Politics determines belief, not science

While evidence continues to mount that the climate is changing and we’re to blame, why do so many people continue to believe the opposite? Surely it’s because they don’t understand the science, right?

Well, according to a recent study that’s not the case. A survey of 1540 American adults found that assessment of the risk of climate change to human wellbeing was determined more by politics, and increasing scientific knowledge only strengthened political views (Kahan DM, Peters E, Wittlin M, Slovic P, Ouellette LL, Braman B & Mandel G 2012, “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks”, Nature Climate Change, published online 27 May 2012, doi:10.1038/nclimate1547).

Graphs of how the predicted and measured opinions of the risk of climate change vary with scientific literacy for people with different political views. Contrary to predictions, those with strong 'hierarchical individualist' views thought the risk was less the more scientifically literate they were, while those with 'egalitarian communitarian' views believed the risk was high, independent of their scientific understanding (click to embiggen)
The Science Comprehension Thesis (SCT) predicts that the more people know about science, the more they’ll appreciate the risk of climate change. But in fact, those with strong ‘hierarchical individualist’ views thought the risk was less the more scientifically literate they were. And those with ‘egalitarian communitarian’ views believed the risk was high, independent of their scientific understanding (image from Nature)

People with an egalitarian communitarian worldview, i.e. those who favour a more equal society and collective response to problems, are suspicious of big business and so tend to believe it’s dangerous and needs to be restricted. As you’d expect, for these people a better understanding of science increases their perception of climate change risk.

But surprisingly, people with an opposing hierarchical individualist worldview, i.e. those who attribute authority to social ranking and think that such individuals should be allowed to do what they want, displayed a trend in the opposite direction.

The more these people knew about science, the less they perceived the risk to be. They were inherently sceptical of environmental risks, and again, scientific literacy merely enhanced their beliefs.

There are a few ways to explain this finding, such as people’s need to fit in with their peer group meaning they use their scientific knowledge to justify their peers’ position. Or, it could just be that smart people are more prone to biased thinking (see West RF, Meserve RJ & Stanovich KE 2012, “Cognitive sophistication does not attenuate the bias blind spot”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published online 4 June 2012).

Either way, it doesn’t mean we should give up on science communication. It does mean that arguments for addressing climate change must consider people’s existing attitudes, but all those arguments must still be based on solid, objective scientific evidence.


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