“A Little Knowledge”: Why The Biggest Problem With Climate “Skeptics” May Be Their Confidence

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Last week, an intriguing study emerged from Dan Kahan and his colleagues at Yale and elsewhere–finding that knowing more about science, and being better at mathematical reasoning, was related to more climate science skepticism and denial–rather than less.

Kahan’s team simply structured a survey in a way that no one—to my knowledge, at least—has done before. In a sample of over 1,500 people, they gathered at least four different types of information: how much scientific literacy they possessed (e.g., how well they answered questions about things like the time it takes for the Earth to circle the sun and the relative sizes of electrons and atoms), how “numerate” they were (e.g., their ability to engage in mathematical reasoning),  what their cultural values were (how much they favored individualism and hierarch in the ordering of society, as opposed to being egalitarian and communitarian), and what their views were on how serious a risk global warming is.

The surprise—for some out there, anyway—lay in how the ingredients of this stew mix together. For citizens as a whole, more literacy and numeracy were correlated with somewhat more, rather than somewhat less, dismissal of the risk of global warming. When you drilled down into the cultural groups, meanwhile, it turned out that among the hierarchical-individualists (aka, conservatives), the relationship between greater math and science knowledge and dismissal of climate risks was even stronger. (The opposite relationship occurred among egalitarian communitarians—aka liberals).

This is bad, bad news for anyone who thinks that better math and science education will help us solve our problems on climate change. But it’s also something else. To me, it provides a kind of uber-explanation for climate skeptic and denier behavior in the public arena, and especially on the blogs.

In my experience, climate skeptics are nothing if not confident in their ability to challenge the science of climate change–and even to competently recalculate (and scientifically and mathematically refute) various published results. It’s funny how this high-level intellectual firepower is always used in service of debunking—rather than affirming or improving—mainstream science. But the fact is, if you go to blogs like WattsUpWithThat or Climate Audit, you certainly don’t find scientific and mathematical illiterates doubting climate change. Rather, you find scientific and mathematical sophisticates itching to blow holes in each new study.

The Kahan paper explains this oddity—and it’s not the only study to do so. Here are some others which also detect what we might call a “sophisticates effect”—a relationship between more knowledge on the one hand, and climate science skepticism on the other, among conservatives:

Higher Education and Climate Skepticism. A 2008 Pew survey showed not only that Democrats and Republicans are polarized over whether they accept global warming, but also that for Republicans, having a college degree didn’t make one any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college educated Republicans.

Increased Knowledge and Climate Concern. In a 2009 paper in the journal Risk Analysis, a team of social scientists found that “Among people who trust scientists to provide reliable information about the environment and among Democrats and Independents, increased knowledge has been associated with increased concern. But among people who are skeptical about scientists and among Republicans more knowledge was generally not associated with greater concern.”

Interaction Between Education, Politics, and Views on Climate Change. A 2009 paper in Climatic Change by Lawrence Hamilton of the University of New Hampshire found that in two surveys—of New Hampshire and Michigan residents—climate denial was inversely related to more education and more self professed knowledge of the issue among Republicans/conservatives. The author opined: “Narrowcast media, including many Web sites devoted to discrediting climate-change concerns, provide ideal conduits for channeling politically inspired but scientific sounding arguments to an audience predisposed to retain and repeat them.”

Self Professed Knowledge and Climate Polarization: A series of 2011 surveys by Hamilton similarly found that Republicans and Democrats who profess to know less about the climate issue are closer to one another in their views about whether global warming is really happening. By contrast, Democrats and Republicans who think they know a lot about the issue are completely polarized, with Republicans quite confident the science is wrong.

This is not an exhaustive list of relevant papers–but with these four studies, and the fifth Kahan study described above, I think everyone can see the pattern. If you are a conservative or Republican, then increased scientific literacy, increased mathematical ability, increased education, and increased self-professed knowledge about climate change are all associated with being more skeptical of the scientific consensus, and of the notion that global warming is a serious risk.

To me, there’s an interesting way to read this. It can be expressed as a familiar aphorism, which is actually a slight misquotation of Alexander Pope, pictured above: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

For the planet, anyway.

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