Climate skepticism not rooted in science illiteracy

Cultural values, not knowledge, shape global warming views, a study finds

People who strongly resist data indicating that human-induced climate change could spell catastrophe aren’t ignorant about science or numerical reasoning. Quite the opposite, a new study finds: High science literacy actually boosts the likelihood that certain people will challenge what constitutes credible climate science.

Who will be receptive to climate science, the study found, depends more on cultural factors such as attitudes toward commerce, government regulation and individualism than on scientific literacy.

“Simply improving the clarity of scientific information will not dispel public conflict” over climate, the study’s authors conclude online May 27 in Nature Climate Change.

There has been a prevalent view among scientists that skeptics of climate change and its ramifications would come around if they understood the facts, says Dan Kahan of Yale Law School. But studies by his group and others have shown that cultural factors can strongly influence what people accept as truth about certain technical issues.

For the new study, Kahan and his colleagues surveyed 1,540 American adults on science, capacity to comprehend and use quantitative information, political orientation, attitudes on the roles of government and commercial enterprises in affecting risks to society and risks posed by climate.

The survey characterized cultural outlooks along dimensions of individualism and egalitarianism. People with high degrees of individualism tended to have attitudes that were pro-industry and skeptical of risks. People exhibiting a high degree of egalitarianism “tended to be morally ambivalent towards markets because they think that’s what causes social disparities,” Kahan says.

The data show that on climate change issues, “cultural identity is what is disposing people to find evidence convincing or not,” Kahan says. And “the study shows this divide only gets bigger, for ordinary people, when they become better able to understand science.”

The findings point to the steep uphill challenge for advocates of climate science and policy to broadly communicate risks, says political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In fact, some of the most science-literate critics will listen to experts only to generate compelling counterarguments, he says.

In America today, climate change has come to approach abortion in its cultural impact: “It’s immediately polarizing,” observes sociologist Aaron McCright of the Environmental Science and Policy Program at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “Hard-core deniers seem to be no more than 10 percent of the [U.S.] population — which in some ways is good,” he says. “It means we might still reach the other 90 percent.”

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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