“They already got the memo” part 2: More data on the *public consensus* on what “climate scientists think” about human-caused global warming

So as I said, CCP/Annenberg PPC has just conducted a humongous study on climate science literacy.

Yesterday I shared some data on the extent to which ordinary members of the public are politically polarized both on human-caused global warming and on the nature of scientific consensus relating to the same.

I said I was surprised b/c  there was less division over whether “expert climate scientists” agree that human behavior is causing the earth’s temperature to rise.

Because Americans– particularly those who display the greatest proficiency in science comprehension– are less likely to disagree on whether there’s scientific consensus than on whether human beings are causing global warming, it’s not very compelling to think confusion about the former proposition is the “cause” of the latter.

But there is still a huge amount of polarization on whether there is scientific consensus on human-caused climate change.

Answers to these two questions — are humans causing climate change? do scientists believe that? — are still most plausibly viewed as being caused by a single, unobserved or latent disposition: namvely, a general pro- or con- affective orientation toward “climate change” that reflects the social meaning positions on this issue has within a person’s identity-defining affinity groups.

Or in other words, the questions “is human climate change happening” and “is there scientific consensus on human-caused climate change” both measure who a person is, politically speaking.

That’s a different thing from what members of the public know about climate science. To measure that requires a valid climate-science comprehension instrument.

The study in which we collected these data was a follow up of an earlier CCP-APPC one that featured the “Ordinary Climate Science Intelligence” assessment, or OCSI_1.0. 

The goal of OCSI_1.0 was to disentangle the measurement of “who people are”—the responses toward climate change that evince the affective stance toward climate change characteristic of their cultural group—from “what they know” about climate science.

OCSI_1.0 met that goal.

The current study is part of the effort to develop OSI_2.0, the aim of which is to discern differences across a larger portion of the range of knowledge levels within the general population.

Here is how 600 subjects U.S. adults drawn from a nationally representative panel) responded to some of the OSI_2.0 candidate items.

For me, these are the key points:

First, there’s barely any partisan disagreement over what climate scientists believe about the specific causes and consequences of human-caused climate change.

Sure, there’s some daylight between the response of the left-leaning and right-leaning respondents. But the differences are trivial compared to the ones in these same respondents’ beliefs about both the existence of climate change and the nature of scientific consensus.

There is “bipartisan” public consensus in perceptions of what climate scientists “know,” with minor differences only in the intensity with which respondents of opposing outlooks hold those particular impressions.

Second, ordinary members of the public, regardless of what they “believe” about human-caused climate change, know pitifully little about the basic causes and consequences of global warming.

Yes, a substantial majority of respondents, of diverse political views, know that climate scientists understand fossil-fuel CO2 emissions to be warming the planet, and that climate scientists expect rising temperatures to result in flooding in many regions.

But they also mistakenly believe that, “according to climate scientists, the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide associated with the burning of fossil fuels will increase the risk of leukemia” and “skin cancer in human beings, and “reduce photosynthesis by plants.”

They think, incorrectly, that climate scientists have determined that “a warmer climate over the next few decades will increase water evaporation, which will lead to an overall decrease of global sea levels.”

“Republican” and “Democrat” alike also mistakenly attribute to “climate scientists” the proposition that “human-caused global warming has increased the number of tornadoes in recent decades,” a claim that Bill Nye “science guy” believes but that actual climate scientists don’t, and in fact regularly criticize advocates for leaping up to assert every time a tornado kills dozens of people in one of the plains states.

Third, the overwhelming majority of ordinary citizens, regardless of their political persuasions, agree that climate scientists have concluded that global warming is putting human beings in grave danger.

The candidate OSI_2.0 items (only a portion of which are featured here) form two scales.

When one counts up the number of correct responses, OSI_2.0 measures how much people genuinely know about the basic causes and consequences of human-caused global warming.  You can figure out that by scoring.

Alternatively, when one counts up the number of responses, correct or incorrect, that evince a perception of the risks that human-caused climate change poses, OSI_2.0 measures how dreaded climate change is as a societal risk.

No matter what they “believe” about human-caused climate change, very few people do well on the first, knowledge-based scale.

And no matter what they “believe” about human-caused climate change, the vast majority of them  score extremely high on the second, dreadedness scale.

None of this should come as a surprise.  This is exactly the state of affairs revealed by OSI_1.0.

Now in fact, one might think that it’s perfectly fine that ordinary citizens score higher on the “climate change dredadedness” scale than they do on the “climate change science comprehension” one.  Ordinary citizens only need to know the essential gist of what climate scientists are telling them–that global warming poses serious risks that threaten things of value to them, including the health and prosperity of themselves and others; it’s those who ordinary citizens charge with crafting effective solutions (ones consistent with the democratic aggregation of diverse citizens’ values) who have to get all the details straight.

The problem though is that democratic political discourse over climate change (in most but not all places) doesn’t measure either what ordinary people know or what they feel about climate change.

It measures what the item on “belief in” climate change does: who they arewhose side they are on, in an ugly, pointless, cultural status competition being orchestrated by professional conflict entrepreneurs.

The “science communication problem” for climate change is how to steer the national discussion away from the myriad actors– all of them–whose style of discourse creates these antagonistic social meanings.

“97% consensus” social marketing campaigns (studies with only partially and misleadingly reported results notwithstanding)  aren’t telling ordinary Americans on either side of the “climate change debate” anything they haven’t already heard & indeed accepted: that climate scientists believe human-caused global warming is putting them in a position of extreme peril.

All the “social marketing” of “scientific consensus” does is augment the toxic idioms of contempt that are poisoning our science communication environment.

The unmistkable social meaning of the material featuring this “message” (not to mention the cultural conflict bottom-feeders who make a living “debating” this issue on talk shows) is that “you and people who share your identity are morons.” It’s not “science communication”; it’s a clownish bumper sticker that says, “fuck you.”

It is precisely because of the assaultive, culturally partisan resonances that this “message” conveys that people respond to the question “is there scientific consensus on global warming?” by expressing who they are  rather than what they know about climate change risks.

More on that “tomorrow.”

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