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Americans Don't Know Much About Global Warming, and That's Not the Problem

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyFebruary 24, 2011 10:00 PM


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Scientific American has a good rundown of a debate that occurred over climate change, denial, and scientific literacy at the recent AAAS meeting. Essentially, panelists were trying to cope with multi-causal nature of the climate misinformation problem--is it politics, institutionalized denialism, media irresponsibility, scientific illiteracy, poor science education, poor science communication, or what? Here's an excerpt from the SciAm piece:

Poll after poll, and even late night TV talk shows, seem to revel in Americans’ ignorance of basic scientific facts, including the fundamentals of physics and biology. Is this "science information deficit model" then the reason for our failure to accept climate change? Naomi Oreskes, a University of California, San Diego, science historian rejected that hypothesis during one of the sessions on denialism. "It's quite clear there are many highly educated people who do not accept global warming," she said. Still, scientists "must communicate climate science as clearly and effectively and robustly as we can," she added. The current political and cultural context drive the nation's denialism around climate change, evolution and vaccines, said Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, during a session. Education and scientific literacy and general intelligence levels are not causing the problem. Meanwhile, most Americans in fact are ignorant of the facts of climate science and even "confuse climate change with the ozone hole," Schmidt remarked. The processes around the latter's disappearance are related to global warming but "how is that a basis for having any sensible conversation?" he asked.

Do you see how many factors are rolling around here? And elsewhere in the article, the role of the media is dragged in, as is the role of poor science communication by scientists. My answer to this problem--and of course, the answer provided in Unscientific America--is that all of the causes listed above, and listed in the SciAm article, are indeed operating to varying degrees. And for precisely that reason, it's very important not to fall into the trap of thinking that education and greater literacy are some kind of solution on their own. After all, this is a highly politicized subject--and that politicization will override calm reasoning no matter how much people do or don't know about the topic. That doesn't mean we shouldn't work to improve science education, or increase science literacy, because these are valuable for many reasons. We just shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking such steps will solve our problems.

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