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Climate Change: Why Do the Facts Fail to Convince?

Social science research provides the key to finally ending the divisive global warming debate

by
Tom Harris

Bio

May 30, 2012 - 12:00 am
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Public opinion about the threat posed by global warming is also heavily influenced by the perceived social/cultural worldview of the person presenting the information, other Cultural Cognition Project studies show. If advocates are seen to share worldviews with their audience, they have far greater success in swaying people to their point of view on controversial issues such as climate change. If advocates are perceived to hold worldviews that contradict those of the audience, the information being presented is much less believed. This is the case even if a hierarchical-individualist is presenting views normally associated with egalitarian-communitarians. The latter group are less supportive of egalitarian-communitarians’ views if they are promoted by an advocate from the opposite “tribe.” In fact, on some issues such as the intense and highly polarized debate over compulsory HPV virus vaccinations for 11-12 year old girls, audiences completely switched sides to one opposing their default position when the advocate presenting the information was on the other side of the social/cultural divide.

Other studies from the Yale Law School group have shown that even the public’s perception of who is, and who is not, an expert in climate science is heavily influenced by whether or not the expert’s worldview is perceived to coincide with that of the listener. Clearly, we need more advocates for the climate realist position who are seen to subscribe to an egalitarian-communitarian worldview.

Although there was a small decrease observed in the public’s overall concern about global warming as scientific literacy increases, the issue became increasingly polarized as literacy rose, the May 27 Nature Climate Change paper showed. In other words, skeptics become more skeptical and alarmists become more alarmist as they learn more about science and mathematics. Regardless, researchers found that the impact of cultural worldview was far greater than the impact of scientific literacy. What matters most, researchers find, is who is advocating the position being presented and how they are presenting it.

These findings will dishearten traditional science educators who for years have focused on disseminating clear and well-supported descriptions of the way nature works in the hopes that the public will come to more rational conclusions on issues such as global warming. It will also disappoint those who, because of their perceived political and philosophical positions, have little chance of swaying segments of the population who hold opposing worldviews. This does not imply that their work is not important, however. For example, many people with hierarchical-individualistic worldviews still support the climate scare and clearly these individuals must be the primary target audience for think tanks and other groups who hold strong free-market and other capitalist views.

The Cultural Cognition Project research findings reinforce the importance of the non-partisan, worldview-neutral strategy of groups such as the International Climate Science Coalition. Such an approach helps make it “safe” for people from across the social and cultural spectrum to work together without threatening anyone’s values. This is critical if we are to expand the tent of those who want to finally end the expensive and highly divisive climate debate in favor of rational climate and energy policy.

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Tom Harris is Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC).
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