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What you "believe" about climate change doesn't reflect what you know; it expresses *who you are*

More or less the remarks I delivered yesterday at Earthday "Climate teach in/out" at Yale University:

I study risk perception and science communication.

I’m going to tell you what I regard as the single most consequential insight you can learn from empirical research in these fields if your goal is to promote constructive public engagement with climate science in American society. 

It's this:

What people “believe” about global warming doesn’t reflect what they know; it expresses who they are.

Accordingly, if you want to promote constructive public engagement with the best available evidence, you have to change the meaning of the climate change.

You have to disentangle positions on it from opposing cultural identities, so that people aren't put to a choice between freely appraising the evidence and being loyal to their defining commitments.

I’ll elaborate, but for a second just forget climate change, and consider another culturally polarizing science issue: evolution.

About every two years, a major polling organization like Gallup issues a public opinion survey showing that approximately 50% of Americans “don’t believe in evolution.” 

Pollsters issue these surveys at two-year intervals because apparently that’s how long it takes people to forget that they’ve already been told this dozens of times.  Or in any case, every time such a poll is released, the media and blogosphere is filled with expressions of shock, incomprehension, and dismay.

“What the hell is wrong with our society’s science education system?,” the hand-wringing, hair-pulling commentators ask.

Well, no doubt a lot.

But if you think the proportion of survey respondents who say they “believe in evolution” is an indicator of the quality of the science education that people are receiving in the U.S., you are misinformed.

Do you know what the correlation is between saying “I believe in evolution” and possessing even a basic understanding of “natural selection,” “random mutation,” and “genetic variance”—the core elements of the modern synthesis in evolutionary science?


Those who say they “do believe” are no more likely to be able to give a high-school biology-exam-quality account of how evolution works than those who say they “don’t.”

In a controversial decision in 2010, the National Science Foundation in fact proposed removing from its standard science-literacy test the true-false question “human beings developed from an earlier species of animals.”

The reason is that giving the correct answer to that question doesn’t cohere with giving the right answer to the other questions in NSF’s science-literacy inventory.

What that tells you, if you understand test-question validity, is that the evolution item isn’t measuring the same thing as the other science-literacy items.

Answers to those other questions do cohere with one another, which is how one can be confident they are all validly and reliably measuring how much science knowledge that person has acquired.

But what the NSF “evolution” item is measuring, researchers have concluded, is test takers’ cultural identities, and in particular the significance of religiosity in their lives.

What’s more, the impact of science literacy on the likelihood that people will say they “believe in evolution” is in fact highly conditional on their identity: as their level of science comprehension increases, individuals with a highly secular identity become more likely to say “they believe” in evolution; but as those with a highly religious identity become more science literate, in contrast, they become even more likely to say they don’t.

What you “believe” about evolution, in sum, does not reflect what you know about science—in general, or in regard to the natural history of human beings.

Rather it expresses who you are.

Okay, well, exactly the same thing is true on climate change.

You’ve all seen the polls, I’m sure, showing the astonishing degree of political polarization on “belief” “human-caused” global warming.

Well, a Pew Poll last spring asked a nationally represented sample, “What gas do most scientists believe causes temperatures in the atmosphere to rise? Is it carbon dioxide, hydrogen, helium, or radon?”

Approximately 60% got the right answer to that question.

And there was zero correlation between getting it right and being a Democrat or Republican.

The percentage of Democrats who say they “believe” in global warming is substantially higher than 65%: it’s over 80%, which means that a good number of Democrats who say they “believe” in global warming don’t understand the most basic of all facts known to climate science.

The percentage of Republicans who say they don’t believe in global warming is a lot lower than 65%. Only about 25% say they believe human beings have caused global temperatures to rise in recent decades, according to Pew and other researchers. 

That means that a large fraction of the Republicans who tell pollsters they “don’t believe” in human-caused global warming do in fact know the most important thing there is to understand about climate change: that adding carbon to the atmosphere causes the temperature of the earth to increase.

Do you know what the correlation is between science literacy and “belief” in human-caused global warming?

You get half credit for saying zero.

That’s the right answer for a nationally representative sample as a whole.

But it’s a mistake to answer the question without dividing the sample up along cultural or comparable lines: as their score on one or another measure of science comprehension goes up, Democrats become more likely, and Republicans less, to say they “believe” in human-caused global warming.

Like saying “I do/don’t believe in evolution,” saying I “do/don’t believe in climate change” doesn’t convey what you know about science—generally, or in relation to the climate.

It expresses who you are.

Al Gore has described the climate change debate as a “struggle for the soul of America.

He’s right.

But that’s exactly the problem.  Because in “battles for the soul” of America, the stake that culturally diverse individual have in forming beliefs consistent with their group identity dominates the stake they have in forming beliefs that fit the best available evidence.

