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

A Yale survey finds that people with high levels of scientific literacy are more culturally polarized. The findings are consistent with the notion that climate change has become highly politicized, but divisions are due to worldviews not merely partisanship.

Researchers tested two theories:

1. The "science comprehension thesis": individuals fail to take climate change seriously because they do not understand the scientific evidence (i.e. conflict between scientists and the public.)

  • To test the science comprehension thesis, researchers looked at science literacy, numeracy and technical reasoning abilities.

2. The "cultural cognition thesis": individuals form perceptions of societal risk based on the values of peer groups (i.e. conflict between different segments of the public).

  • To test the cultural cognition thesis, researchers looked at worldviews, specifically hierarchical/individual v. egalitarian/communitarian worldviews.


The study suggests that divisions in climate change public opinion are caused not by lack of understanding, but from a conflict between the personal interest people have in forming beliefs that are in line with their peers and a collective interest in promoting common welfare. 


Members of the public with the highest degree of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were most culturally polarized about climate change.

Controlling for scientific literacy and numeracy, hierarchical individualists were less concerned about climate change than egalitarian communitarians. 

  • Among egalitarian communitarians, science literacy was positively correlated with climate change concern.
  • Among hierarchical individualists, science literacy was negatively correlated with climate change concern.

The reason for this may be "motivated cognition" where individuals express shared worldviews to avoid dissonance with peers:

"For the ordinary individual, the most consequential effect of his beliefs about climate change is likely to be on his relations with his peers. A hierarchical individualist who expresses anxiety about climate change might well be shunned by his co-workers at an oil refinery in Oklahoma City. A similar fate will probably befall the egalitarian communitarian English professor who reveals to colleagues in Boston that she thinks the scientific consensus on climate change is a hoax."

The study found no support for the idea that public apathy over climate change is a result of a deficit in comprehension or technical reasoning. Therefore, as long as the climate debate is imbued with cultural meaning that divides individuals with different worldviews, a communication strategy that focuses only on the science is unlikely to shift public opinion.

Researchers suggest that communicators create an environment where accepting the science doesn't threaten any group's values, such as culturally diverse communicators who share an affinity and credibility with different communities and framing techniques that allow policy solutions to resonate with diverse groups.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user NASA ICE

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