Climate Change and the Problem of Well-Informed Denial

By Chris Mooney | May 3, 2011 12:12 pm

My latest DeSmogBlog item just went up–it is about yet another study showing that the more you think you know about climate, the more sure of your views you are–even if those are diametrically opposed to the science:

“Political polarization is greatest among the Republicans and Democrats who are most confident that they understand this issue,” writes Hamilton. “Republicans and Democrats less sure about their understanding also tend to be less far apart in their beliefs.”

….

How could this be? For Hamilton, the explanation lies in the interaction between how we get information (from trusted news and Internet sources, we think, but we’re actually being selective) and our own biases in evaluating it (objectively, we think, but again, we’re actually being selective). “People increasingly choose news sources that match their own views,” Hamilton writes. “Moreover, they tend to selectively absorb information even from this biased flow, fitting it into their pre-existing beliefs.” In other words, we’re twice biased—based on our views and information sources—and moreover, twice biased in different directions.

Thus it really makes a lot of sense that those who are paying less attention to the climate issue, whether nominally Democrat or Republican, are less polarized and less sure of themselves. They’re not working nearly as hard at reaffirming their convictions, and refuting the convictions of the other side.

You can read the full piece here and the study that inspired it here.

Comments (10)

  1. KILLER BEE

    Global warming is real but it’s not as much of a problem as environmental alarmists like you and Al Gore apparently think it is! Ocean levels will only rise by about 0.5 m to 0.7 m not 6 m!

  2. Chris Winter

    Oh, only about two feet of advantage for storm surges (from stronger storms, per the mainstream theory.) Nothing for New York City, Shanghai, or Venice to worry about.

    And the mid-latitude droughts, reduced crop yields due to higher temperatures, failure of glacier-fed rivers? All similarly tolerable, I take it?

    Yes, the above is sarcasm. Notice I haven’t asked you what time span your prediction covers, nor what the basis for it is. I know you’re not concerned with such things.

  3. Nullius in Verba

    “Nothing for New York City, Shanghai, or Venice to worry about.”

    One’s on reclaimed land and a lot drier than it used to be, one’s on a river delta, and one was flooded deliberately, yeah?

    “reduced crop yields due to higher temperatures”

    Oh, yes. That’s why we grow stuff in greenhouses, isn’t it?

    “failure of glacier-fed rivers?”

    Rivers are fed by precipitation across the entire drainage basin, of which glaciers account for only a small area. And aren’t we supposed to get more precipitation with global warming?

    “Yes, the above is sarcasm.”

  4. Matt B.

    “People increasingly choose news sources that match their own views,”

    Neat. That was one of my suggestions a couple days ago.

  5. Matt B, you’re going to love this…

    Beware online “filter bubbles” (Eli Pariser) http://bit.ly/lGwxMY (TED.com)

    And for those surprised about “selectively absorb information even from this biased flow, fitting it into their pre-existing beliefs” then I highly recommend you start here…

    The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science (Chris Mooney) http://bit.ly/hIrE0e (motherjones.com)

  6. Chris Winter

    “One’s on reclaimed land and a lot drier than it used to be, one’s on a river delta, and one was flooded deliberately, yeah?”

    Is that supposed to be a refutation?

    “Oh, yes. That’s why we grow stuff in greenhouses, isn’t it?”

    From research I’ve read, rice appears to be most susceptible to higher temperatures. Interestingly, much of the world’s rice is grown in Asia, which stands to be affected by the loss of Himalayan glaciers.

    And not much rice, or any other staple crop, is grown in greenhouses.

    “Rivers are fed by precipitation across the entire drainage basin, of which glaciers account for only a small area. And aren’t we supposed to get more precipitation with global warming?”

    But glacier melt can keep the rivers flowing when there’s no rain for a spell — if there are glaciers to melt.

    And yes, global warming means more water vapor in the atmosphere, hence more rain (or snow), where precipitation happens. That won’t be everywhere.

    (I almost wrote “precipitaation”. I guess that’s what we can expect on Eaarth.)

    You’ve been around long enough that you should have picked up on some of these subtleties by now.

  7. Nullius, you must have been busy. That was rather a weak showing.

    Especially when there’s actually quite reasonable objections to be made to the study, i.e. the study only asks people what they -think- they know about the subject.

    Now, this self assessment of knowledge is problematic in a number of respects.

    Firstly, they may or may not actually know a great deal about the subject of climate change. The opinions of a person who actually knows a significant amount vs someone who only thinks they know a lot are likely to come from very different places.

    Secondly, people who have their mind made up on an issue, regardless of how they arrived at that decision, are probably going to say they know a fair bit about the subject in question, regardless of whether they do or not.

    And let us not forget, thirdly, that people are often vastly unaware of the extent of their ignorance, and will cheerfully overstate the extent of their knowledge.

