Tribal Affiliation, Scientific Literacy, and Climate Change

Surveys say that most fewer conservatives than liberals believe that climate change is a global threat caused mainly by humans releasing greenhouse gasses.

Is that because they don’t understand science? If they did, would they change their minds? Are liberals convinced of the threat because they understand the underlying science?  Can research help us understand which of these statements are likely to be true?

I think that the answer to the last question is: yes.

And the research says that the answers to the others are no, no, and no.

The details are in the paper, The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change,  linked through the web site of the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale University.  There’s a lot of good stuff at the site beyond this article, including some interesting studies on tribal affiliation, scientific literacy and evolution, nuclear energy, and other controversial topics.

Here’s the Cliff Notes Version of the referenced article:

If you are a liberal, the more science you know, the more you are likely to be convinced climate change is mainly caused by humans and a big problem.

If you are a conservative, the more science you know, the less you believe that. Really. That’s what the research says.

How do you do research that tells you that?

First, you develop a test that measures general understanding of science. The test itself has been well studied and vetted.

Give a bunch of people the test.  Their studies typically include 1500-200 people. Have the people give their views on climate change and their political orientation.

Analyze the results.

If it’s true that the more people understand science the more they are convinced of climate change you’d expect to see scientific illiteracy correlated with climate concern and scientific illiteracy correlated with climate skepticism.

Thus you’d expect to see ignorant people (mainly conservatives) clustered at the low end of the science knowledge scale and the knowledgeable ones (mostly liberals) at the other end.

It turns out that that’s not the way it comes out.

The range of science knowledge among liberals and conservatives is roughly the same. There is no significant correlation between science knowledge and political orientation.

You discover that for liberals, science knowledge is correlated with climate concern. The more science a self-identified liberal knows, the more likely that they are concerned about climate. That’s not surprising.

But you discover that for conservatives, science knowledge is correlated with climate skepticism. The more science that a conservative knows, the less convinced they are. That’s surprising to a lot of people.

Indeed if you look just at the most scientifically literate and numerate people you find that they are slightly less likely than average to see climate change as a serious threat.

This research does not tell us what conclusions to draw about climate change, or how concerned to be.

It does tell us, though, that tribal membership influences opinions far more than our knowledge of science does.

Whatever your opinion, it’s worth keeping that in mind.

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