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Survey shows skeptics are smarter

Posted By Joanne Nova On July 4, 2011 @ 1:59 am In Global Warming | Comments Disabled

I kid you not. Chris Mooney at Desmog has got the data that shows skeptics were more literate and numerate than believers, and he wants to share it.

Last week, an intriguing study emerged from Dan Kahan and his colleagues at Yale and elsewhere–finding that knowing more about science, and being better at mathematical reasoning, was related to more climate science skepticism and denial–rather than less.

When faced with the news that smarter more mathematical people were skeptical of man-made global warming, it’s a sure bet that as a Desmogger, he would fail to reach the obvious conclusion.  Are believers gullible fools who can’t see the flaws in the reasoning? No. Skeptics are more literate and numerate about everything else, except for climate science, when they become dangerously overconfident and seek only to use their intellect to punch holes in the theory. Its not like these bright types have anything else to do is it? Of course.

This is bad, bad news for anyone who thinks that better math and science education will help us solve our problems on climate change. But it’s also something else. To me, it provides a kind of uber-explanation for climate skeptic and denier behavior in the public arena, and especially on the blogs.

In my experience, climate skeptics are nothing if not confident in their ability to challenge the science of climate change–and even to competently recalculate (and scientifically and mathematically refute) various published results. It’s funny how this high-level intellectual firepower is always used in service of debunking—rather than affirming or improving—mainstream science. But the fact is, if you go to blogs like WattsUpWithThat or Climate Audit, you certainly don’t find scientific and mathematical illiterates doubting climate change. Rather, you find scientific and mathematical sophisticates itching to blow holes in each new study.

Score Chris Mooney a 9.5 for a triple pike multispin flip carried out in public under pressure with no supporting news to work with.

The study looks interesting:

Kahan’s team simply structured a survey in a way that no one—to my knowledge, at least—has done before. In a sample of over 1,500 people, they gathered at least four different types of information: how much scientific literacy they possessed (e.g., how well they answered questions about things like the time it takes for the Earth to circle the sun and the relative sizes of electrons and atoms), how “numerate” they were (e.g., their ability to engage in mathematical reasoning),  what their cultural values were (how much they favored individualism and hierarch in the ordering of society, as opposed to being egalitarian and communitarian), and what their views were on how serious a risk global warming is.

But the study possibly mixes up cause and effect:

Respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased.

They suggest that people who are conservative in nature use their intellect to support their “conservativeness”, and those who liked “communitarian” values did the same. That’s true to some extent. But the problem with this is that it assumes people choose their political value first. What if scientifically numerate people looked at the evidence, (on finances, economics, feeble do-gooder plans, and CAGW) and swapped political leanings? (C’est moi.) Does it mean conservatives are smarter too?

The evidence suggests the switch must be common. If liberal  vs conservative values were an unchanging genetic predisposition there would be just as many liberals at 60 as there were at 20.

What was that saying? Thanks to Churchill: “If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.”

Kahan, Dan M., Wittlin, Maggie, Peters, Ellen, Slovic, Paul, Ouellette, Lisa Larrimore, Braman, Donald and Mandel, Gregory N., The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change (2011). Cultural Cognition Project Working Paper No. 89. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1871503

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