Several members of an email group discussion among science writers and bloggers with interest in enviro matters for the last two days have gone into full obsession, fulmination, and a dash of meditation on a letter to this week’s Nature Climate Change. The paper is in Grist below. It’s roughly about stupidity not being why many people deny that human-caused global warming is important to everyday life and gov’t policy.. Several news outlets also have relayed the basics of the NSF-funded study, if not the vindication, consternation, and other emotions rattling around among people who write a lot about global warming as science and as an urgent reason for difficult policy decisions.
The news is not really news. But it advances the ball. The missive comes with professorial imprimatur, footnotes, and least-squares linear regressions of behavioral typologies. It seeks to open the already (seems to me) big hole in the notion that climate change contrarians and their followers would change their tunes if only someone would explain the science in sufficiently clear terms to them. Time to just drop the notion that all we need is education and data to cure what looks – to many in the holy-crap stop-it-with-CO2-already camp – like ignorance and unfounded dogma. Instead, education and a fair familiarity with both scientific method and math provide little predictive value on who is generally going to believe the IPCC and who is going to see in the scientific ‘consensus’ a swamp of self-serving error and perhaps deliberately misleading pseudo-science. In fact, in some groups the more science its members know the more laughing about climate change worries you’ll hear.
The examination of this conundrum falls into a sphere of science I for one had not thought about much, the “science of communicating science.” It has to do with cultural cognition (my translation: why some groups just seem nuts to other groups). Oh hell. It’s always been clear, for reasons that didn’t seem worth exploring too deeply just to find out what they are, that journalistic accounts of science, like science itself, just do not get through to some (benighted) people. Some are bored. Others are deeply interested but may come to the daffiest conclusions about what to think after they’ve read them through. You’d write a story on a new species and get from a reader a “theory” why the Yeti have ESP and that’s why we can’t catch them. Or on neutron stars and somebody else lets you know of their conviction the sun is a great big energy crystal. Thing is, a lot of those remarks come from folks who seem decently familiar with math and the kind of science that teachers in high school and college try to impart. Such awareness can, at times, intensify delusion. It is important to remember that to be scientifically literate does not mean one is a trained, experienced scientist. Climate scientists, by all measures, are overwhelming NOT climate contrarians.
One finds these days a large number of the more crusading sorts of journalists who see climate change not only as great story but a cause to promote. With the cause stuck in neutral, cynicism grows about the value of merely reporting the science of climate change. Their rough argument is because so much of the opposition (skeptics) is near-immune to further explanation the most persuasive thing to do is to change the subject. Better, the thinking goes, to employ rhetorically persuasive tactics that exploit the market-focussed or other biases of unbelievers. Write about energy independence, or efficiency, or the no-regrets policy of moving into a greener economy as the better route to prosperity and freedom. Hmmpppphhhhht! I think I’ll stick to first and foremost covering science – and to knowing that some people just won’t get it no matter how smart or educated they are.
To get back to the track, one finds several media stories:
- Science News – Janet Raloff: Climate skepticism not rooted in science illiteracy ;
- Register (UK) –Lewis Page: The more science you know, the less worried you are about climate ; There’s much to say abut this screed. First, the hed is not quite right. Rather the study actually suggests that the more science you know the greater the chances you will be particularly vehement on whatever ‘side’ you take – either on board with the likes of the Royal Society scared spitless of climate change or the side of those at the Heartland Institute scared witless of the one-world communitarian socialism that will be victor if global regulations are enacted to keep climate change within tolerable bound or something like that. Page reveals himself sympathetic to the fraud or delusion interpretation of climate science. So, as an experienced if boffin-obsessed science writer, he illustrates what the Nature Climate Change study argues. He knows his stuff, by any easy metric and yet, I’d guess, is sure that Al Gore and Michael Mann and Jim Hansen are totally full of it but Dick Lindzen and Pat Michaels are rather sensible. He also has, usefully to all, kept track of the “squishy science” behind the new science of communicating science. He links to his previous essays on the topic. They include, a year ago, Fight global warming with Asimov-style Psychohistory – Profs and earlier this year, Climate-change scepticism must be ‘treated’, says enviro-sociologists / Dubious on warmo peril? You’re the kind who’d own slaves ; My oh my. Page’s best line is this translation of the new study’s conclusion that recitations of science won’t persuade skeptics: “Thus it is, according to the assembled profs, that the US government should seek to fund a communication strategy on climate change which is not focused on sound scientific information.”
- Daily Mail (UK) Rob Waugh: Global warming sceptics are BETTER-informed about science than believers ; Which ought to say, but does not, that the most informed people of all about science – those being scientists in pertinent fields – tend strongly to the believers camp. Plus, as Waugh reports, in the general public the effect of science awareness is not strong in predicting who will be a sceptic, as the Brits spell it. Among such, 57 percent are science literate. Among climate change believers, 56 percent are science literate. Hmm. I didn’t know any public anywhere is more than 50 percent science literate. Jon Miller, the prof in chief on science literacy, tells us science writers that less than a third of Americans are science literate.
Blogs and other essay reactions: (Some these writers are in that email discussion group to which this post’s top alludes)
- Yale Cultural Cognition Project – Dan Kahan: Climate change polarization “fast and slow” ; In which the study’s lead author discusses it and how it came together and relates to other work.
- USA Today ScienceFair – Dan Vergano: Culture splits climate views, not science smarts ; Could’ve put this among the general media group above.
- HuffPost The Blog – David Ropeik: Tribalism:Making a risky World Even More Dangerous ; Written before the new paper came out, but about its lead author Dan Kahan of Yale. Ropeik’s specialty is risk and how people perceive it – a subject with heavy pertinence to how people react to warnings of climate change. He continues his thoughts at the Big Think blogspot with ‘Another nail in the coffin of Enlightenment Reason‘ filed after the new study published.
- DeSmogBlog.com – Chris Mooney: A Top Scientist Ignores the Science of Why People Deny Science ; Mooney’s new book (I’m reading it, I’ll finish it, soon Chris), The Republican Brain, relies on much the same corpus of research reflected in the new Nature Climate Change study, to which Mooney refers in this blog.
- Inkstain – John Fleck: Science Literacy, Numeracy, and Science Policy Challenges ;
- Economist’s View – Tim Haab: Study rules out stupidity as a cause of disbelieve in climate science ;
- Grist – David Roberts: Once again, with feeling: More science will not cure climate skepticism.
- Real Climate Economics – Gernot Wagner (of Envi. Defense Fund): Breaking the Association Between Believing in Climate Science and Big Government ;
- Reaction to Climate Change – Tierney Smith: Cultural beliefs split climate views not science ; A brief, sensible post. More important it led to another atg this UK site, in next short…
- *UPDATE – Grist – David Roberts: Winning the climate culture war ; A followup to the post bulleted a few up the list. Roberts makes a strong argument about the conservation of matters. Which means, that what matters does not go away via rhetorical device. No matter how one repackages one’s argument to appeal to someone else whose cultural assumptions you do not share, he writes but this is my interpretation, sooner or later one of you has to change his or her mind to close the gap in what to do. One can delay but cannot avoid the brass tacks if the aim is to change somebody’s mind over fundamental ways by which the world should work.
- Reaction to Climate Change – Tierney Smith: Has climate change been the death of environmentalism? ; It’s a well-discussed topic, the asserted end of environmentalism, but this is a well-focussed look at one aspect.
Grist for the Mill:
Nature Climate Change The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks ; Yale University Press Release;
– Charlie Petit