The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks

Journal name:
Nature Climate Change
Volume:
2,
Pages:
732–735
Year published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nclimate1547
Received
Accepted
Published online

Seeming public apathy over climate change is often attributed to a deficit in comprehension. The public knows too little science, it is claimed, to understand the evidence or avoid being misled1. Widespread limits on technical reasoning aggravate the problem by forcing citizens to use unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk2. We conducted a study to test this account and found no support for it. Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest. This result suggests that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.

At a glance

Figures

  1. SCT prediction versus actual impact of science literacy and numeracy on climate change risk perceptions.
    Figure 1: SCT prediction versus actual impact of science literacy and numeracy on climate change risk perceptions.

    Contrary to SCT predictions, higher degrees of science literacy and numeracy are associated with a small decrease in the perceived seriousness of climate change risks. Derived from Supplementary Table S4, Model 1. Low and high reflect values set at −1 s.d. and +1 s.d. on the composite Science literacy/numeracy scale (see Supplementary Information). Responses on the 0–10 risk scale (M=5.7, s.d.=3.4) were converted to z-scores to promote ease of interpretation. Confidence intervals reflect the 0.95 level of confidence.

  2. SCT prediction versus actual impact of the interaction between science literacy and numeracy, on the one hand, and cultural world-views, on the other.
    Figure 2: SCT prediction versus actual impact of the interaction between science literacy and numeracy, on the one hand, and cultural world-views, on the other.

    Contrary to SCT’s predictions, highly science-literate and numerate hierarchical individualists are more sceptical, not less, of climate change risks. Estimated risk-perception scores derived from Supplementary Table S4, Model 3. Hierarchical individualist and egalitarian communitarian reflect values set, respectively, at +1 s.d. and −1 s.d. on both the Hierarchy and Individualism cultural-world-view scale predictors. Low and high reflect values set at −1 and +1 s.d. on the Science literacy/numeracy scale. Responses on the 0–10 risk scale (M=5.7, s.d.=3.4) were converted to z-scores to promote ease of interpretation. Confidence intervals reflect the 0.95 level of confidence.

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Affiliations

  1. Yale University, Yale Law School, PO Box 208215, New Haven, Connecticut 06520, USA

    • Dan M. Kahan
  2. The Ohio State University, 235 Psychology Building, 1835 Neil Avenue, Columbus, Ohio 43210, USA

    • Ellen Peters
  3. Cultural Cognition Project Lab, Yale University, Yale Law School, PO Box 208215, New Haven, Connecticut, USA

    • Maggie Wittlin &
    • Lisa Larrimore Ouellette
  4. Decision Research, 1201 Oak Street, Suite 200, Eugene, Oregon 97401, USA

    • Paul Slovic
  5. George Washington University, 2000 H Street, N.W, Washington DC 20052, USA

    • Donald Braman
  6. Temple University, 1719 North Broad St., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19122, USA

    • Gregory Mandel

Contributions

D.M.K., E.P., M.W. and L.L.O. contributed to all aspects of the paper, including study design, statistical analysis and writing and revisions. P.S., D.B. and G.M. contributed to the design of the study, to substantive analysis of the results and to revisions of the paper.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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