Science literacy and the polarized politics of climate change

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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18 Responses to Science literacy and the polarized politics of climate change

  1. TBP Outreach says:

    It’s not clear what’s meant by scientific literacy or even experience in science. It’s possible to view science as some kind of collection of facts and get reasonably far in the field without developing a strong sense of how to evaluate hypotheses and supporting data. The ability to think critically and mechanistically about proposed processes is not always at the forefront of scientific education. Interpreting the most convincing data regarding the causes of temperature/climate change requires both a large number of facts and the ability to think mechanistically about how the facts are linked together. Proposed links between CO2 from fossil fuels and temperature change are strongly supported, but the detailed facts are rarely presented to or carefully evaluated by anyone other than climate focused researchers.

  2. A part of the problem may be that scientific results have to be distilled and simplified considerably before being presented to the public. Even for purely scientific, unpolitical issues this can generate problems (witness the large number of “Einstein-was-wrong” crackpots you think that they can start reasoning based on the few simplified facts they have garnered from popular science books).

    It becomes much worse for contentious topics: Once someone digs into the facts a little more, they will discover the situation is definitely less clear than presented. This will always be true, since science is by nature messy and never quite finished, with a lot of caveats and uncertainties remaining at each stage. If you are already skeptical about the political conclusions drawn from the scientific results, this insight into the confusing complexity of the facts will then only re-inforce your skepticism. In that sense the study’s results are not so surprising.

    I agree therefore that it will be helpful to expose more people to the many aspects of science how it is actually practiced (with all the cross-checks and tentative arguments, and facts and ideas of varying clarity and robustness). Textbooks presenting only well-established facts and treating science in an over-idealized fashion may well be counterproductive. Maybe textbooks could give a few examples of how many false starts (including wrong arguments leading to the right conclusions etc.) were necessary to arrive at simple, now completely established facts (quantized charge, energy conservation, etc.).

    On an unrelated note, maybe one has to simply have more patience with the skeptics. After all, there have been enough examples of wrong-headed consensus in the past on other issues, such that even well-intentioned people should be forgiven for being critical. On balance, in the long run, allowing for such attitudes may still be better than unthinking adoption of any consensus view that comes along, even if it may hurt progress on some issues. Of course, this will always be exploited by people who have some (typically financial) incentives (cf. the tobacco industry), but to some extent this seems to be the price to pay.

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  6. john werneken says:

    Cultural cognition is blindingly obvious, and true. Climate change is one thing, it may not matter what anyone thinks, especially if a large and apparently irreversible change occurred. What folks might tolerate being done, that matters. And that is about the values – ideas, situation, aims, means – of people. Education does not change values, situations, aims, or means, although it may enable one who wishes to do that, to do so.

  7. doug nusbaum says:

    I saw some name calling: The rhetorical technique used by people who have neithre facts nor logic to support their position. I saw a statement ” There are only about two hundred true climate scientific experts on this earth. ” for which the author offered exactly zero support. I have seen claims that scientists are devided on the subject, but when one looks, the scientists against AGW are almost all scientists not trained in Climate science. Sort of like asking for a world famous thoractic surgeon for an opinon on your brain tumor. Not a good idea.

    I offer this:, which contains this:
    A survey of all peer-reviewed abstracts on the subject ‘global climate change’ published between 1993 and 2003 shows that not a single paper rejected the consensus position that global warming is man caused. 75% of the papers agreed with the consensus position while 25% made no comment either way, focusing on methods or paleoclimate analysis (Oreskes 2004).
    Which the deniers will claim only shows that all those scientists are part of some vast liberal conspiracy, probably involving insurance companies [segment edited for possible comment policy violation].

    There is this statement: ” I am certain that if carbon combustion is severely curtailed, living standards will plummet and billions will die.” So, replacing kerosene lamps, and cooking stoves with cheap solar lights, and solar ovens that require no fuel other than the sun will reduce the standard of living for the poorest on the planet. I wonder what exonomic model this man with several degrees uses for that. Making cars more efficient, and buildings carbon neutral will be a problem? Replacing coal with natural gas will cause people to die? Seriously. Well, clearly this is one of the few scientists who are conservative.

    I am libertarian (sort of), and really do not care. I just try and listen to what the physical world and math has to tell me. Which is what actual scientists do.

