by Judith Curry
Chris Mooney has a new post up entitled “A little knowledge: why the biggest problem with climate skeptics may be their confidence.” Mooney’s post responds to Kahan et al.’s new study entitled “The tragedy of the risk-perception commons: culture conflict, rationality conflict, and climate change.”
Dan Kahan, Maggie Wittlin, Ellen Peters, Paul Slovic, Lisa Ouellette, Donald Braman, Gregory Mandel
Abstract: The conventional explanation for controversy over climate change emphasizes impediments to public understanding: Limited popular knowledge of science, the inability of ordinary citizens to assess technical information, and the resulting widespread use of unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A large survey of U.S. adults (N = 1540) found little support for this account. On the whole, 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. More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: Respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased. We suggest that this evidence reflects a conflict between two levels of rationality: The individual level, which is characterized by citizens’ effective use of their knowledge and reasoning capacities to form risk perceptions that express their cultural commitments; and the collective level, which is characterized by citizens’ failure to converge on the best available scientific evidence on how to promote their common welfare. Dispelling this, “tragedy of the risk-perception commons,” we argue, should be understood as the central aim of the science of science communication.
Some excerpts from the Introduction:
The goal of this paper is to challenge this critique of the rationality of public opinion on climate change. Our motivation is in part to show how poorly supported the conventional picture of public dissen-sus is by empirical evidence: scientific examination does not bear out the premise that deficiencies in science education or defects in individual reasoning explain conflict over climate change.
After presenting our data, we will suggest that the rationality question should be asked and ans-wered at two different levels (McMahon 2001). The first is individual. For reasons that make sense from a variety of psychological perspectives, individuals behave as if they were trying to maximize correspon-dence between their own perceptions of societal risks and the perceptions that predominate within the cul-tural groups to which they belong (Sherman & Cohen 2006; Kahan, Braman, Gastil, Slovic & Mertz 2007). Individuals need to use a variety of cognitive faculties to attain this correspondence. Judged within this framework, the evidence suggests that individuals are displaying an impressively high degree of rationality in the formation of their beliefs about climate change.
Nevertheless, public opinion can be understood to be irrational at the collective level. This pers-pective sees society as the agent and maximization of the welfare of its members as the goal. What makes collective decision-making irrational, moreover, has nothing to do with limited scientific literacy or wide-spread cognitive biases; on the contrary, the source of the problem is just how exceedingly rational socie-ty’s members are at the individual level: The reliable capacity of individuals to conform their personal beliefs to those that predominate within their respective cultural groups prevents those groups from con-verging on beliefs that make all of their members materially better off.
This conflict between individual and collective rationality is not inevitable. It occurs only because of contingent, mutable, and fortunately rare conditions that make one set of beliefs about risk congenial to one cultural group and an opposing set congenial to another. Neutralize these conditions, we will argue, and the conflict between the individual and collective levels of rationality is resolved. Perfecting our knowledge of how to achieve this state should be a primary aim of the science of science communication.
From the section Public Irrationality thesis:
The first explanation can be called the “scientific illiteracy” theory. According to this view, skepticism about climate change can be traced to poor public comprehension of science.
The second explanation can be called the “bounded rationality” theory. The model posits two discrete forms of information-processing: “System 1,” which consists in rapid visceral judgments that manifest themselves in a collection of decision-making “heuristics”; and “System 2,” which involves conscious reflection and calculation—modes of reasoning that are slower but more accurate than the heuristical ones associated with System 1. Although System 1 works well for most of the contingencies in daily life, citizens’ predominant reliance on heuris-tic rather than more analytic modes of reasoning leads them to underestimate climate change risks, which are remote and abstract compared to a host of emotionally charged risks such as those associated with nuclear power or terrorism that the public in fact tends to overestimate.
The third explanation is the “cultural cognition” theory. Drawing on concepts and methods from psychology, anthropology, and communication, this theory holds that individuals can be expected to form perceptions of risk that reflect and reinforce values that they share with others. Public dissensus over climate change, according to this view, originates in a more basic conflict between opposing groups whose members’ cultural outlooks dispose them to form opposing perceptions of environmental and technological risks generally.
