"A Little Knowledge": Climate Skepticism and Sophistication

By Chris Mooney | June 27, 2011 9:13 am

My latest DeSmogBlog piece is a bit bibliographic: It elaborates on the post about the latest Kahan study by cobbling together four other studies showing something similar and obviously related:

Higher Education and Climate Skepticism.2008 Pew survey showed not only that Democrats and Republicans are polarized over whether they accept global warming, but also that for Republicans, having a college degree didn’t make one any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college educated Republicans.

Increased Knowledge and Climate Concern. In a 2009 paper in the journalRisk Analysis, a team of social scientists found that “Among people who trust scientists to provide reliable information about the environment and among Democrats and Independents, increased knowledge has been associated with increased concern. But among people who are skeptical about scientists and among Republicans more knowledge was generally not associated with greater concern.”

Interaction Between Education, Politics, and Views on Climate Change. A 2009 paper in Climatic Change by Lawrence Hamilton of the University of New Hampshire found that in two surveys—of New Hampshire and Michigan residents—climate denial was inversely related to more education and more self professed knowledge of the issue among Republicans/conservatives. The author opined: “Narrowcast media, including many Web sites devoted to discrediting climate-change concerns, provide ideal conduits for channeling politically inspired but scientific sounding arguments to an audience predisposed to retain and repeat them.”

Self Professed Knowledge and Climate Polarization: A series of 2011 surveys by Hamilton similarly found that Republicans and Democrats who profess to know less about the climate issue are closer to one another in their views about whether global warming is really happening. By contrast, Democrats and Republicans who think they know a lot about the issue are completely polarized, with Republicans quite confident the science is wrong.

Not like this finding is robust or anything….For more elaboration, read here.

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Comments (14)

  1. I’m not the only one contacting authorities and law makers and the justice departments to have the leading SCIENTISTS and NEWS EDITORS charged for this needless panic of a false war called Climate Change that condemned billions to a DEATH BY CO2 for 25 years. Because remember, climate change wasn’t sustainability, it was a specific CO2 death threat of theory turned into political correctness on steroids and history will curse us all for this modern day omen worship.
    Remove the CO2 from the entire environmental equation so we can face the future with courage and optimism, not fear of the unknown. Accept progress and embrace change because it’s the planet’s future and ours.

  2. Johnny

    I’d like to see more comparisons with other sciences, Chris. I think your earlier posts where Climate was compared to Nuclear in education / risk perception was enlightening.

    My pet theory on it is simple. In both the Nuclear and Climate groups, education pushed the liberal in the direction it was supposed to push him. In both groups education decreased the conservatives risk assessment.

    This is likely caused by strong liberal bias’s in the “educator” and the “education materials” which were designed by liberals, presented by liberals, and accepted by liberals…but not conservatives.

  3. Consensus was a perception, not a reality. If it were a fact the scientists wouldn’t have all had different and personal definitions of climate change now would they? If consensus were true, explain how these countless thousands of consensus scientists always vastly outnumber the protesters? If consensus were true, the thousands of scientists would be all over CNN and marching in the streets to bring awareness to what they are calling a comet hit of an emergency. If consensus were true, the scientists would be acting like it’s the crisis they get paid to say it is. They have kids too that would be facing a death by CO2. It wasn’t a science lie, it was comfortable lie turned criminal exaggeration and real planet lovers are happy it was all wrong. Why would you want this to happen? Even IF consensus were true, why should we trust them because it was it was “scientists” who polluted and poisoned the planet in the first place with their cancer causing chemicals and toxic pesticides don’t forget.
    All publicly funded sources and organizations are climate change believers and all private are denier based. What does that tell you? When publicly funded organizations such as what you mentioned are paid to study the effects, denying climate change is impossible and therefore implied. The gun of political correctness is held to the heads of every publicly funded science organization. Science organizations vaguely and in noncommittal terms endorse climate change but it is nothing more than political correctness on steroids. And perception is the key here and to not take that into account is not rational. Think of it as good news: “Yippiee! Our kids won’t suffer after all and the crisis has passed for the planet”. Remaining climate change believers don’t love the planet, they hate humanity for wanting this misery to have been true.

  4. @ mememine69

    “why should we trust them because it was it was “scientists” who polluted and poisoned the planet in the first place with their cancer causing chemicals and toxic pesticides don’t forget.”

