NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Climate Change and Confirmation Bias

July 20, 2011

The more scientifically literate you are, the more certain you are that climate change is either a catastrophe or a hoax, according to a new study from the Yale Cultural Cognition Project, says Ronald Bailey, Reason Magazine's science correspondent.

The Cultural Cognition Project conducted a survey of 1,500 Americans in which they asked questions designed to uncover their cultural values, their level of scientific literacy and what they thought about the risks of climate change.

The group uses a theory of cultural commitments devised by University of California, Berkeley, political scientist Aaron Wildavsky.  The Wildavskyan schema situates Americans' cultural values on two scales, one that ranges from Individualist to Communitarian and another that goes from Hierarchy to Egalitarian.  In general, Hierarchical folks prefer a social order where people have clearly defined roles and lines of authority.  Egalitarians want to reduce racial, gender and income inequalities.  Individualists expect people to succeed or fail on their own, while Communitarians believe that society is obligated to take care of everyone.

  • On a scale in which 1 means no risk and 10 means extreme risk of climate change, the average for the overall sample was a score of 5.7.
  • Hierarchical/Individualists averaged 3.15 points on climate change risk, whereas Egalitarian/Communitarians scored 7.4 on average.
  • The public irrationality thesis predicts that as scientific literacy and numeracy increases the gap between Hierarchical/Individualists and Egalitarian/Communitarians should lessen.
  • Instead, the Yale researchers found that "among Hierarchical/Individualists science/numeracy is negatively correlated with such concern. Hence, cultural polarization actually gets bigger, not smaller as science literacy and numeracy increase."

Why does polarization increase with scientific literacy?  "As ordinary members of the public learn more about science and develop a greater facility with numerical information, they become more skillful in seeking out and making sense of -- or if necessary explaining away -- empirical evidence relating to their groups' positions on climate change and other issues," observe the researchers.  Confirmation bias, the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions, is ubiquitous.

Source: Ronald Bailey, "Climate Change and Confirmation Bias," Reason Magazine, July 12, 2011.  "The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change," Yale Cultural Cognition Project, June 2011.

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