A study out this week attempts to probe why attitudes on climate risks by some segments of the public don’t track the science all that well. Along the way, it basically debunks one simplistic assumption: that climate skeptics, for want of a better term, just don’t understand the data — or perhaps even science.
Quite the contrary: In the new survey, the most science literate skeptics were also those individuals who were most likely to dig in their heels and reject a consensus view on climate risks.
“I think this is sort of a weird, exceptional situation,” says decision scientist Dan Kahan of the Yale Law School, who led the new study. “Most science issues aren’t like this.”
Indeed they aren’t. And it begs the question: What sets climate issues apart?
Although it’s not part of the new study, Kahan’s team has been investigating this question — and has begun floating some ideas. Several other social scientists have been doing this as well. The emerging view, they argue, is that people tend to be unusually judgmental of facts or interpretations in science fields that threaten the status quo — or the prevailing attitudes of their cultural group, however that might be defined.
All fields of science don’t appear to carry the same potential for polarizing people into sharply divergent camps. This could have something to do with how “inconvenient” people might consider certain research findings, says Aaron McCright of Michigan State University, in East Lansing. For instance, he notes, few people complain about science that uncovers fundamental new knowledge (like black holes) or that creates technologies pointing toward transformative investment opportunities (like graphene, nanotechnology and green chemistry).
Instead, political and social fireworks tend to erupt over developments with more provocative interpretations — findings from what he refers to as “impact” analyses (a term he borrowed from the late Northwestern University sociologist Allan Schnaiberg). Falling into this category are things like health effects of pollutants or bad habits (such as smoking), comparisons of the environmental footprint of one commercial product versus another, and impacts on resource use of economic subsidies, rules and taxes.
Findings of major negative impacts might prompt calls for regulations or sanctions. These, in turn, could reorder rankings of the relative attractiveness of one industry relative to another.
Says McCright, climate change is not only a poster child for impact analyses, but also points to such potentially high global costs to nature and global economies that skeptics might be moved to demand an especially tight accounting of putative risks.
In some studies, including surveys conducted by McCright and Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, political affiliation has proven a useful gauge of which societal groups are most likely to prove skeptical of climate science and policy. Data collected over the better part of a half-century, they note, indicate that among opinion-making elites, Democrats (and especially liberals) consistently take more pro-environmental stances than their Republican (and especially conservative) counterparts.