By Annie Quick, Researcher & Communications Delivery for Sciencewise
The US publication Nature Climate Change recently printed an important piece of research by Dan Kahan and colleagues. The article tackles the issue of how to explain the apparent public apathy over climate change. The authors carried out a study based in the US to test the ‘science comprehension thesis’. This thesis (similar to the ‘deficit model of engagement,’) suggests that people fail to take climate change seriously because they don’t know enough about it, or have low technical reasoning with which to consider the information they do have. By testing peoples’ science literacy against their perception of the risk of climate change they found that the opposite was the case: as respondents’ science-literacy scores increased, concern with climate change decreased, though only marginally.
Instead, they found that the study supported another theory, the ‘cultural cognition thesis’. This theory suggests that people perceive the risk of climate change based on how well the evidence fits with an individual’s pre-existing cultural beliefs. So, people who subscribed to a hierarchical, individualistic world view – one that ties authority to conspicuous social rankings and is suspicious of interference in industry and commerce – perceived the risk of climate change to be much lower. They were reluctant to accept climate change as a risk because they feared that such beliefs would encourage restrictions in commerce and other forms of behaviour that they value. In contrast, egalitarian communitarians were more likely to believe that climate change posed a serious risk for just the opposite reason – they were morally suspicious of commerce and industry and saw climate change as likely to add to the case for their restriction.
Although more research is still needed (and there has been an important challenge about the difference between science literacy and comprehension), the study contributes to the growing evidence that peoples’ perceptions of climate change are not based solely on evidence but on politics and their pre-existing opinions. The implications of this are significant. As the authors argue:
‘As worthwhile as it would be, simply improving the clarity of scientific information will not dispel public conflict so long as the climate change debate continues to feature cultural meanings that divide citizens of opposing world views… communicators should endeavour to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values’.
We need to move away from the simplistic notion that what is needed is more one-way communication towards a focus on more complex, two-way deliberation. Our experience at Sciencewise is that Public Dialogue, bringing together people with different world views, is one of the most productive tools to achieve this. It’s never been more important that we get this right.