July 16, 2018
I have a favor to ask. Before you read this blog post any further, would you mind taking this very brief survey? This survey—composed of 11 true or false statements involving science and engineering concepts—is presented every year by the National Science Foundation (NSF). As a further favor, I also ask that you take a four-question anonymous Survey Monkey poll regarding the results of the survey. I assure you that the NSF survey does have something to do with this blog post. The poll, on the other hand, is just for me, although it may make an appearance in the future.
(I will be waiting here patiently until you get back)
A widely held belief among people who accept Climate Change is that people who deny the science just don’t understand it. Thus, if we just keep tossing off “the facts,” these people will eventually be convinced. This idea is often based on the opinion that people who accept Climate Change know more than those who don’t, or at least understand it a little better.
If only that were true.
One of my personal inspirations is Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law & Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School. Professor Kahan started a group called The Cultural Cognition Project, an interdisciplinary collection of scholars who study how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs. In 2012, Professor Kahan and his fellow scholars published a paper in the journal Nature Climate Change entitled “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks.” Reading this paper was somewhat of a life-changing event for me.
The authors set out to test the theory that “[t]he public knows too little science… to understand the evidence or avoid being misled.” They tested study subjects’ science literacy using the above survey and also tested study subjects’ numeracy, i.e., the ability to understand and work with numbers and word problems. For example: ‘A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?. The authors combined the results of the two tests into a single composite scale, called Science literacy/numeracy. If the above theory was correct, then one would expect that a higher Science literacy/numeracy score would be correlated with a higher perceived risk of Climate Change.
Instead, they found the exact opposite. As a person’s Science literacy/numeracy score rose, they were less likely to perceive a risk of Climate Change. Even for the researchers, this result was highly unexpected.
So, if presenting the science won’t help convince people that Climate Change is real, what will? Of course I will start talking about that, but I feel it is important to explore the background research and theories before going into the solutions. Talking about Climate Change with someone who doesn’t accept it, is a very difficult exercise. But it doesn’t have to be contentious. Understanding the reasons behind what works and doesn’t work will help a great deal in the execution.