New research on climate skepticism

Learning more about science in general may not make individuals more likely to accept the science behind climate change, according to a new Yale research paper.

In a large-scale study conducted by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School, researchers determined that understanding science does not make people more likely to base their beliefs about the risks of climate change on scientific evidence. Instead, the researchers concluded that as scientific and reasoning skills increase, people who are skeptical of climate change become more doubtful, while those who are worried about climate change become more concerned. Researchers attributed this finding to individuals rationalizing science in favor of their pre-established worldview, an ability that increases with scientific understanding.

“This is the first time we have shown that the impact of peoples’ values in shaping their perceptions of risk is actually amplified by their science literacy and numeracy,” said researcher and Yale law professor Dan Kahan. “The fact that the disagreement intensifies in step with science literacy and numeracy tells us that the role culture is playing in this disagreement is much more complicated than people otherwise would have presumed.”

In a survey of over 1,500 adults, researchers measured participants’ understandings of basic science through questions such as “It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby or a boy or girl — true or false?” and scored their quantitative reasoning skills through simple mathematical word problems. The researchers also gauged cultural values by asking participants to evaluate statements about gender, race and class, such as, “Society as a whole has become too soft and feminine.”

These results were then compared to the participants’ numerical ranking of their view on climate change risk. Individuals with a “hierarchical, individualistic” perspective tended to be skeptical toward climate change, while people with an “egalitarian, communitarian” worldview tended to believe in it, an effect that was positively correlated with scientific literacy and quantitative reasoning skills.

“This finding is robust and advances the field,” University of New Hampshire sociology professor Lawrence Hamilton wrote in an email to the News. In a phone interview, Hamilton credited the research for “confirming and extending” the conclusions of recent studies in the growing field of climate change perception research.

Hamilton questioned Kahan’s finding that people with better knowledge of science and stronger reasoning skills are slightly more likely to be skeptical of climate change than people with lower levels of comprehension, stating that the conclusion is “not yet ready for strong generalization.”

If confirmed, Kahan’s research would oppose the popular belief that controversies over climate change stem from the public’s inability to understand and interpret scientific evidence. Instead, the study demonstrates that the controversy over climate change results from the fact that peoples’ positions on climate change carry additional meaning as signals of their cultural values.

“Science is not coming through in a pristine sense,” University of Toronto sociology professor Shelly Ungar said. “Instead it is being bent by ideology. [People] are picking the science they like based on their ideology.”

Ungar, Hamilton and Kahan all attributed some of the dispute to the polarized way science is communicated in the United States. Kahan called for a “neutralize[d]” dialogue to avoid adding cultural significance to scientific fact. “We’ve got to avoid communicating that the position somebody takes on an issue has a consequence for the kind of person you are,” Kahan said.

For example, Kahan said, the only people who saw former Vice President Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” were those who already believed that climate change was a danger.

Fifty-eight percent of the American public says there is solid evidence that the average temperatures on earth have been increasing, according to a May 2011 Pew Research Center release.

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