Science Is No Cure for Climate Denial

Graphical representation of the temperature rise in North America in Celsius
©. Image by Noel Cressie and Emily Kang, courtesy of Ohio State University

There's been ample evidence of this unfortunate phenomenon before, and a new study in the journal Nature drives the point home: There's really no amount of science that's going to change the staunch climate change naysayer's mind.

For nearly a decade, scientists have been scratching their heads, wondering why nobody's paying attention to the devastatingly grim prognoses they continue to offer up, all backed by increasingly mountainous piles of hard evidence. If only we'd been better communicators! they lament, as huge swaths of the American public choose instead to listen to conservative radio programming for their climate news (I'd lament, too).

If only we could get more information to the public, said conventional wisdom, then they'd all slowly start changing their minds, stop listening to the nonsense peddled by angry cable talk show hosts and oil company stooges and other non-scientists. They just need more and better science! Communicated in more interesting and exhaustive ways! That's been the operating theory for innumerable scientists, climate activists, and progressives for years—but alas, access to more science simply isn't going to help.

The new study, in fact, reveals that "Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest."

In other words, it didn't make a difference how smart, educated, or informed you were when it came to accepting the staggering scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet. In fact, educated folks were even more liable to discount the science the more they learned. See, the biggest predictor of whether you're going to acknowledge the scientific consensus on climate is not how much you know about the problem—it's which ideological tribe you relate to.

From the study again:

This result suggests that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.
Essentially, there's a tension between 'what science says' and 'what all your friends and the people you agree with on TV say.' And for a lot of folks, especially of a certain ideological persuasion—the kind that deplores the big government and taxes perceived to accompany any acceptance of climate change, termed "individual hierarchists" in the study—the more they learn about the science, the less they believe it. Basically, it's because smart, informed people tend to be especially good at cramming new data into pre-existing biases.

It's a huge problem, and one for which there's no easy answer. It seems that some threshold must be breached in which at least some prominent nay-saying groups stop equating climate change to the onslaught of socialism, and casually circulating pro-climate science talk at barbeques and sporting events and such. What could catalyze a change like that is anyone's guess however. But one thing is pretty clear—it ain't more science.