The glaciers are melting. The seas are rising. Droughts are getting worse in Texas, fires are spreading wider in California. Hurricanes are more ferocious in New Jersey. Malaria will creep back into the southern United States. April was the cruellest month, with carbon dioxide levels surpassing 400 ppm, the highest in history.
Ok, I’m not really a climate change denier. I sat at my computer one evening awhile back and started to study climate science. I didn’t get much past what water vapor in the atmosphere signified, and how the arguments the deniers were making were unscientific. Understanding the science is very hard and beyond my natural talents. So I settled back into the talking points we have (97% of climate scientists agree that the earth is warming and human beings are responsible) and my trust of science and the scientists.
In this I am a lot like both the believers and deniers of climate change. Tea Partiers are more scientifically literate than non-Tea Partiers in general, yet are more likely to reject climate change. If individuals are given more information about a subject like climate change on which they have opinions, even if the information contradicts their beliefs, confronting that information makes their prior beliefs even stronger. When individuals with strong math skills were confronted with a problem for which they already had a partisan belief, they were even less likely to be able to solve the problem than those with weaker math skills (this is the politics makes us stupid notion).
So finds Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition project at Yale. This is part of what Kahan calls Identity-Protective Cognition. We have a sense of who we are, and a desire to be a part of the group we belong to, so we respond to information in ways that solidify our prior beliefs and group attachments. Our preference to be accepted by our group is stronger than our preference to be right.
Australian psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky comes at the problem from the notion of uncertainty. Climate change deniers are able to harness this sense of uncertainty to dismiss the science behind climate change. But Lewandowsky and other scientists understand that uncertainty regarding issues like climate change “implies that the problem is more likely to be worse than expected in the absence of that uncertainty,” and that part of the scientists job, and one they are getting better at with climate science, is to explain the information so that the issues, the uncertainties, and the hazards are clearer. But more interestingly, Lewandowsky studies how humans respond to uncertainty, the difference between “how people should respond to uncertainty if they were mathematically-optimal … [and] how people actually respond to things they perceive to be uncertain.” He shows that when individuals are presented with information that highlights the scientific consensus around a topic, they are more likely to change their beliefs, but that in the real world with cross currents of information and idealogies, this is hard to achieve.
There’s another dimension to acceptance of scientific theories. In a recent poll, individuals were asked to rate their confidence in a series of statements about science and medicine. Almost all respondents acknowledged that smoking causes cancer, mental illness is a medical condition that affects the brain, and that there is a genetic code inside our cells. Somewhat fewer believe in the safety and efficacy of vaccines. But 40% are not confident or outright disbelieve that the earth is warming, that it’s 4.5 billion years old, or that life evolved through natural selection. Even fewer accept the Big Bang.
The analysis noted that people’s views of science are tempered by their pre-existing religious and political beliefs. But even more than that, we tend to accept science if it validates our experience. As one respondent noted, she is certain smoking causes cancer because she has seen family members who were smokers die of cancer. Another noted that the winters seem to feel different, making it easier to believe in climate change. But both balked at the Big Bang noting “it seems so far away” and “I wasn’t there.” For science about subjects beyond our experience, or about which there might be personal, political, or religious controversy, we tend to believe only that science which aligns with our pre-existing beliefs.
As Kahan notes, “The ice caps don’t care if it’s rational for us to worry about our friendships.” But if we want concerted and coordinated action to address the coming ravages of climate change, we need to address each other in ways that less resemble using belief in and denial of climate change as gauntlets to be thrown down in front of each other. Instead, we need to change the terms of the discussion. Not, “I’m an environmentalist,” but “Let’s work together to protect and improve the quality of our air and water.” Not “climate change is real, get over it!” but “I’m concerned about spreading drought, storms of increasing ferocity, and the possibility that malaria might creep back into the southern states.” Perhaps if we can frame the discussion we can find agreement across personal, religious, and political boundaries.
Kahan remains optimistic about our ability to accept science, for a few reasons. Scientists are learning how to communicate scientific ideas better. Also, “[t]he number of issues on which we see cultural conflict over relevant science is minuscule in relation to the ones in which we don’t.” In most cases, we can accept, or at least have no reason to reject, what scientific research tells us on many issues. Finally, when our well-being is threatened because we have been ignoring the evidence, we are more likely to accept the evidence. “[W]ays of life that fail to align their members with the best available evidence on how to live well,” he writes, “will not persist.”