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Why Smart People Deny Climate Change

Why is democracy so difficult? Could be because it demands that each of us accept, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz said to me way back when I wrote this, “that other people are as real as you are.” But other people’s opinions are so wrong! Surely they’re deluded, deceived, bought off, stupid, neurotic or perhaps merely insane. Their access to the truth must be less than ours. The alternative is admitting our own certainty may be as overstated as theirs. That just doesn’t come naturally, not even to those who imagine themselves enlightened. Case in point: This study, just out in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Dan Kahan and his co-authors compared 1,540 Americans’ views on the risks of global warming with their scientific literacy and ability to reason logically and mathematically. Result: Higher scientific literacy and reasoning skill correlated with lower levels of concern about climate change.

The effect wasn’t large, but according to the standard catechism of environmentalism, it should not exist at all. That catechism holds that concern about global warming rises as people are exposed to “the facts” (and, therefore, that lack of concern about the climate is a product of enemy propaganda, lack of education, or some sort of neurotic reaction).

In other words, the study reminds those concerned about climate change that other people are as real as they are—that those who deprecate or deny global warming are not necessarily working with an inferior set of mental tools, nor with bad information. Nor are we who disagree with them superior beings who have a greater ability to overcome the mind’s built-in biases. Therefore, bombarding the other side with scientific facts will not change their minds.

Along with their climate-related questions, Kahan and his co-authors also assessed how their volunteers came down on the value of equality versus the value of hierarchy in society (by asking how much they agreed or disagreed with statements like “We need to markedly reduce inequalities between the rich and the poor, whites and people of color, and men and women”) and how they saw the balance between community and individuals (in their reactions to statements like “Government should put limits on the choices individuals can make so they do not get in the way of what is good for society”).

Americans tend to clump into two groups on this measure, one hierarchical-individualistic (let people alone and respect authority) and the other egalitarian-communitarian (reduce inequality and look out for the good of society). And it turned out that this measure of value was a much stronger predictor of concern about global warming than was scientific literacy or reasoning skill. Egalitarian-communalists were far more worried about global warming, and a better score on the science competence tests in their group correlated with slightly greater concern. But among the hierarchical-individualists, there was a stronger link between scientific literacy and less concern. That was what was responsible for the overall group result. (Hierachical-individualists were also a great deal less concerned about nuclear power than were egalitarian-communalists.)

Now, these results are a problem for the Enlightenment-era, rationalist model of politics, in which people weigh arguments according to standards of logic and evidence. In real life, people generally do that only when they have to—when, for example, it’s required by their jobs.

For those who have to deal with it professionally, after all, climate change isn’t in dispute. Agriculture experts, epidemiologists, disaster preparedness teams, civil engineers, military planners and the like can no more deny the state of the climate than an astronaut could believe in a Flat Earth. It’s a part of their jobs, and, as NASA’s Gavin Schmidt puts it, “gases don’t care whether you are a Republican or a Democrat – left wing, right wing – libertarian, or conservative.” Why aren’t the rest of us like the pros?

Here, Kahan et al. propose that the answer stems from the fact that climate-change isn’t part of our jobs. In fact, for billions of us non-specialists, our understanding of climate change has little immediate, practical impact. If you stop taking airplanes and otherwise reduce your carbon footprint, you will, of course, be helping to reduce the impact of greenhouse gases. But if you really understand the science, you understand that your effect will be absurdly small, until and unless many others join you.

So scientists and their allies proselytize. All well and good, except that people who have banded together to change the world send a social signal. We are the people who believe in global warming, this is what we are like, and how we talk, and how we behave. That signal is much more emotionally compelling, and more consequential in day-to-day life, than imagery of a drowned world sometime in the lifetime of one’s grandchildren.

In other words, while gases don’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican, people sure as hell do. An opinion about global warming is one of the flags we fly to show that we’re down with our fellow Tea Partiers (or fellow members of the NRDC). Unless you’re required to face reality (maybe you’re planning the system that will deal with massive storm surges in a future New York or London), that flag-flying is much more motivating than geophysical facts. So you to engage in what Kahan has called “protective cognition” to prevent science from driving a wedge between you and your peers.

Such, anyway, is the explanation Kahan et al. offer for their data. The new study’s findings, its authors write, are evidence of how “remarkably well-equipped ordinary individuals are to discern which stances towards scientific information secure their personal interests.”

Now, this could have been presented in the familiar tone of one-sided self-congratulation (here is why they are so stupid). That’s an occupational hazard of what I call post-rational research: The tendency to see these sort of results as an explanation for why other people don’t do the right thing. But Kahan has noticed that taking this work seriously means realizing that we are all subject to biases and sometimes flawed rules of thumb. If you take democracy seriously, you have to recognize then that science isn’t going to tell you why other people are idiots while you are right. Instead, it is going to tell you why we are all idiots together, and give you the tools to deal with that fact.

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We needn’t accept every damn fool argument that comes down the road, but we do need to accept that we’re all inclined to protect damn fool arguments that are associated with our identities. Environmentalists who spend their time trying to figure out why they are morally, intellectually or scientifically superior to their opponents are, themselves, using climate change as a tribal marker of identity. Such people are likely—just like their opponents—to reject science that doesn’t fit their received opinions.

The paper therefore implies a truly post-rational vision of politics—not a battle of ideas and interests in which all players keep an accurate score, but rather a kind of theater in which our emotional selves display solidarity with our chosen teams, and reason supplies the justifications for what we would do anyway.

That sounds like a despairing vision, I guess, if you’re committed to the traditional view of politics. But I think this is a hopeful study, because it suggests a way to conduct politics that aligns better with human nature than did the Enlightenment model. Here, for instance, Kahan suggests some practical strategies that, to my eye, amount to filleting the cultural markers out of a scientific argument. If you want to persuade a hierarchical-individualist that climate change must be reckoned with, he suggests, mention that geoengineering and nuclear power could be part of the solution. If you want a egalitarian-communalist to look kindly on nanotech, mention that it could be used to mitigate environmental damage. The point, I think, is to keep each argument bound to its terms, and avoid letting them become bundled into cultural nets. The requires self-control on all sides, as “protective cognition” is always tempting us.

Kahan, D., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L., Braman, D., & Mandel, G. (2012). The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks Nature Climate Change DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE1547


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