    Now, obviously there is indeed an unsurprising split in the data, and it would certainly be interesting to delve further into the issue. And that may well support the thesis that more informed, more educated people cherry pick information out of the stream presented to them to support their internal views. But I don’t think the above problems are ignorable when it comes to making such claims about the results.

  8. Nullius in Verba

    #7,

    I don’t have any particular objections to the study – it confirms what I’ve observed. Those who know the most about the debate are the most polarised. The difference is in the interpretation – in that I reckon it’s the Democrats whose conclusions are most influenced by partisan bias in uncritically accepting the claims made by climate science, rather than the Republicans as Chris assumes. But as I’ve made the point repeatedly in the past, I didn’t see the point of saying it again. I assumed everyone knew.

    The issues of whether someone actually knows, or only thinks they know a lot about climate is a real one. But I’ve found it about equally common on both sides – most people know less than they think. The more important question, though, is do they know enough?

    #6,

    “Is that supposed to be a refutation?”

    Was your comment supposed to be a serious argument?

    A lot of inhabited places happen to be near sea level because they are formed by ongoing geographic processes that form and maintain them at sea level (and which also drop a lot of fertile silt). As sea level rises, so does the land.

    To the extent that it doesn’t, because of human interference, it is a problem that applies anyway. Land subsides and erodes continually, and humans are well used to dealing with it or working around it. Sea level change is a significant contribution, but by no means always the biggest. We can certainly keep up with a few millimetres a year. Such cities generally have no more to worry about than usual.

    Given New York’s history as a swampy island much smaller than the current area (despite past sea level rise), I would have thought it was obvious the trend was going the other way. And Venice was silting up until the locals diverted six rivers into the lagoon to keep it clear. If it was such a problem, they could always divert them back. But in Venice’s case, it’s like that because they like it that way. And they are already building flood defences that will deal with the problem.

    Rivers and coastal erosion are basic, first-year geography topics. I’ve never understood how these arguments ever got taken seriously.

    “From research I’ve read, rice appears to be most susceptible to higher temperatures.”

    If it’s the research I’m thinking of, it’s bogus.

    Rice grows well above about 20 C and is virtually unaffected by temperature across the optimum range of 25 C to 35 C. Very hot temperatures between 35 C and 45 C during flowering cause increasing percentage of sterility. Compared to all the other effects on yields, a 1-2 C change is not going to affect anything significantly. The primary determinant of yield is wealth.

    “And not much rice, or any other staple crop, is grown in greenhouses.”

    Nowadays, a lot of food is grown in greenhouses, in rich countries. Poor ones can’t afford it, and in the poorest countries it’s usually hot enough that they don’t need it. But everybody knows that the reason for greenhouses is that many plants grow better in the warmth. This weird idea that the greenhouse effect (meaning, the effect of actual greenhouses) would be to reduce yields is just bizarre. I find it hard to take seriously.

    And anyway, farmers pick crops to match local conditions. If conditions change, they’ll grow something else, or grow it elsewhere. Adaptation is trivial.

    “But glacier melt can keep the rivers flowing when there’s no rain for a spell — if there are glaciers to melt.”

    A function served just as easily by a dam.

    And as I explained, the Himalayan glaciers make a negligible contribution to the rivers, even in the dry season, because they are such a tiny fraction of the Asian drainage basin. Loss of glaciers would affect some of the land just downstream of the glacier run-off, but would not be a major effect. And adaptation is easy.

    “That won’t be everywhere.”

    So move it to where you need it.

    “You’ve been around long enough that you should have picked up on some of these subtleties by now.”

    You know me by now. Did you really think I hadn’t?

  9. TTT

    Oh, yes. That’s why we grow stuff in greenhouses, isn’t it?

    It must also be why deserts are so lush and green.

    A function served just as easily by a dam…. Loss of glaciers would affect some of the land just downstream of the glacier run-off, but would not be a major effect. And adaptation is easy…. So move it to where you need it.

    The world didn’t begin the day you were born. Saying people already at the subsistence level should “just” move, “just” adapt, or “just” build dams is no less misanthropic magical thinking than the idea that we should “just” uproot our agricultural system to follow any shifts in the climate bands. A lot of people can starve to death in the time it takes to “just” build a dam, assuming there are even funds and expertise available, just like one crop after another will fail if you try to “just” move them into areas that are now warmer but that are still covered by asphalt or sand.

    The sentiment seems to be “Let them eat warm cake.”

  10. Nullius in Verba

    “It must also be why deserts are so lush and green.”

    No, that’s because they’re dry, not because they’re hot. When the Sahara was hotter, it was lush and green.

    “Saying people already at the subsistence level should “just” move, “just” adapt, or “just” build dams”

    In a hundred years time, they’ll all be about 5-10 times richer. Assuming no idiot goes and bans cheap energy, that is.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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