Thursday, December 01, 2011

Do more educated people see more risk -- or less -- in climate change?

Dan Kahan

The answer is neither. In a survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,500 U.S. adults, education level had a correlation pretty close to zero (r = -0.02, p = 0.11) with climate change risk perceptions.

These data were collected by the Cultural Cognition Project as part of an ongoing study of science literacy, numeracy, & risk perception. In results that we describe in a working paper, science literacy and numeracy also have very minimal impact on perceptions of climate change --assessed independently of cultural worldviews. Once cultural worldviews are taken into account, the impact of science literacy & numeracy on climate change risk perceptions depends on peoples' cultural orientations: as they get more science literate & numerate, egalitarian communitarians see more risk, but hierarchical individualists see even less.

Or in other words, enhanced science literacy & numeracy are associated not with convergence on any particular view (supported by science or otherwise) but with greater cultural polarization.

Education level, in contrast, not only has no overall impact, but is not associated with greater cultural polarization either.

The lesson is clear: if you want to fit your perceptions of risk to your cultural values, you need to do more than go to college. You have to study really hard in math & science!

Actually, I'm sounding much more cynical here than I mean to. As we discuss in the paper, this pathology isn't intractable -- but if one doesn't even know that cultural polarization increases as science literacy does or why, then the problem is unlikely to go away.

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