Science literacy and the polarized politics of climate change

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One of the major goals of science education is for all citizens to have some basic level of science literacy. The rationale is that a basic understanding of science is necessary in order to participate in a modern democratic society, where we must often grapple with policy decisions that deal with socioscientific issues, and where scientific evidence can be a major deciding factor in policy.

paper published in Nature Climate Change earlier this year challenged a long-standing assumption in both science education and science communication: that increasing science literacy will increase public “acceptance” of the scientific consensus on the risks posed by climate change. The authors surveyed a representative sample of about 1,500 U.S. adults and found that people with an egalitarian-communitarian worldview (roughly liberal) were more likely to perceive climate change to be higher risk with higher levels of science literacy, while for people with a hierarchical-individualist worldview (roughly conservative), higher science literacy scores meant they were more likely to underestimate the risks associated with climate change. If the assumption that science literacy is the solution had held, both groups would have moved toward rating climate change as higher risk as they increased in science knowledge, to line up with current scientific consensus. Instead, increasing science knowledge correlated with increasingly polarized views.

The paper comes out of Dan Kahan’s cultural cognition project at Yale. Cultural cognition posits that individuals tend to form opinions that cohere with the values and ways of life of the cultural groups they identify with. In other words, people process information in ways that reinforce a sense of belonging to certain cultural groups and identifiers. The central idea is related to confirmation bias, but goes further to define the root causes of the beliefs people seek to confirm: cultural worldviews. Unlike confirmation bias, cultural cognition can predict how people will react to totally new issues, for which they had no prior opinions, based on their worldviews. (For more on distinguishing cultural cognition and confirmation bias, see Kahan’s blog.) In some ways the findings are not all that surprising. Knowing that humans are always striving to confirm their own hunches, opinions, and beliefs, it follows that the addition of more knowledge and argumentation skills just builds the arsenal for developing a stronger defense of one’s preferred view. Janet Raloff at ScienceNews paraphrases Kahan:

“In fact, some of the most science-literate critics [of climate science] will listen to experts only to generate compelling counter-arguments.”

This isn’t just about conservatives denying science. Both liberals and conservatives have been found to diverge from scientific consensus on issues that have the potential to either reinforce or threaten their identities, values, and worldviews (for example, on the issue of the right to carry concealed handguns – see Kahan et al. 2010). Furthermore, it isn’t about denying or mistrusting science as an institution; instead, people are developing different perceptions about what the science actually says. Both sides try to “claim” science for their side.

Lone polar bear on sea ice. Photo by fruchtwerg’s world.

But what does this mean for science education? The findings pose more questions than answers. It would be a mistake to think that science literacy is useless — or even dangerous — because it might act as a polarizing force. Without it, citizens would have little basis or inclination to engage with socioscientific issues at all — hardly the recipe for a functioning democracy. So it is necessary, but not sufficient. However, the findings strongly suggest that a simplistic “deficit” model, in which students/citizens are blank slates that just need to be filled up with science facts and information, clearly won’t work.

It’s worth noting how the authors were measuring science literacy. They employed a combined science literacy/numeracy scale. Eight science literacy items, which were taken from the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators, probed relatively simple factual knowledge about biology and physics with true/false statements (for example, “electrons are smaller than atoms”). No items testing understanding of the scientific method were used, though previous research using the items has shown decent correlation between the facts and methods dimensions. Mathematical word problems were used to measure numeracy; these were included because more numerate people tend to be disposed to more accurate, methodical modes of thinking, especially with regard to decision making and risk assessment (system 2, according to Daniel Kahneman). However, the measure is limited by not being able to discern a high level of competence in science. It can distinguish those who know little science from those who know a bit more, but even a person who was able to correctly answer all eight items could not necessarily be said to be “science literate.” We can say the items measured some science knowledge plus tendency to think more slowly and analytically, but not “science literacy.” An unanswered question is how to accurately measure the multi-dimensional concept of science literacy — but the initial indications from this study are certainly noteworthy and concerning.

The results of this paper should prompt us to reexamine what is most important in science literacy, and therefore in science education. While most of the discussions of these results have been couched in science communication issues (how scientists and the media reach out to adult non-scientist citizens), K-12 science educators potentially have a huge opportunity to educate a new generation of citizens in a way that could reduce the risks of polarization. What strategies might accomplish this goal? My ponderings that follow below are just conjecture, but can hopefully generate some conversation from the science education perspective.

One possibility is that by emphasizing the nature and process of science more than the “consensus” textbook facts, students will understand what to look for in good science and develop structured, rational habits of mind. A crucial aspect of science is that it’s OK to be wrong. A hypothesis doesn’t have to be right in order to learn something important from the evidence collected. Scientists throw out their old theories if new ones are a better fit for the data. It’s about having an open mind and even challenging the established consensus when the evidence is strong. When people use their knowledge exclusively for the purposes of proving their opinion is right, and see data that contradicts their opinions as simply the next challenge to rebut, they aren’t thinking like scientists. Perhaps examples and experiences of surprising or negative results might serve to get students thinking like scientists, even in the face of cultural predispositions or prior beliefs.

A strong emphasis on critical response skills might also limit the polarizing effects of knowledge. Part of the reason climate change deniers are able to use their knowledge to entrench themselves further in their chosen viewpoint is that they are focussing on — and finding — less scientifically credible data sources. Through biased search, they are discovering the few dissenting scientists, or pundits who mix facts with opinion. Sharper critical response skills would make the flaws and weaknesses in their favored data sources stand out. If all students are exposed to in science class is their textbooks and lab manuals (which are always “right”), how will they learn to evaluate sources of scientific data?

Just as we can’t assume adult citizens are blank slates, neither can we assume young students are blank slates. Even when dealing with non-polarized naive ideas about science, prior knowledge and conceptions must be taken into account in helping students move to a more scientific understanding. Science educators should be aware of the cultural allegiances their students may have, and should attempt to frame discussions of polarizing concepts in ways that are not immediately and totally opposed to those allegiances. Students could be exposed to cases in which many different socio-political groups have been known to twist or misrepresent science to serve their purposes (see GMO Opponents are the Climate Skeptics of the Left) and learn to recognize these ulterior motives.

Young students are dealing with issues of identity, which poses both a challenge and an opportunity. There is an opportunity for scientific thinking (as a useful, impartial, non-partisan intellectual tool) to become part of students’ cultural identities. By fostering a collegial environment where controversial issues can be discussed openly and civilly, science educators could help reduce the fear and antagonism individuals can face when supporting an idea that is perceived as discordant with the prevailing worldview. Of course, science educators often face their own sources of conflict from parents, students, and even themselves when it comes to controversial topics like climate change and evolution.

The problem of polarization is a puzzling one, but the stakes are high, and science educators will play a pivotal role in preparing future policymakers.

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