Climate science is hardly the only issue on which the public has a vastly different view than the relevant experts. Chris Mooney writes:
Surveys that measure the public’s views on evolution, climate change, the big bang and even the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun yield a huge gap between what science tells us and what the public believes.
But contrary to what many scientists think, more information doesn’t necessarily lead to the public accepting the scientific view:
Take climate change. The battle over global warming has raged for more than a decade, with experts still stunned by the willingness of their political opponents to distort scientific conclusions. They conclude, not illogically, that they’re dealing with a problem of misinformation or downright ignorance — one that can be fixed only by setting the record straight.
Yet a closer look complicates that picture. For one thing, it’s political outlook — not education — that seems to motivate one’s belief on this subject. According to polling performed by the Pew Research Center, Republicans who are college graduates are considerably less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate change than those who have less education. These better-educated Republicans probably aren’t ignorant; a more likely explanation is that they are politically driven consumers of climate science information. Among Democrats and independents, the relationship between education and beliefs about global warming is precisely the opposite — more education leads to greater acceptance of the consensus climate science.”
This point was also made in a study by Nyhan and Reifler: “When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions”. From the abstract:
Corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire” effect in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.
I.e. as this Boston Globe commentary sais:
Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.
The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.
Each of us should go digging in our souls for our inner conservative. (…)We should be especially kind to people who are conservative but sane, who understand and appreciate the science. (…) What is crucial is to get people to understand that this is real, that it is interesting, that it raises difficult questions. Even convincing them that it is a big deal is secondary. We have to make it permissible to be conservative and to respect the climate sciences.
The Boston Globe continues:
Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information.
Of course, both sides of a debate usually think that they are right and only the other side is driven by their preconceived notions. In reality, these kinds of mechanisms are all too human and affect everyone (though not everyone to the same extent, let me hasten to add).
Luckily, the process of science is self correcting in the sense that over time, wrong propositions will be discarded if the evidence keeps pointing in another direction. So far, the body of evidence has painted an increasingly strong picture of the direction and causes of the changes in our climate. The chances for this broad and consistent picture to be radically wrong are very small indeed. Let’s not forget either that in science, you’re rewarded for showing the consensus wrong; not for merely repeating what everybody else sais.
I remember a talk I attended about cloud formation. I asked the speaker if they had found any relationship between cloud formation and cosmic rays. The speaker replied: “No, unfortunately not”. I was slightly bemused by that reply. Why would he have wanted to have found such a correlation? I think the most likely answer is that it would have meant a good chance for a high impact article, since it would have strengthened a hitherto weakly supported theory.
In a recent discussion, I asked Jeff Id what he considered ‘socialist’ about climate science. His reply:
– Just the preferred and demanded solutions and the continued support of organizations with socialist tendencies, IPCC,UN, Copenhagen etc.
Well, that clarifies where he’s coming from. He’s afraid of
our march toward world-wide socialist governance.
It’s critical that experts and policy makers better understand what motivates public concern in the first place; and in this, they mustn’t be deceived by the fact that people often appear, on the surface, to be arguing about scientific facts. Frequently, their underlying rationale is very different.
Thus, for instance, resistance to climate science in the United States seems to be linked to a libertarian economic outlook: People who resist what experts tell them about global warming often appear, at heart, to be most worried about the consequences of increased government regulation of carbon emissions.