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Study shows skeptics know more about climate science than believers

UPDATE Dan Kahan has replied in Comment #54.

So much for the theory that skeptics are dumb or uninformed.  Fox News reports that a new study shows that when people are quizzed about climate science, the skeptics outscored the believers.

Dan Kahan at Yale did the study on 2,000 people, but with only nine questions, so there is limited insight here, but it fits with his previous study which found people who knew more about maths and science were more likely to be skeptical.  Readers of skeptical blogs (who chose to respond to surveys and list their qualifications in comments) are likely to have hard science degrees. The world is slowly waking up to the fact that the skeptics are more knowledgeable about science.

In a proper science quiz, the gap would probably be even larger. On two of the nine questions, skeptics got the science right.  But believers “outscored” skeptics at repeating the propaganda (which shouldn’t be a question in a survey about scientific knowledge). I’d like to see all nine questions (can anyone find a preprint or the paper?)

Skeptics get science right:

One question, for instance, asked if scientists believe that warming would “increase the risk of skin cancer.” Skeptics were more likely than believers to know that is false.

Skeptics were also more likely to correctly say that if the North Pole icecap melted, global sea levels would not rise. One can test this with a glass of water and an ice cube – the water level will not change after the ice melts. Antarctic ice melting, however, would increase sea levels because much of it rests on land.

Believers (including believers who design surveys) get propaganda right, but science wrong:

Liberals were more likely to correctly answer questions like: “What gas do most scientists believe causes temperatures to rise?” The correct answer is carbon dioxide.

A question of propaganda, not science?

The design of the questions was sloppy and not well informed. Asking “which gas do most scientists believe causes temperatures to rise” is not about science, but about opinions. It’s a social science or cultural question, not a question about our natural world.

There are another two big problems with this question. Kahan assumes most scientists would say “CO2”, but as far as I know the question has never been asked across a representative slice of the disciplines of science (or even among the sub-group “climate scientists”).  Since half  the meteorologists and two-thirds of geoscientists and engineers are skeptics —  it is far from obvious what the scientific world at large would say to this question. Worse, in terms of scientific accuracy, the correct answer really is not CO2, but H2O. Even the IPCC says that “Water vapour is the most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.” (IPCC AR4, p 632). Kahan reports the results as if they are about “climate science”, but what he asked instead was a question about PR. Scientifically, he’s wrong, but giving points to believers for making the same mistake as he does.

The question of science versus opinions-of-science underscores a major problem with the whole survey design. There is conflict in the reporting: on the one hand, the questions are described as being about where people thought “scientists stand on climate science”, but on the other, the results are expressed as knowledge of climate science itself, not a knowledge of the sociology of scientists opinions. Does Kahan really understand what science is?

The eternal problem of unstated assumptions, confirmation bias and “cause and effect”

Kahan assumes that skeptics are politically motivated, but no studies have looked at the leaders of the skeptics movement, or why people switched sides, nor have studies sorted out cause and effect.

The study’s author, Kahan, also says that the global warming debate has become so politically polarized that people pick their side based on politics rather than what they know about science.

Do skeptics vote right because they “were born” that way, or do they vote right more often because there is no other option? While many studies find right-leaning voters are more likely to be skeptics, those studies are no use for figuring out cause and effect. Many skeptics (like me) were originally quite left-leaning politically. What choice did we have once we realized how futile and unscientific the left leaning policies are? Many left leaning skeptics realized the consensus was wrong and later changed their vote.

“The position someone adopts on [global warming] conveys who she is – whose side she’s on, in a hate-filled, anxiety-stoked competition for status between opposing cultural groups,” Kahan writes in his paper.

Again, this is true of the left, but not what I’ve experienced on the right. Skeptics and believers co-exist on the right — I’ve seen polite discussions and agreements to disagree when I’m at right-leaning events. I’ve yet to come across a left-leaning group that welcomes skeptics. There is political “hate” that runs from either side, but believer versus skeptic hate in my experience is mainly a “left” thing.

One of the other reasons there are more right leaning skeptics is probably that there are open discussion on the right. Right leaning groups are more likely to encourage and respect free speech, as well as being stocked with better informed people (as this study shows). It is a banal truth that conservative believers have a much higher chance of discovering that the science is not settled, because they are more likely to come across well informed and skeptical friends. Conservative media outlets are also more likely to show both sides of the debate. Left leaning ones (Fairfax, the ABC, Guardian etc) almost never expose their readers to the rational side of the skeptic argument. (Go on, list the major skeptics who have been given column space or air time? What’s the ratio? 99:1?)

The political bias of skeptics and believers is mostly a creation of the left.  Left leaning believers are far less likely to hear both sides of the debate. They are shielded from it by coercion, namecalling, and aggressive tactics to stop polite discussion. In Democratic and Labor circles, skeptics are exiled, called “deniers”, and treated like dirt equivalent to pedophiles. The right leaning side asks for open debate. The left leaning side does everything it can to avoid debates, and uses smear campaigns and ad hominem arguments to silence public discussion and try to prevent skeptics from even being allowed to speak on radio and TV.

Is the left leaning side driving polarisation? Let’s can quote Dan Kahan. He thinks it is newsworthy to mention that being a patronising namecaller is unlikely to win friends and influence people. He is, of course, talking to left leaning believers when he says this.

 Kahan says that if global warming believers really want to convince people, they should stop demonizing and talking down to their opponents, and instead focus on explaining the science.

“It is really pretty intuitive: who wouldn’t be insulted by someone screaming in her face that she and everyone she identifies with ‘rejects science’?”

Skeptics have been saying the same thing for years. It’s just good manners really.

Like so many science papers, the press releases appear to have gone out before the study itself is available. Apparently it was published on Jan 21, but there is no active link through the journal. This is a shame. We can hardly discuss it properly without the paper. It’s another case of “Science-for-PR” rather than science for science’s sake.

Roy Spencer of course, understands what is going on:

“It’s easy to believe in the religion of global warming.  It takes critical thinking skills to question it,” Roy Spencer, a climatologist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, told FoxNews.com.

H/t Climate Depot


Kahan, Dan (2015) Expressive Rationality and Cultural Polarization: Theory and Evidence, Advances in Political Psychology, Vol 2, ISSP Site (not available yet?)

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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