    • R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. says:

      Mr. Nusbaum thank you for your reply. I surmise we concur on my most important point, on energy policy, “” it’s OK to be wrong” is fatally in error. If carbon combustion is a near and present danger, man kind faces a terminal condition. It is the sole energy source, (along with fission of uranium in limited applications) that is cheap enough to sustain the masses.

      I do not respond with a list of http sites as I consider this fruitless at this stage of the conflict. The readings are available to both sides.

      Your concept of individual heating and lighting with solar energy, fails, for bulk supply, on cost. This is the reason that poor societies do not widely use it. It is a distributed system, used where feasible, but lacks the energy density, or constant supply common to advanced societies where high usage and dense populations exist. Consider Sandy’s damage to a megalopolis powered by solar cells, or wind generators. Our current generators were undamaged, but a “green” base loaded grid would be destroyed by one storm; the outage would extend for years, in a major city.

      If America eschews coal, which produces twice the unit amount of CO2, the green house gas, relative to natural gas, then doubles our NG combustion, we have accomplished nothing. Moreover our CO2 emissions are being dwarfed as Asia’s carbon combustion soars. China brings a new coal fired power plant on line every few days. I see no peaceful solution to reversing this trend.

      I concur wholly with the concept of energy efficiency, both for stationary and mobile energy producers. The life giving debate issue, for carbon combustion, is cost per BTU per capita, the bed rock of the industrial revolution. Higher cost, particularly at the margin, does not help; poverty is the certain result. It is basic economics. (It is easy to get in the weeds, but small disbursed systems are extremely valuable in remote poor areas……… one phone in a village is an enormous advance over a village lacking any electronic communication.)

      I again summarize the issue: If carbon combustion is a near and present danger, man kind faces a terminal condition, for cheap ubiquitous energy is necessary for life. And the related issue: No political party has offered a viable, candid position on this problem.

      We have a real problem.

  8. dr gibson says:

    I hate to admit that the American public in general is too lazy to attain scientific literacy.

    That said, ‘climate change’ should be watched very skeptically. There are way too many examples of made up results, outlandish conclusions and scientists who say it is OK to lie because the issue is too important. When climate scientist do this they cannot claim to be legitimate scientists and their science ceases to be science.

  9. R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. says:

    This is a largely useless study. There are only about two hundred true climate scientific experts on this earth. They are roughly equality divided on the essential technical issue: is mankind’s activities, carbon combustion, causing a serious danger? The rest of the talking heads, politicians, and the vast majority of Americans are ignorant of this post doctoral subject. I am one. Thus a poll of 1200 dummies will yield nonsense, to four significant figures. IMHO, it is far more significant that young post docs, who wish to study some aspect of climate science which may prove a negative to the above issue, can not land a grant. Science funding is totally skewed toward a positive. A similar situation, existed in Nazi Germany, in science studies which proved the superiority of the Aryan race, and the racial weaknesses of others. The result was that America received and fostered the “inferior” minds which won the war. This disproves the statement that in science, when the stakes are the future of mankind, ” it’s OK to be wrong” . If we screw up our energy policy, we are dead.
    My expertise is energy engineering, several degrees and PE licenses, a score of nukes, two score fossil fueled power plants and forty years of practice. I am certain that if carbon combustion is severely curtailed, living standards will plummet and billions will die. The green technologies cost too much to sustain an advanced society, and lacking a break through will stay that way for generations.
    We have a real problem.

  10. “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.”

    Or maybe they see through the hype and realise there are no risks (other than the ones which have always existed) 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.”

    Why should increasing science literacy lead to alignment with consensus? The consensus which opposed the theory of plate tectonics wasn’t right was it?

  11. Hominid says:

    Someone once said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. This applies more to science than any other enterprise. Science ‘literacy’ is not possible without an IQ over about 135 and several years of intense and focused training. There are already too many people out there who’ve had Bio 101 or Psych 101, who are convinced they’re experts on all matters scientific. There are also a lot of people with PhDs in the pseudosciences – they’re science charlatans.

    • Jean Flanagan says:

      You bring up a good point — a little training can make people overconfident. I think this comes back to the ‘habits of mind’ needed for scientific thinking, one of which is humility. Good scientists know what they don’t know. But science literacy, for the purposes of intelligent civic engagement, doesn’t require specialized knowledge or expert status in any area. It does require general knowledge of the nature and practice of science, the habits of mind associated with it, some broadly applicable subject matter knowledge, and the critical response skills to assess claims and data.

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