The conventional understanding of public opinion on climate change synthesizes these three explanations. In this account, a substantial fraction of the population is seen as lacking both the basic knowledge and the psychological capacity necessary to reliably interpret scientific evidence. As a result, they must rely on heuristic substitutes, which systematically bias their estimations of climate change risks. Cultural cognition—the conforming of beliefs to those that predominate within one’s group—is simply one of these heuristics. The result is the failure of the public—or at least a large proportion of it—to form the views of climate change risk held among more knowledgeable, dispassionate experts .
We will call this position the “public irrationality thesis” or “PIT.” Our claim is that PIT is contrary to empirical evidence of who believes what about climate change.
Section 3 describes the methodology and Section 4 an interpretation of results.
From the Conclusions:
Our study results belie the conventional view that controversy over policy-relevant science is rooted in the public’s lack of scientific knowledge and its inability to engage in technical reasoning. 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 beliefs that are even more reliably characteristic of persons who hold their particular cultural worldviews. Indeed, far from a symptom of how poorly equipped ordi-nary individuals are to reach rational conclusions on the basis of complex scientific data, disputes over issues like climate change, we’ve argued, are evidence of how remarkably well equipped they are to discern what stances toward such information satisfy their expressive interests. The high degree of rationality individuals display in forming risk perceptions that express their cultural values can itself inhibit collective welfare rationality by blocking citizens from converging on the best available scientific evidence on how to secure their common interests in health, safety, and prosperity.
Resolving controversies over climate change and like risk issues requires dispelling this tragedy of the risk-perception commons (Hardin 1968). A strategy that focuses only on improving transmission of sound scientific information, it should be clear, is highly unlikely to achieve this objective. The principal reason people disagree about climate change science is not that it has been communicated to them in forms they cannot understand. Rather, it is that positions on climate change convey values—communal concern versus individual self-reliance; prudent self-abnegation versus the heroic pursuit of reward; hu-mility versus ingenuity; harmony with nature versus mastery over it—that divide them along cultural lines. Merely amplifying or improving the clarity of information on climate change science won’t generate public consensus if risk communicators fail to take heed of the cues that determine what climate-change risk perceptions express about the cultural commitments of those who form them.
In fact, such inattention can deepen polarization. Citizens who hold hierarchical and individualistic values discount scientific information about climate change in part because they associate the issue with antagonism to commerce and industry. That association is aggravated when a communication identi-fies carbon-emission limits as the exclusive policy remedy for climate change (Kahan in press). Individuals are prone to interpret challenges to beliefs that predominate with their cultural community as assaults on the competence of those whom they trust and look to for guidance (Kahan, Braman, Cohen, Gastil & Slovic 2010). That implication—which naturally provokes resistance—is likely to be strengthened when communicators with a recognizable cultural identity stridently accuse those who disagree with them of lacking intelligence or integrity.
It would also be a mistake, at this point, for information communicators not to take care to avoid accentuating the cues that sustain cultural factionalization. It isn’t the case, of course, that carbon-emission controls are the only policy response to climate change risks; technologies that furnish a substi-tute for and that offset the effects of greenhouse-gas-producing energy sources can contribute, too. Many of these alternatives, such as nuclear power and geo-engineering, are likely to convey cultural resonances that affirm rather than threaten hierarchical and individualist confidence in the power of human ingenuity to overcome environmental constraints on economic production. There are also many hierarchical and individualistic people who believe in the need to take action, of one form or another, to address climate change risks, and who can be counted on to make the case for doing so in terms that appeal to rather than alienate members of the public who share their outlooks (Kahan 2010). The cultural richness of the full range of potential policy responses and available advocates are narrative resources for opening minds (Jones & McBeth 2010; Verwij et al. 2006). It would be irrational for actors committed to disseminating sound scientific information not to make use of them.
