Science literacy still matters

To the Editor —

Kahan et al.1 find that science literacy is negatively correlated with concern about climate change. This correlation, of questionable practical significance, has been misinterpreted in the media as entirely disproving the relevance of science and climate literacy to the public debate. Not only does this misrepresent the thrust of the research by Kahan and co-workers, but it is also inaccurate and counterproductive to those of us engaged in climate and related literacy efforts.

The study by Kahan et al.1 did not examine people's understanding of climate, focusing instead on general science literacy, numeracy and cultural frames. But the press largely ignored this, pushing headlines such as the Daily Mail's2 'Global Warming Sceptics are BETTER-Informed about Science than Believers' and Mother Jones's3 'Why Science Education won't Solve our Climate Problems'. USA Today4 summed up with the lead: “Support for climate science doesn't increase with science literacy, a survey suggests.”

According to researcher Jon Miller5, nearly three out of four US adults fail basic civic tests of science literacy skills. This deficit of science literacy in general, and of climate and energy literacy in particular, clearly contributes to the present sense of confusion and our societal inability to have an informed, adult conversation about climate change. Moreover, literacy is generally acquired through effective education, not media messaging or cultural frames.

The Six Americas research6 conducted at Yale, has shown that those most concerned about climate change do in fact have more knowledge about it than those who are least concerned. Graded on a curve, 97% of those who are alarmed about climate change receive a passing grade, versus 56% of those who are dismissive. Of the alarmed, 87% know that human actions cause climate change, compared with only 6% of the dismissives. Just 7% of the dismissives acknowledge that climate change is happening and humans are responsible, compared with 79% of the alarmed. “Many Americans lack some of the knowledge needed for informed decision-making about these issues,” the researchers conclude.

In US schools, climate change is often skipped entirely and, if taught, is presented briefly or as a political controversy. Rarely is it taught across the curriculum, as leading educators recommend7. The Six Americas surveys find that fewer than one in five students feel “very well informed” about climate science and solutions, and barely a quarter feel they've learnt “a lot” about climate change in school. Most students rely on their schools for climate change science and — with rare exceptions — they are not getting what they need.

Stern8 rightly rejects as naive the idea that closing these knowledge deficits alone will resolve our fractious public debate. We concur that strategic framing, including minimizing doom and gloom by integrating science with solutions, is vital, especially in educational settings. But dismissing literacy as unimportant or irrelevant is wrong. Although literacy alone can't solve the climate problem, it provides society with the tools and shared basis for understanding the science and solutions before us.


  1. 1

    Kahan, D. et al. Nature Clim. Change (2012).

  2. 2

    Waugh, R. Global Warming Sceptics are BETTER-Informed about Science than Believers. Daily Mail (30 May 2012); available via

  3. 3

    Battistoni, A. Why Science Education won't Solve our Climate Problems. Mother Jones (30 May 2012); available via

  4. 4

    Vergano, D. Culture Splits Science Views, not Science Smarts. USA Today (29 May 2012); available via

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    Hobson, A. Phys. Teach. 46, 404 (2008).

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    Leiserowitz, A. & Smith, N. Knowledge of Climate Change Across Global Warming's Six Americas (Yale Univ., 2010); available via

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    National Research Council A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (National Academies, 2010).

  8. 8

    Stern, P. Nature Clim. Change 2, 572–573 (2012).

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Correspondence to Mark McCaffrey.

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McCaffrey, M., Rosenau, J. Science literacy still matters. Nature Clim Change 2, 636 (2012).

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