More science won’t help.

Why is skepticism about climate change so persistent?

The answer might seem to be obvious: ignorance! People just don’t understand the science. Their education has not equipped them to discern good evidence from bad, or reason properly to valid conclusions. The media is not giving them the facts. They need more, better information and improved reasoning skills.

However intuitively plausible this answer might be, it suffers from one important flaw: It is wrong. Better educated people are not less likely to be skeptics. Greater scientific literacy and reasoning ability do not incline people toward climate realism. Where skepticism exists, additional information and arguments only serve to reinforce it.

This has been evident for some time, but a fascinating new study in Nature backs it up with numbers. Yale researcher Dan Kahan and his colleagues tested the question directly: Is it true that greater numeracy and scientific literacy reduce polarization about climate science?

Kahan found that, among those with low scientific literacy, assessment of climate risk was high among “egalitarian communitarians” (those with a worldview “favoring less regimented forms of social organization and greater collective attention to individual needs”) and low among “hierarchical individualists” (those with a worldview “that ties authority to conspicuous social rankings and eschews collective interference with the decisions of individuals possessing such authority”).

So what happens as scientific literacy increases? The naive view — what Kahan calls the “science comprehension thesis,” or SCT — predicts that hierarchical individualists with high scientific literacy will more accurately perceive the risk and converge with egalitarian communitarians. But that’s not what happens (click to embiggen):

Kahan: climate polarization and scientific literacy

As you can see, the SCT prediction is dead wrong — as science literacy and numeracy increase, polarization rises. Well-educated, carefully reasoning hierarchical individualists are less convinced of the danger of climate change.

What explains this? Here is Kahan’s alternative to SCT:

The alternative explanation can be referred to as the cultural cognition thesis (CCT). CCT posits that individuals, as a result of a complex of psychological mechanisms, tend to form perceptions of societal risks that cohere with values characteristic of groups with which they identify. Whereas SCT emphasizes a conflict between scientists and the public, CCT stresses one between different segments of the public, whose members are motivated to fit their interpretations of scientific evidence to their competing cultural philosophies.

The operative concept here is “motivated reasoning.” The idea is, we begin by absorbing the values of our tribes — what is and isn’t important, what is and isn’t a risk — and use whatever numeracy and scientific literacy we possess to seek out facts and arguments that support those views. Getting smarter, in other words, only makes us better at justifying our own worldviews. It does not necessarily give us more scientifically accurate worldviews.

Kahan’s alternative, needless to say, predicts survey answers better than SCT. It follows pretty straightforwardly that SCT is wrong and that educating people on science and reasoning will only reinforce the partisan divide on climate. This much, it seems to me, is beyond serious doubt. SCT is dead. Insofar as people still hold the naive view — and many (most?) still do, explicitly or implicitly — they should let it go once and for all. More and better science is not the answer, at least not a complete answer. If the partisan divide on climate is to be “solved,” it must be solved directly, on the level of worldviews, not by the indirect route of scientific education.

How might that be done? Kahan gestures at an answer:

As citizens understandably tend to conform their beliefs about societal risk to beliefs that predominate among their peers, communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values. Effective strategies include use of culturally diverse communicators, whose affinity with different communities enhances their credibility, and information-framing techniques that invest policy solutions with resonances congenial to diverse groups. Perfecting such techniques through a new science of science communication is a public good of singular importance. [my emphasis]

This can be crudely summed up as, “to change conservatives’ minds on climate, get other conservatives to talk to them in a language they understand.”

Which is great, as far as it goes. But in my humble opinion, it doesn’t go very far. In fact, this is the juncture in these kind of discussions where the hand-waving often begins. There’s a rather heroic assumption being made: that it is possible to make an accurate understanding of climate change congenial to hierarchical individualist values. Is that so? That is the question I shall ponder in my next post.