JC comments: There are some important insights in this piece. The most important insight IMO is that the study shows that skepticism at the individual level is more likely among scientifically literate and numerate individuals. Dismissing such individuals as anti-science deniers is not only inappropriate, but such practice “accentuat[es] the cues that sustain cultural factionalization.”
The anti-science denier meme is the foundation for much of communication strategy for supporters of the IPCC consensus; for the latest example, see Al Gore’s recent piece in the Rolling Stone.
Chris Mooney’s take
This article has substantial implications for the communication of climate science and risk. Chris Mooney has a post on this at DeSmog Blog, some excerpts:
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.
Mooney then cites several other articles that suggest a relationship among more knowledge, skepticism and conservatism. Mooney concludes with this statement:
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: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
For the planet, anyway.
JC comment: I was struck by the title of Mooney’s piece: “Why the biggest problem with climate skeptics may be their confidence.” Mooney gets it exactly backwards: the reason we have climate skeptics is because of overconfidence in the IPCC conclusions.
Understanding climate skepticism at the individual level
So according to Mooney, skepticism is dangerous for the planet. Hmmmm. Mooney doesn’t seem to have gotten the key point of the Kahan et al. article. Climate skepticism at the individual level is often (not always) rational. So lets help Chris Mooney and others better understand skeptics and “deniers.”
Last March, there was an interesting article published by Bill DiPuccio entitled “Six Myths About Deniers.” DiPuccio articulates six general myths/accusations about “deniers” and debunks them:
- Deniers believe that the climate has not warmed
- Deniers are not real scientists
- Deniers are a tiny minority of scientists
- Deniers are anti-environmental shills of big oil
- Deniers think CO2 is irrelevant
- Deniers believe humans have no impact on climate
At the level of individuals, I have collected a few blog posts over the past few days where individuals explain their skepticism:
Well tempterrain, I do not think Jim is typical. I initially started surfing blogs in order to counter a skeptical family member – a retired engineer. I firmly believed in CAGW (as presented to me by MSM and science journals I liked to read) and I was extremely concerned by it. But in my efforts to anticipate the counter-arguments I knew would be thrown at me, my confidence that my perception of the issue was correct started to wane. At first it was pretty hard to ignore the data and evidence as presented by scientist skeptics, and their objections to how the pro-AGW case had been made, but then my trust in the orthodoxy was further undermined by climategate and the shenanigans of the team. It has since been further eroded by the manner in which the debate is conducted.
I was reading avidly as argument after argument posted (on various fora) in what was a completely reasonable way was passed over generally treated with scorn and not actually refuted. At the outset I googled and googled and jumped around from forum to forum trying to rebuttals and rebuttals of rebuttals.
A very typical and patronizing position I read predominantly from the “pro” side is that skeptics don’t understand the science. This understandably put me off. I pour all over reasoned and objective analysis particularly of the pro-AGW case in order to find a reasonable explanation in support of it that I can have confidence in. I have even downloaded my own data sets and had a go at reconstructions of NH snow and ice extent and how they compared with the orthodox narrative.
I could go on, but you must consider me to be a scientifically literate convert to skepticism, as much as it grates to concede that to my family member. At least for the time being. I would be quite willing to be ‘converted’ back if the evidence was compelling – although it might take some time given my current suspicions based on the way the debate has been conducted.
From a thread at collide-a-scape
Nullius in Verba Says: June 24th, 2011 at 6:31 am
“Is that deliberately ambiguous?”
“No, not from the point of view of the field that is under attack”
This may be part of the problem. I’m not thinking of it in terms of the climate science community, or how they feel about it. I’m thinking about it in terms of the world; its economy, governance, problems and solutions. Either way, the decision has a vast impact on billions of lives.
All three working groups represent the input of climate science to the policy process. All three are seen from outside as different aspects of “climate science”. All three need to be held to the same high standards.
“So it’s fair that we get plenty of skepticism, but is is not fair that we are undermined, attacked, and cast as villains in conspiracy fantasies.”
