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The Real Reason Many Americans Seem So Stupid (But Aren't)

A provocative new study claims that conservative climate skeptics actually know plenty of science. But they're blinded by politics.
 
 
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The following story first appeared on Mother Jones. Subscribe for more great content. 

For many years, the US National Science Foundation, more recently with the help of the General Social Survey, has asked the public the same true or false question about evolution: "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." And for many years, the responses to this question have been dismal. In 2006, 2008, and 2010, for instance, less than half of the public correctly answered "true."

In 2012, however, the NSF and GSS conducted an experiment to try to better understand why people fare so badly on this evolution question. For half of survey respondents, the words "according to the theory of evolution" were added to the beginning of the statement above. And while only 48 percent gave the correct answer to the unaltered question, an impressive 72 percent correctly answered the new, prefaced version.

So why such a huge gap? Perhaps the original question wasn't tapping into scientific knowledge at all; rather, it was challenging the religious identity of creationists who think the earth is less than 10,000 years old. Presented with the new phrasing, however, even many creationists know what the theory of evolution states; they just deny that it is true. So are these people really "scientifically illiterate," as many in the science world might claim, or are they instead…something else? 

This is a vital question in the field of science communication, because at its core is the issue of whether we are dealing with mass public scientific illiteracy on the one hand (which presumably could be fixed by education), or with something much deeper and more intractable. What's more, this problem isn't confined to evolution. The issue of climate change may be very similar in this respect. Ask a polling question about climate change in one way, and you may cause conservatives to reassert their ideological identities, and reject the most important finding of climate science (that humans are causing global warming). But ask it in another way and, well, it may turn out that they know what the science says after all (even if they don't personally believe it).

Such is the finding of a new paper by Yale law professor and communication researcher Dan Kahan, recently profiled in depth by Ezra Klein in a much read Vox article aptly titled "How politics makes us stupid." Kahan is becoming widely known for his research showing that political ideology interferes with our most basic reasoning abilities; even our math skills, it seems, go right out the window when political passions come into play. In this new paper, though, Kahan isn't showing how dumb we are. Rather, he's doing the opposite: Showing that if you ask the questions the right way, Americans know a lot more about climate science than you might think. (Even conservatives.)

"Whether people 'believe in' climate change, like whether they 'believe in' evolution, expresses who they are," writes Kahan.

To understand Kahan's analysis, it helps to start where much of his prior research—extensively covered by Klein, myself, and others—left off. Kahan has defined a measure that he calls " ordinary science intelligence," which assesses how good people are at mathematical and scientific reasoning and at questioning their own beliefs. Using this survey tool, he is able to present evidence showing that (1) as people get better at science, they are more likely in general to affirm that global warming is mostly due to human activities; but (2) as soon as you split people up in to liberals and conservatives, that conclusion goes out the window. Actually, liberals get way better in their answers as their science ability increases, and conservatives get considerably worse:

 
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