This story has been around a while, but I haven’t been blogging much lately so I am only getting around to it now.
“..the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones.”
So says a new paper. Troubling findings. Something’s not quite right, and am hoping to nail it down. “The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change,” by Harvard’s Dan Kahan et al. tested a sufficiently large sample size of Americans on basic science questions — questions that anyone with a high-school education should be able to answer correctly — and matched them up against the level of concern each had about climate change. The more science they knew the less worried they were. Huh.
My first thought was, what about that survey that found that the more educated Republicans were, the less likely they were to accept the science behind anthropogenic climate change:
Yet for Republicans, unlike Democrats, higher education is associated with greater skepticism that human activity is causing global warming. Only 19% of Republican college graduates say that there is solid evidence that the earth is warming and it is caused by human activity, while 31% of Republicans with less education say the same.
The Kahan team didn’t break down their respondents along party lines, but their conclusion hints at an explanation:
As ordinary people learn more science and become more proficient in modes of reasoning characteristic of scientific inquiry, they do not reliably converge on assessments of climate change risks supported by scientific evidence. Instead they more form [sic] beliefs that are even more reliably characteristic of persons who hold their particular cultural worldviews.
In other words, people don’t like to stand out. I suppose. And it’s obvious that there is less diversity among Republicans than Democrats, so that would explain some of the findings.
But I don’t follow Kahan and his team when they get deeper into the psychology of all this (emphasis mine):
That does not mean, however, that the ordinary member of the public will be harmed if she herself ignores or misinterprets scientific data relating to climate change. Her well-being will likely depend critically on whether her society, and others around the globe, implement policies consistent with the best available scientific evidence. But it would be peculiar for her to conclude that the likelihood that any society will adopt such policies will be affected by her own formation of correct beliefs. Nor is it plausible for the typical member of the public to imagine that anything she, as an individual, does–as a producer of carbon emissions, say, or as a voter in democratic elections–will by itself aggravate or reduce the dangers that climate change might pose. She is just not consequential enough one way or the other to matter (Downs 1957). Indeed, if the typical member of the public concluded that the scientific accuracy of her own perception of climate change risks was either a necessary or a sufficient condition for abatement of those risks, that belief would itself be evidence of irrationality.
Well yes, but does anyone outside a few crazies with messianic complexes believe that they can change the world single-handedly? No. What environmental activists believe is that change will only come about if a sufficient number of individuals act in concert. To define rational behavior so narrowly as to exclude accepting the wisdom of collective action seems odd to me.
Kahan et al. write a lot about the difference between “Individual expressive rationality” and “Collective welfare irrationality” but I am unimpressed. Surely embracing reality, regardless of the opinions of your peers, is more rational that rejecting it?
There is also the matter questions posed to evaluate scientific literacy were all that useful/ True or false?
- The center of the Earth is very hot
- All radioactivity is man-made
- Lasers work by focusing sound waves
- Electrons are smaller than atoms
- Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
- How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? [one day, one month, one year] 45%
- It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl?
- Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria
Perhaps another set of questions might have been invented that better gauged scientific literacy in matters related to the climate change?