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Scientifically Literate People More Likely To Be Climate Change Skeptics

Steven Hayward, Powerline Blog

For years now the climate campaign and the politicized science community has been complaining that it has a “communications problem,” which can be solved if only they shout louder, or get the human car alarm former Vice President Al Gore to make an Oscar-winning documentary film or something.  Because, after all, it’s just so easy for a billion-dollar effort at pushing the climate crisis to be undone by a handful of discredited “skeptics” with only at tiny fraction of the resources environmental groups have spent.  The whole spectacle would be pitiful if it wasn’t so pathetic, not to mention risible.

A few months ago I wrote a post about how the climate campaign reminded me of a T.S. Eliot poem, which concluded thus:

“What might have been and has been / Point to one end, which is always present,” Eliot continues in Burnt Norton. Which reminds me of the climate record (“time future contained in time past”). We don’t understand the climate past with reasonable precision, as the intense debate about the “hockey stick” graph showed, and the computer models predicting a 2 to 5 degree rise in the future are clearly riddled with large uncertainties, given the range of prospective temperatures they spit out. No matter. “What is always present” today is the cocksure certainty that catastrophic global warming is occurring, and damn the weatherman. Think of it as the ultimate modernist free-verse, only without literary allusions “an abstraction / Remaining a perpetual possibility / Only in a world of speculation.”

Well, now the whole farce is starting to remind me of Monty Python’s “dead parrot” sketch—the climate crisis isn’t dead, it’s just restin’.  A new paper just out from the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale University has a supremely inconvenient truth for the die-hard climate campaigners.  The opening sentences of the abstract pour cold water in the whole “communications problem” excuse:

The conventional explanation for controversy over climate change emphasizes impediments to public understanding: limited popular knowledge of science, the inability of ordinary citizens to assess technical information, and the resulting widespread use of unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A large survey of U.S. adults (N = 1540) found little support for this account. http://talkinginthedark.com/events/category/news/past/ On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones.

Whoa there: The more science you know about climate change, the less likely you are to think it is a crisis?  This suggests that all the money environmentalists have spent (I think the Environmental Defense Fund has spent $300 million alone on climate change) has had a negative effect on public opinion, and it offers the ironic possibility that the best thing Al Gore could do to advance his cause is shut up and grow his beard back in a Tibetan monastery.

This is by no means the first social science survey to reach an inconvenient finding like this.  The journal Risk Analysis published a similar article in 2008.  From the abstract:

By examining the results of a survey on an original and representative sample of Americans, we find that these three forces—informedness, confidence in scientists, and personal efficacy—are related in interesting and unexpected ways, and exert significant influence on risk assessments of global warming and climate change. In particular, more informed respondents both feel less personally responsible for global warming, and also show less concern for global warming. We also find that confidence in scientists has unexpected effects: respondents with high confidence in scientists feel less responsible for global warming, and also show less concern for global warming.

The authors were clearly dismayed by their findings, writing in the conclusion: “Perhaps ironically, and certainly contrary to the assumptions underlying the knowledge-deficit model, as well as the marketing of movies like Ice Age and An Inconvenient Truth, the effects of information on both concern for global warming and responsibility for it are exactly the opposite of what were expected. . . [I]t can not be comforting to the researchers in the scientific community that the more trust people have in them as scientists, the less concerned they are about their findings.”

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