Climate change and mood affiliation

I’ve enjoyed reading the Cultural Cognition Project for some time, and this isn’t the first time Dan Kahan has made this point, but I want to highligh a really striking chart in his latest:

Climate Science Awareness and Positioning

This graph compares answers on a basic subject literacy quiz, one

…meant essentially to be a model of an assessment test, one designed to examine whether it is possible, with appropriately worded items, to disentangle (unconfound) cultural identity & knowledge when measuring how much people know about climate change

across two populations, based on “belief” or “disbelief” in human-caused global warming (“belief” being a nonsense term in my book).

The first thing you notice is that the subject literacy is very similar between “disbelievers” and “believers”  Look at the answers on the right, particularly the last one.  It takes a certain amount of reading about climate science to know that aerosols generally have a cooling influence, and relatively few get the answer correct.   Even more interesting, why would anyone professing “disbelief” answer the last question any way but false – whether from knowledge or “disbelief”.  This supports my view that saying you believe or don’t believe is just a way to join or disavow a tribe or group of beliefs much larger than narrow claims about our influence on climate.

Recently, Congress wasted a bunch of time trying to game these mood affiliations, and a good chunk of the public gleefully signed on to say “go team!”.  The gaming only revolved around the “man-made” part, and didn’t get into the much more science-geeky “how much”, let alone the “what is the proper policy response”.

It’s easy to shame the conspiracy theories, dismissal of science and head-in-the-sand-ism generally coming from the right. It’s easy to make fun of the unsupported catastrophe-mongering, hypocrisy and lack of effective policy prescriptions generally coming from the left.  What isn’t easy is to figure out how to unbundle science and solutions from the strong bonds formed by identity-based positioning. That’s what Kahan is tackling.

I have my doubts about the case for catastrophic warming (I might be called a ‘lukewarmer‘), but I do feel precautionary steps are called for.  I don’t see why there isn’t a large margin of error around the modeling process, and it is on *both* sides. “Wrong” doesn’t necessarily mean “less”; bad feedback/sensitivity estimations don’t mean feedback is zero, or negative.    I also see the incredible benefits that fossil fuels have brought to humanity, and I see big problems with relying on wind, sun and hydro for baseload (let alone transportation).

The number one thing I don’t understand is why we aren’t putting far more public support into nuclear power.  There is a smattering of important thinkers drawn from many sides of the debate pushing that solution. Kahan even proposes that it will help the debate. Why do both sides yawn?  Is is just politically infeasible?


I wrote the following on another forum, where I had asserted the HUGE benefits of vaccines and herd immunity relative to the fairly small risks/costs of individual vaccinations:

…I would say two things in defense of skeptics. First, the benefits of fossil fuels to humanity are orders of magnitude greater than those conveyed by vaccines, so there are huge costs to mitigation, often ‘denied’ by magical thinking about the abilities of government and alternative fuels. Secondly, I think too many people in the public arena conflate the clear truth of anthropogenic forcings with a )the catastrophic predictions of a group of models that have performed really poorly out of sample and b) some really awful solutions, as you say. And I say that as a proponent of precautionary action to mitigate CO2 forcing from fossil fuels. So I see the whole discussion as a broken public debate fraught with denial.


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