In saying that, moreover, I’m not talking about whatever interest people have in securing comfortable accommodations in the afterlife. I’m focused entirely on the here and now.

Look: What an ordinary individual believes about the “facts” on climate change has no impact on the climate.

What he or she does as a consumer, as a voter, or as a participant in public debate is just too inconsequential to have an impact.

No mistake that individual makes about the science on climate change, then, is going to affect the risk posed by global warming for him or her or for anyone else that person cares about.

But if he or she takes the “wrong” position in relation to his or her cultural group, the result could be devastating for her, given what climate change now signifies about one’s membership in and loyalty to opposing cultural groups.

It could drive a wedge—material, emotional, and psychological—between individual the people whose support are indispensable to his or her well-being.

In these circumstances, we should expect a rational person to engage information in a manner geared to forming and persisting in positions that are dominant within their cultural groups. And the better they are at making sense of complex information—the more science comprehending they are –the better they’ll do at that. 

That’s what we see in lab experiments.  And it’s why we see polarization on global warming intensifying in step with science literacy in the real world.

But while that’s the rational way for people to engage information as individuals, given what climate change signifies about their cultural identities, it’s a disaster for them collectively.  Because if everyone does this at the same time, members of a culturally diverse democratic society are less likely to converge on scientific evidence that is crucial to the welfare of all of them.

And yet that by itself doesn’t make it any less rational for individuals to attend to information in a manner that reliably connects them to the position that is dominant in their group.

This is a tragedy of the commons problem—a tragedy of the science communications commons.

If we want to overcome it, then we must disentangle competing positions on climate change from opposing cultural identities, so that culturally pluralistic citizens aren’t put in the position of having to choose between knowing what’s known to science and being who they are.

Only that will dissolve the conflict citizens now face between their personal incentive to form identity-consistent beliefs and the collective one they have in recognizing and giving effect to the best available evidence.

Science educators, by the way, have already figured this out about evolution. They’ve shown you can in fact teach the elements of the modern synthesis-- random mutation, genetic variance and natural selection—just as readily to students whose identities cohere with saying they “don’t believe” in evolution as you can to students whose identities cohere with saying they do. You just can’t expect the former to “I believe in evolution” after.

Indeed, you must take pains not to confuse understanding evolutionary science with the “pledge of cultural allegiance” that “I believe in evolution” has become.

You must remove from the education environment the toxic cultural meanings that make answers to that question badges of membership in and loyalty to one’s cultural group.  The meanings that fuel the pathetic spectacle of hand-wringing and hair-pulling that occurs every time Gallup or another organization issues its “do you believe in evolution” survey results.

All the diverse groups that make up our pluralistic democracy are amply stocked with science knowledge.

They are amply stocked with public spirit too. 

That means you, as a science communicator, can enable these citizens to converge on the best available evidence on climate change.

But to do it, you must banish from the science communication environment the culturally antagonistic meanings with which positions on that issue have become entangled—so that citizens can think and reason for themselves free of the distorting impact of identity-protective cognition.

If you want to know what that sort of science communication environment looks like, I can tell you where you can see it: in Florida, where all 7 members of the Monroe County Board of Commissioners -- 4 Democrats, 3 Republicans -- voted unanimously to join Broward County (predominantly Democratic), Monroe County (predominantly Republican), and Miami-Dade County (predominantly Republican) in approving the Southeast Climate Compact Action plan, which, I quote from the Palm Beach County Board summary, “includes 110 adaptation and mitigation strategies for addressing seal-level risk and other climate issues within the region.”

I’ll tell you another thing about what you’ll see if you make this trip: the culturally pluralistic, and effective form of science communication happening in southeast Florida doesn’t look anything  like the culturally assaultive "us-vs-them" YouTube videos and prefabricated internet comments with which Climate Reality and Organizing for American are flooding national discourse.

And if you want to improve public engagement with climate science in the United States, the fact that advocates as high profile and as highly funded as that still haven’t figured out the single most important lesson to be learned from the science of science communication should make you very sad.

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Reader Comments (16)

I wonder if the Florida example is one of removing cultural relevance from the debate or simply dropping the bar for success down to an achievable level. I mean this in the sense that it shouldn't have been difficult to convince the voters of Southern Florida to adopt measures to prevent damage from flooding. To borrow an old Onion joke, even the most black hearted conservative will be as amenable to "how about we don't build the million dollar mansions on the beaches which flood every time there's a hurricane" as medieval doctors were to "maybe if we don't store the corpses in the drinking water it will be better for our health."

