Sunday, June 3, 2012

Science, Politics, and Climate Change

New research shows that people who don't think human activity is changing the climate are not, on the whole, more scientifically illiterate those whose who do. The difference between the two groups is political:
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. . . .

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 notion that better information on climate science would change people's political ideas is nonsense. It is impossible for any complex scientific theory to be better attested than evolution, but millions of people reject that. As long as belief in anthropogenic climate change is said to require government economic regulation, people who hate regulation will believe otherwise.

Once you move beyond the most immediate, concrete things, what most people believe has very little to do with evidence.

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