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


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.

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


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Research for this paper was financially supported by the National Science Foundation, Grant SES 0922714.

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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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Correspondence to Dan M. Kahan.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Kahan, D., Peters, E., Wittlin, M. et al. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Clim Change 2, 732–735 (2012).

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