    Your disingenuousness aside, while scientists have certainly invented a wide variety of chemicals and processes, it is industrial complexes (whether in free markets or planned economies) which create pollution as they create products and employment.

    “All publicly funded sources and organizations are climate change believers and all private are denier based. What does that tell you?”

    That tells me that there are powerful special interests which do not want to acknowledge that an unfettered free market will create negative externalities which it has no mechanism to correct, that the market rewards short term profits and ignores for as long as possible long term consequences of pollution on the environment and human health, and that the owners of established industrial complexes have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo for as long as possible.

  5. 1985

    Once again, none of the underlying assumption behind this study are true, which makes the conclusions invalid. And they are that:

    1. Having a degree makes you more scientifically literate than someone who doesn’t have one. False on all accounts – the vast majority of degrees given involve very little teaching of science, or even worse, drilling a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about what science is a how it works into student’s heads
    2. Having a degree in the sciences means you are scientifically literate. Unfortunately, even scientific education itself is so poor and very rarely get past the mere reproduction of facts that the above is by no means true
    3. Knowledge of scientific facts is equivalent to being scientifically literate. It isn’t, scientific literacy is first and foremost your ability to think and reason like a scientist, and your understanding of the epistemological foundations of science.

    It is very easy to see how the whole study and its conclusions are invalid when one realize that those assumptions do not hold. The existence of such studies isn’t at all helpful to the discussion.

  6. Johnny

    @1985

    Knowledge of scientific facts is equivalent to being scientifically literate.

    I think you’re trying to say that qualified scientists who disagree with your versions of “scientific facts” are not “scientifically literate”.

  7. 1985

    I think you failed to read the whole post

  8. Blair

    I would argue that the result of the study is consistent and utterly understandable. Those of us for whom science is a vocation are used to dealing with uncertainty. Our work requires us to establish the relative risks and propose approaches to either mitigate risk or address the root causes of the risk. Doing this for a living I find it incredibly hard to fathom the approach of those who espouse a level certainty that exceeds the methodology.

    For the scientifically literate the greenhouse effect is undeniable as is the logic behind the hypothesis that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane etc… should enhance the effect with a commensurate effect on global climate. Unfortunately, the purveyors of CAGW don’t stop there. They insist that models with recognizable limitations will somehow produce nigh-irrefutable outputs and choose to omit serious considerations of uncertainty.

    For those of us used to seeing error bars; levels of significance based on testing; and qualifiers in reports the outputs from much of the field of climate science is frustrating to say the least. In the IPCC reports we are presented with levels of confidence which are nothing of the sort. They are unsupported by statistical rigour and while they may be correct are not in the least reproducible.
    Were I confident that the “confidence levels” were reliable I would argue that immediate responses were necessary and “damn the expense”. However even in the original version of the Precautionary Principal from Rio there is a qualifier for cost-effectiveness: “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

    As a numerate and scientifically literate individual I am skeptical, not of the science, but of the purveyors of the message. I do not deny the plausibility of the results, but I do not believe the unsupported and unsupportable spin placed on those results. As a Canadian, I cannot approve of any plan where all the efforts and sacrifices of myself and my countrymen (and women) will be erased in less than a single month’s construction of Chinese power plants. I will not seek to beggar my neighbour when I have absolute certainty that it will have no net effect on the global picture. Until someone presents a plan that can be demonstrated to have a reasonable opportunity to have a significant effect I will not be pushing for immediate action on the climate change front. That doesn’t make me a denier it makes me a realist. Instead I will push for increased resources to be allocated to projects that have the potential of demonstrable and definable positive outcomes like ecosystem restoration and preservation.

    Blair King

  9. 1985

    It is not clear to me how you can claim that climate scientists are calling for great sacrifices from the Canadians while the Chinese keep building power plants and still call yourself a “numerate and scientifically literate individual”. That’s such a distortion of things that there is something very wrong either with your basic ability of understanding what others are saying or with your intellectual honesty.

    You have also totally failed to understand that global warming is not “The Issue”, it is only one of the many symptoms of the real problem which is the impossibility of exponential growth in a finite environment. Neither the existence and severity of that problem nor what has to be done about it change significantly if there was no global warming. There are no “error bars” for which you to grasp for and deny ecological overshoot.

