proportion of subjects who said they “believe in” human caused climate change….)

These new data, though, show that acceptance of “scientific consensus” in fact has a weaker relationship to beliefs in climate change in right-leaning members of the public than it does in left-leaning ones. 

That I just didn’t see coming.

I can come up w/ various “explanations,” but really, I don’t know what to make of this!

Actually, in any good study the ratio of “weird new puzzles created” to “existing puzzles (provisionally) solved” is always about 5:1.

That’s great, because it would be really boring to run out of things to puzzle over.

And it should go without saying that learning the truth and conveying it (all of it) accurately are the only way to enable free, reasoning people to use science to improve their lives.

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