The Sciences

Do Scientific Literacy and Numeracy Worsen Climate Denial?

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJun 24, 2011 2:04 PM

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Once again, Dan Kahan and his colleagues at Yale are out with a paper that dramatically challenges--using scientific data--much of what we would like to believe about the relationship between knowing more about science, and accepting science on contested issues. The paper is entitled "The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Cultural Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change." The brilliant maneuver in this study is to do a survey that not only measures whether people accept climate science, but correlates that with their scores on standard scientific literacy questions and tests of numeracy--the ability to think mathematically. Here's the abstract:

The conventional explanation for controversy over climate change emphasizes impediments to public understanding: limited popular knowledge of science, the inability of ordinary citizens to assess technical information, and the resulting widespread use of unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A large survey of U.S. adults (N = 1540) found little support for this account. On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones. More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: 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. We suggest that this evidence reflects a conflict between two levels of rationality: the individual level, which is characterized by citizens’ effective use of their knowledge and reasoning capacities to form risk perceptions that express their cultural commitments; and the collective level, which is characterized by citizens’ failure to converge on the best available scientific evidence on how to promote their common welfare. Dispelling this “tragedy of the risk-perception commons,” we argue, should be understood as the central aim of the science of science communication.

I plan to blog about several aspects of this paper, as its findings are so central to everything I'm trying to get across these days. For now, I'm just flagging it. I think it is an absolute must read.

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