April 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

@Ryan: It's not as easy as it looks, if it looks easy to you! The Fla Compact members are constantly applying themselves not only to figuring out what to do protect their communities from climate impacts & contribute their fair share to the collective good of sustainability but also to protect the their communities' interest in the collective good of a pristine science communication environment. They are an inspired and inspiring group.

April 24, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

As someone that is actively involved in communicating to people about climate change this quote, “You have to disentangle positions on it from opposing cultural identities, so that people aren't put to a choice between freely appraising the evidence and being loyal to their defining commitments” leads me to a question: When beginning a dialogue with someone on climate change, what question would you ask that doesn’t push them into their cultural identity?

April 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTim

I feel like there's still a logic leap in here. Being able to answer "What gas do most scientists believe causes temperatures in the atmosphere to rise?" correctly isn't the same thing as thinking those scientists are correct. "They think it's carbon dioxide, but they're full of it." It's no different than "people of religion X believe Y, but I'm not of religion X, so I think they're wrong." You can have knowledge of others' beliefs without sharing them.

April 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMackenzie


That's a very fair point.

But then what about the large chunk of Democrats who didn't pick "carbon dioxide" but who do"believe" in climate change? Would you propose, consistent with your conjecture about the distinction between "knowing what scientists say" & not sharing their beliefs, that those Democrats do "believe"/know CO2 is a green house gas but just think "most scientists" disagree? Seems pretty unlikely, don't you think?

Indeed, studies consistently show that people who are politically divided over "facts" think that "scientists" agree with their side. No one (of any consequence for public debate) is out there saying, "I know this is contrary to what experts say, but I believe ..."

Consistent w/ that, studies show public is polarized in the same way & essentially to the same extent on what "scientific consensus" is on climate change as they are on whether climate change is occurring, is caused by people etc. I'd say that question -- is there scientific consensus on climate change -- measures the same thing as "is it happening," "how serious a risk does it pose," "are humans causing," etc. However one frames the question, if people get it's about "climate change" or "global warming," they give the answer that fits their identity.

But that puts the question: why doesn't the Pew "which gas..." item function that way? Pretty curious, don't you think?

I have to say I was super surprised & intrigued when I came upon this datum. At least as far as I know, Pew itself didn't flag it; guess it either didn't notice it or didn't think it was worth calling attention to. I found it in when I was analyzing the data set (one of the great things about Pew is that it usually posts the data sets for its studies after a few months' time).

I wouldn't have predicted this one & now I'm really eager to figure out how to understand this. Any hypotheses?


April 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38


Well, for sure don't use the style featured in the youtube video I linked to.

Am I right that you see that piece of advice as pretty darn obvious? If so, why do you think that form of "science communication" is so common among the major climate advocacy groups?

I'd be curious what you think of our "2 channel communication model" experiment.

You could, I suppose, read the results as suggesting you open the conversation by saying, "hey-- did you hear about those mirror-coated, nanotechnology-size flying saucers that those scientists are working on that will levitate up to exactly the right place in the altitude to keep earth a comfy 72 degrees F?" It actually is the case the cultural outlook that coheres with being skeptical on climate tends to predict being pretty intriguted with new technologies.

But to me, the "model" in general is more important than the particular information on geoengineering that we used to test it.

The basic idea is that you need to broadcast compatible signals over the "meaning" & "content" channels if you want people to engage reflectively & open-mindedly.

"HOw do you do that, though?," you asked.

I hope you won't view this as a dodge I'm inclined to say: You tell me.

You are a real-world communicator. You are communicating with real-world people whom, I presume, you know & in some particular context. Likely you have many, & many sound, intuitions about who they are, and hence what sorts of themes might affirm & engage them in a manner akin to what we achieved in our lab experiment w/ the geoengineering information.

That local knowledge is something I don't have, and will definitely not pretend that I do. I know what I know--which is somethign general about mechanisms of communication; my hope is that if I share that knowlege with people like you, it will put you in a better position to choose between & refine the different strategies that occur to you as suited to promoting science communication.

Or basically, that sharing with you what I know will put you in a position to form more focused and more likely to succeed hypotheses, give what you know.

And then, I or someone like me should help you by collecting evidence so you can assess whether how close you are to being right, at which point you can revise your hypothesis, and try again. At which point I'll make more measurements. That's what CCP is doing to support the amazing scientists, science communicators, and public officials associated with SE Fla. Climate Compact.

So that's my answer to your question.

I strongly believe you shouldn't trust any empirical researcher who answers the 'what should I do?' question any other way.

One more piece of equally general(!) advice: Enable normal people to see the normality of climate science. What people have in connection with they myriad other forms of decision-relevant science that they use in their lives isn't familiarity with and comprehension of technical information; it's the orienting guidance of seeing people they kn