Depolarizing climate science

Global warming has become a hot-button topic, and some analysts think they’re beginning to tease out why

A study out this week attempts to probe why attitudes on climate risks by some segments of the public don’t track the science all that well. Along the way, it basically debunks one simplistic assumption: that climate skeptics, for want of a better term, just don’t understand the data — or perhaps even science.

Quite the contrary: In the new survey, the most science literate skeptics were also those individuals who were most likely to dig in their heels and reject a consensus view on climate risks.

“I think this is sort of a weird, exceptional situation,” says decision scientist Dan Kahan of the Yale Law School, who led the new study. “Most science issues aren’t like this.”

Indeed they aren’t. And it begs the question: What sets climate issues apart?

Although it’s not part of the new study, Kahan’s team has been investigating this question — and has begun floating some ideas. Several other social scientists have been doing this as well. The emerging view, they argue, is that people tend to be unusually judgmental of facts or interpretations in science fields that threaten the status quo — or the prevailing attitudes of their cultural group, however that might be defined.

Polar science
All fields of science don’t appear to carry the same potential for polarizing people into sharply divergent camps. This could have something to do with how “inconvenient” people might consider certain research findings, says Aaron McCright of Michigan State University, in East Lansing. For instance, he notes, few people complain about science that uncovers fundamental new knowledge (like black holes) or that creates technologies pointing toward transformative investment opportunities (like graphene, nanotechnology and green chemistry).

Instead, political and social fireworks tend to erupt over developments with more provocative interpretations — findings from what he refers to as “impact” analyses (a term he borrowed from the late Northwestern University sociologist Allan Schnaiberg). Falling into this category are things like health effects of pollutants or bad habits (such as smoking), comparisons of the environmental footprint of one commercial product versus another, and impacts on resource use of economic subsidies, rules and taxes.

Findings of major negative impacts might prompt calls for regulations or sanctions. These, in turn, could reorder rankings of the relative attractiveness of one industry relative to another.

Says McCright, climate change is not only a poster child for impact analyses, but also points to such potentially high global costs to nature and global economies that skeptics might be moved to demand an especially tight accounting of putative risks.

In some studies, including surveys conducted by McCright and Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, political affiliation has proven a useful gauge of which societal groups are most likely to prove skeptical of climate science and policy. Data collected over the better part of a half-century, they note, indicate that among opinion-making elites, Democrats (and especially liberals) consistently take more pro-environmental stances than their Republican (and especially conservative) counterparts.

In one recent study, McCright and Dunlap reviewed survey data from 10 nationally representative Gallup Polls between 2001 and 2010. These showed “strong evidence that the long-term divide over global warming between elites and organizations on the Left and the Right has in recent years emerged within the general public as well.” The pair published their findings last year in The Sociological Quarterly.

McCright offers one example of how this might develop. Fossil fuels have emerged as the preferred energy source in America and pollution associated with those fuels is now seen as a long-term problem. The sprawling nature of American cities fosters a need for travel, and most U.S. transport is fueled by fossil energy. Based on this, some people could argue that climate data challenges the very underpinnings of American capitalism.

“It’s saying that we might have gone down the wrong road for 150 years. And the further down this road we go, the more problems we’ll have. Who wants to hear that,” he asks?

Both sides cite supporting science
Keep in mind, he adds, that inertia makes society naturally slow to adapt. “So for people who want to prevent change, the easiest job in the world is to do nothing and sow enough seeds of doubt — provoke enough questions about the prospects of change — to preserve the status quo,” he says.

Efforts to preserve that status quo on climate aren’t necessarily nefarious, Kahan adds. Go-slow folks may argue that their caution is actually based on the best available science. That’s because how people interpret facts can be colored by cultural orientations — the type he surveyed in the study his team reported this week in Nature Climate Change.

There’s a 1951 study known as “They Saw a Game.” In it, fans from competing Ivy League teams watch a football match between their schools and are asked to note whether the actions of each team were unduly rough and whether referee calls were fair. Each side tended to judge their team as having acquitted itself best and that complaints by the other side were largely unfounded.

Says Kahan, a similar thing might be happening today with assessments of climate science. “When there’s some kind of call by the ‘referee’ — such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — one side sees it as correct and the other sees it as clearly wrong.” Yet, he says, “Both think science is on their side. Both think the position they hold will benefit them and everyone else.” But as with the fans viewing that 1951 football game, their perception of what it is that would benefit the community is being unconsciously shaped by their commitment to cultural values.”

If true, this bias is unconscious. And unintentional. It also becomes devilishly hard to identify in oneself.

A propensity for this is actually deeply engrained in the human psyche, says Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., and author of The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (Basic Books, October 25, 2011, New York). The new study by Kahan’s team points to what seems a contradiction, Trivers says: Among people on two sides of the climate issue, giving more data to those who are science literate and comfortable with numerical reasoning will likely to push them farther apart.

“Why? Because they picked and chose what suited their biases,” he says — “and now, fortified, are even stronger in their positions.” This suggests, Trivers says, that truth alone will never bridge that chasm.

Bridging the divide
So what might break down people’s resistance to a consensus on climate science? “If you want people to listen to your message and consider it, you have to give it some human scale,” suggests political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Before a religious group, frame the causes and solutions in terms of stewardship, he says. Among parents, discuss it in terms of how unchecked climate change might affect children generally and their children’s generation in particular.

If climatologists instead walk into a room and start throwing around statistics and descriptions of abstract scenarios for future impacts, people may start to distance themselves, he warns — and begin unconsciously looking for ways to dismiss the speaker’s credibility.

Kahan’s group sees a related problem. People mentally shut down and stop listening when they see a problem as hopeless. His data suggest that atempts to motivate people to change behaviors may backfire if scientists paint the climate message in excessively dire terms. Better, he says, to hold out hope that it’s not too late to salvage lifestyles and economies as we know them — such as by investigating the prospects of geoengineering.

For more on that strategy to “depolarize” people over climate issues, he points people to a preliminary report of the findings at his group’s website.

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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