    That failure to understand the situation is also uncharacteristic of a numerate and scientifically literate person.

  10. Blair

    1985,

    Under Kyoto Canada was mandated to undertake a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions to 6% less than 1990 levels. Were Canada to meet its Kyoto goal it would need to reduce current emissions by approximately 240 million tonnes by 2012. That works out to between 30 % and 40% of current emissions. If you can see any method by which a nation can reduce its emissions by 40% without sacrifice then you would do well to share it with the rest of the world.

    Between 2006 and 2010 China’s new coal-fired power plant construction was estimated to be increasing its carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 330 million tonnes a year. So if Canada slashed its GDP by 30% – 40% in order to meet its o goal it would be cancelled out by about 265 days of construction of NEW capacity on China. A note, I clearly overstated the growth in my previous post. That was an error on my part. My original use of a month referred to the original Canadian plan under Kyoto and represented our yearly reductions.

    I take it you are familiar with the concept of environmental Kuznet Curves? While the research is not all in it is pretty clear that a substantial drop in quality of life in Canada would have a resultant negative effect on ecological health. Given finite resources and a scenario where large sacrifices from one party will be totally overshadowed by increases in others the best approach is to put the limited resources to better use. In Canada that means instead of concentrating on carbon dioxide emissions we work on habitat preservation. We have some of the largest tracts of unsullied nature left on earth. By preserving much of that land we can give our ecosystem as much buffering capacity as possible to allow it to adapt to changes that can only be addressed if we have an international effort to control and/or reduce emissions.

  11. 1985

    You simply repeated the same things you said before despite what I posted above, which shows that you didn’t understand it all (if you read it to begin with).

    Again, climate scientists are not saying that Canadians should be sacrificing while Chinese keep building coal plants. Climate scientists are saying that the world has to lower emissions to a certain level by a certain date. How the world does it (or rather, as of present, does not do it) is determined by politics. What is so hard to understand?

  12. Blair

    1985,

    Regarding your original post I admit I did disregard a portion of your diatribe because your response was off-topic and more importantly was inconsistent with observed conditions. Human growth was only exponential in the earliest days of humanity. As population densities and development has increased quality of life in the developed world the model changed. It is now readily understood that the human population is undergoing logistic growth. Certainly the potential exists for ecological overshoot but that that only increases the importance of spending limited resources to protect habitat in an attempt to protect ecological diversity.

    As for your statement that “Climate scientists are saying that the world has to lower emissions to a certain level by a certain date” that is exactly the issue I have with the topic. As someone who has seen under the hood of the original GCMs I understand the uncertainties in the models. To suggest that a specific concentration must be hit before a specific date demonstrates a level of certainty that is unsupportable given the state in the models being used.

  13. 1985

    As for your statement that “Climate scientists are saying that the world has to lower emissions to a certain level by a certain date” that is exactly the issue I have with the topic. As someone who has seen under the hood of the original GCMs I understand the uncertainties in the models. To suggest that a specific concentration must be hit before a specific date demonstrates a level of certainty that is unsupportable given the state in the models being used.

    Correct. There is a lot of uncertainty. What this means given the potential consequences is that we should actually aim for even more drastic cuts of emissions, in order to be on the safe side. Even more so when one realizes that the models indeed don’t do a very good job of accurately describing the system because they’re too conservative.

    As far as your denial of ecological overshoot, it so laughable that it doesn’t even deserve mentioning, I will only repeat once again that you display utter lack of understanding of the situation.

  14. Nullius in Verba

    “I will only repeat once again that you display utter lack of understanding of the situation.”

    Utter disbelief is not the same as utter lack of understanding. We understand what you’re saying. We understood what Malthus and Jevons and Ehrlich were saying. We just don’t believe it.

    As an aside, I note Judith Curry has commented on the article, which some might find interesting.
    http://judithcurry.com/2011/06/28/mooney-on-kahan-on-skeptics/

    I liked this comment:
    “The more uncertain the science, the broader should be your range of policy options with a focus on resiliency rather than a single optimal policy solution (which could backfire by being inadequate on the one hand, or unecessary and costly on the other).”

    That seems to me to be relevant to the problem with uncertainty noted here.

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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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