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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Research for this paper was financially supported by the National Science Foundation, Grant SES 0922714.
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). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1547
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