Americans are stupid…
Two recent posts by Dan Kahan at his Cultural Cognition blog have revealed how completely clueless the American public is on climate change. In a cleverly designed survey, he asked some questions of the type “Most climate scientists believe human-caused warming will lead to flooding of some coastal areas, True/False” for which the correct answer is true, but also some red-herring-alarm questions such as “climate scientists believe human-caused warming will increase the risk of skin cancer”. He finds that about 75% of people believe these false scares, such as the cancer one, one about warming having caused more tornadoes, two questions about aerosols and sulphur emissions being responsible for global warming, and one about carbon dioxide reducing photosynthesis in plants.
Kahan summarises the findings as follows:
Ordinary members of the public, regardless of what they “believe” about human-caused climate change, know pitifully little about the basic causes and consequences of global warming.
He also finds that there is very little left-right divide on this: Republicans are almost as likely as Democrats to believe in these bogus climate alarm stories. You can read Dan’s paper about this here at SSRN, though the recent blog posts are about new surveys, which give similar results but are described as more ‘humungous’.
… but so are we in the UK
Any hopes we smug Brits might have had that this just shows how stupid Americans are were dashed when Richard Tol and colleague Peter Dolton released similar data for the UK public. This survey was run by a professional survey company and used many of the same questions Kahan had used in his work. They found that 59% of people agreed that climate scientists believe CO2 will reduce plant photosynthesis, 70% thought climate change increases skin cancer, 87% correctly said that climate scientists think global warming could cause coastal flooding, a huge 88% fell for the idea that ice melting at the North Pole would cause sea levels to rise, and 70% incorrectly thought hurricanes are increasing. From Kahan’s paper the corresponding numbers for the US are 68%, 69%, 81%, 86% and 79%. So overall, it looks as though people in the UK are only very slightly less ignorant about climate change than Americans.
Overall, Dolton and Tol’s results show that the British public would have done better on this test if they’d just tossed a coin rather than trying to think about the answers:
The survey also asked how serious a problem people thought climate change was now, in 10 years time and in 100 years time. The results showed that on the whole people were very worried on the 100-year time-scale, and as Tol put it on twitter, People who know more worry less about climate change.
What’s going on?
We’ve been bombarded with information about climate change for the last 15 years or so, and there are dozens if not hundreds of organisations devoted to getting the message out. So how come people are still so completely clueless?
From a Cliscep perspective the answer is obvious. The public has been so brainwashed by misleading, exaggerated claims, scare stories and propaganda put out by climate scientists, climate activists and their supporters in the media (such as the recent story about flight times) that they have now been conditioned to associate any possible bad thing with climate change. One wonders how far this could go: how many people would agree with the statement that climate scientists think that man-made global warming will lead to an increased risk of meteorite impacts? The return of dinosaurs? Alien invasion?…
This explanation fits with the finding about worry – of those who incorrectly fell for the bogus scare questions, 44% chose 10 on the climate worry scale, whereas 27% of those who knew more did. The climate scaremongers are succeeding in fooling and worrying a lot of people.
Dan Kahan is surprised
There are other interesting points in the two Kahan posts. He finds that there’s a political divide, but also the political divide gets greater the more knowledgeable people are – conservatives get more sceptical the more they know about climate science while liberals’ belief increases. Also, as knowledge increases, belief that there’s a scientific consensus increases. Dan thinks these two results in combination are surprising (“Whoa!!! What gives??”); he seems to think it’s odd that intelligent people know there’s a consensus but don’t buy into it; in the comments, several people, including Barry Woods, Andy West and I have tried to explain why it isn’t, leading to an interesting discussion.
Also, in the second one, They already got the memo, he has harsh words (including a four-letter one starting with f) for those who are keen to promote the idea there’s a consensus. His results show clearly that it doesn’t “work”, and he says “All the “social marketing” of “scientific consensus” does is augment the toxic idioms of contempt that are poisoning our science communication environment.”