Do you know how many times my position has been undermined, attacked, or cast as the villain in fantasies of fossil-funded conspiracy? I’ve been connected to big tobacco, Exxon, and polluters, called selfish, stupid, ignorant, insane, told I’m deliberately destroying the future of my grandchildren and the poor of Bangladesh, opposed to science, opposed to rationality, and cynically operating to maximise short-term profits for fat-cat capitalists smoking their cigars over the dead bodies of baby polar bears…
The idea of mutual scepticism without all the undermining and attacks is exactly what I understand this peace proposal to be about.
“because to first order, the work of physical climate science in informing policy is complete.”
There’s one step left – you have to prove it. Meet the challenge of community peer review from a sceptical scientific community. Show your working. Be transparent. Exemplify the highest scientific standards, and ruthlessly cut out those parts that don’t meet them.
This is a big part of the problem you’re having. Besides all the detailed science issues, there are two big things that ring alarm bells for me – the refusal to openly acknowledge errors, and not acting as if they really believe this is a planetary emergency. The thing that first led me to investigate was Phil’s “Why should I make the data available to you…” comment, which was so outrageously anti-science that I couldn’t understand why the climate science community were not up in arms about it. That led me to the Hockeystick, which did not in itself bother me that much – bad science happens – but I found the way part of the climate science community defended and dodged and evaded out of all proportion, and the way the rest stayed silent about it did. And when it turned out that much of the reason was academic empire-building – that people refused to publish data because they wanted to get more papers out of it, or to defend IPR, or out of professional loyalty – it made me wonder if they really understood/believed in the significance of this. If I spotted a planet-buster asteroid hurtling straight for Earth, I’d refuse to share the processing algorithms because they were my intellectual property?! That’s too weird!
It is ironic that the efforts to defend climate science at all costs are what have done it the most damage in the long run. Seeing any criticism as an attack, rather than a useful check, has painted climatologists into a corner from which they cannot now easily escape. In case you’re right, then I really hope you’ll take the steps necessary to turn things around and restore confidence, as harsh as they may seem.
And finally this post from Agnostic that argues that the political stratification of skepticism is a U.S. phenomena and not what is seen in Europe:
I think it ought to be made more explicit that this political polarity wrt climate change is a predominantly US phenomenon. In my experience with the UK, Australia, and Switzerland, skepticism or alarmism on the issue tends to ignore political boundaries. While the AGW issue appears to lend itself to a US concept of left-wing politics, namely that of government regulation of emissions versus individual liberty, it is not framed in that way in the UK (IMO).
In Australia the current government is what you would call a left-leaning party, and it’s position on the debate is governed by political expedience rather than a given ideology on the matter. As it did not win an overall majority it had to cut deals with some independents whose position on the debate is of the ‘alarmist’ kind. Generally I have personally found no correlation with the political position of friends and family with a specific view on climate change.
Similarly in the UK. In fact, you may recall Graham Stringer MPs remarks regarding the Muir Russell enquiry and the climategate issue. He is actually labour (our version of the democrats), and i can think of a number of other political lefty’s taking skeptical positions.
In Switzerland, which has a political system that I doubt many in the US would fathom, could perhaps be described as ‘conservative socialist.’ That is to say, their disposition shows strong characteristics of both mainstream US political ideologies. They tend to be extremely conservative about many issues, yet very socially and (especially) environmentally conscious, that has everything to do with their history and cultural mind set. In fact you could possibly say they are the cultural manifestation of the ‘precautionary principle’. A long history of guarding against very real existential threats, they are both very conservative, and also strongly inclined to accept the possibility of CAGW and the need to take action.
I really wish our friends in the US could distinguish between their political tribes and the scientific debate. Arguing with my friends in the US about climate change is often met with their own observation that since the republican or democrat viewpoint is wrong on every single issue, and that since the other ‘side’ has appropriated a position on the debate, it must therefore be wrong.
I meet no such resistance elsewhere when discussing the issues and the science.