The Cultural Cognition of Climate Change

Last year, I posted on research by Dan Kahan’s “Cultural Cognition Project” which found, in effect, that increased political and social education is associated with increased political polarization. Contrary to conventional wisdom, where greater education should cause a convergence amongst political actors (as their greater factual knowledge reveals the “right” policy path), Kahan has consistently found the opposite — greater education and knowledge is typically deployed to buttress and entrench prior cultural narratives, deepening divides amongst political actors.

Kahan et al have now released a new paper verifying this finding in how people assess the risk of global climate change. Though most of the buzz is surrounding the “finding” that scientific-literacy has a slight negative correlation with believing that climate change is high-risk, for reasons I explain in this post that conclusion is actually of relatively little import and misses the bigger issues raised by the study (and Kahan’s project writ large) — namely, increased information as a harbinger of political polarization.

11 Comments

  1. There are both positive and negative aspects to this:

    Positive: It proves that smart people exist among both conservatives and progressives, contrary to the self-serving stereotypes that each side holds about themselves and others as “stupid”.

    Negative: It means that political combat infects the most capable among us all.

  2. The persistance of tribal belief systems is probably as great a danger as AGW itself. The ability of people to rationalize with increased information isn’t the same thing as making sound judgements. The old saying holds true: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. That dynamic when applied to humans can have tragic consequences.

  3. The corporate sociopaths who care more about profits today than the earth their children and grandchildren will inherit tomorrow have found a few “scientists” who are for sale to the highest bidder. Those scientist produce junk science that appeals to those who fear a change in their lifestyles and have no knowledge of science.
    The science is sound – increased levels of CO2 and CH4 in the atmosphere will make the planet warmer. A warmer planet will have more violent weather. Floods that used to occur every 100 years will occur every 10 or 25 years instead. Hurricanes and typhoons will will be more violent. There will be more droughts and floods.

  4. [M]ost of the buzz is surrounding the “finding” that scientific-literacy has a slight negative correlation with believing that climate change is high-risk[.]

    No doubt most if not all of the “buzzers” were just rote repeaters of the current environmentalist fad. The smarter former True Believers either learned more, realized it’s political, or discovered or were shown examples of exaggeration if not dishonesty by the Practitioners.

    They’re at a created risk that we can blame the True Believers for, of possibly overreacting to the BS we so frequently encounter:

    [M]uch of what you hear every day is exaggerated, often on purpose. People feel so passionately about climate change, and they are so frightened about what is coming, that they overstate their case (either pro or anti) in an attempt to enlist proselytes. …

    In his movie and accompanying book, An Inconvenient Truth, Vice President Gore showed increases in the intensity of hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires. Much of what he says is exaggerated … When such exaggerations are exposed, some people are tempted to dismiss the danger altogether, but that is false logic. Incorrect reasons put forth to substantiate a hypothesis do not prove the hypothesis false. There is plenty of reason for concern. Of course, the actions must be driven by an understanding of what is real and what isn’t. Some proposed actions are merely symbolic; others are designed to set an example; others have the purpose of being a first step. Few of the proposals (and virtually none of those presently being put forth by major politicians) will really solve the problem. You need to know the difference between symbolic gestures and effective action. …

    [T]he public did not pay much attention until advocates of action exaggerated the evidence. They looked over recent climate records, picked everything that was bad, ignored those things that were good, and attributed all the bad effects to global warming. This approach, called “cherry picking” (pick only the impressive cherries and tell people that they are representative of the whole crop*) can be politically effective in the short term, but it runs the risk of an eventual backlash. The public may eventually decide that scientists exaggerated, or lied, and they lose trust in science. …

    You will sometimes hear news reporters (and even scientists) state that both the number and the intensity of hurricanes has increased in recent decades, and that this increase is due to global warming. In fact, the number of hurricanes probably has not been increasing. The IPCC does not claim they have, and that’s the consensus report. …

    [T]ornadoes that do damage to the US are decreasing; those are the ones shown in the plot. It is even possible that this decrease could be due to global warming, since such warming decreases the temperature between north and south, and might weaken the gradient responsible for violent storms. We don’t know. But it does not make good propaganda to suggest that tornadoes are decreasing from global warming; it might make some people mistakenly think that global warming is good. …

    Humans have very likely contributed to global warming, and that suggests that the worst effects are still ahead of us. What can we do? There are lots of feel-good measures; we can use less gasoline, or perhaps turn down our thermostats to save heating fuel. Such measures are so dramatically short of what is needed, that there is a danger that people who do such things think they are leading the way to a real solution. …

    Many Kyoto proponents say that the United States must set an example, in the hopes that one day China and India will follow. Opponents say that China and India are certainly going to follow our example, but not in a way that will help. They will develop their economies as rapidly as possible, just as we did, and then, when their people are as wealthy as ours, they will begin to consider controlling their emissions, just as we are now doing. Although the carbon dioxide that they now produce exceeds that of the United States, their production per capita is less than one-fourth that of ours. If you were president of China instead of the United States, would you cut back? With a population that still suffers from poverty, malnutrition, poor health, lack of opportunity, widespread illiteracy and periodic famines, would you slow economic growth in order to keep the temperature from going up a few degrees? Add to this the facts that China has plenty of coal, certainly enough to meet the worst scenarios of the global-warming models, and that it is accelerating its exploitation of that resource. …

    Opponents of ["cap and trade"] say it allows too much cheating. A collapsing economy in Russia, for example, enabled that country to sell a large number of credits for carbon dioxide that it never would have produced. Trading of credits, in this case, led to an increase in the carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere over that which would have otherwise been emitted.

    Developing countries who signed the treaty do not have caps assigned to them; such caps could stunt their growth, and doing that was considered unfair. Opponents of the treaty argue that the major pollution in the coming century will come from those countries, so unless they too have caps, the problem will not be solved. Some people argue that giving generous carbon credits to the developing world may be a politically viable way to subsidize the construction of clean energy in these countries.Here’s another problem: suppose a developing country buids a plant that emits half as much CO2 as current plants? Should they be given credits for doing this, even though they are adding to the CO2 problem?

    Although the warming is real, politicians and some scientists exaggerate its effects when they claim that increased hurricanes, tornadoes, and even the melting of Alaska are proven to be a consequence. The melting of Antarctica appears to contradict global warming, but uncertainties are so large, that it is best to base conclusions solely on the temperature record.

    Because the risk of continued warming is large, many people want to cut the production of greenhouse gases. That is made difficult by the fact that fossil fuels are the cheapest source of energy, and perhaps the only kind that can be afforded by developing countries. There is also economic pressure since clean energy may be more expensive. The world is not running out of oil, only out of cheap oil. At $100 per barrel, reserves will last for over a hundred years. Coal is abundant in the big countries that will need energy: US, China, Russia, India. Coal can be converted into liquid fuels through the Fisher-Tropsch process, but that does not prevent CO2 pollution when the cars burn the fuel.

    http://muller.lbl.gov/teaching.....limate.htm

    (Interestingly, the author of the foregoing is running a current study to separate the bad information from the good, and get new, good information, about surface temperatures.)

    Our aim is to resolve current criticism of the former temperature analyses, and to prepare an open record that will allow rapid response to further criticism or suggestions. Our results will include not only our best estimate for the global temperature change, but estimates of the uncertainties in the record.

    Separating the BS from reality is easier when one is informed.

    * Deliberately trying to get the audience to commit the logical fallacy of composition

  5. The climatologists whose writings I’ve read have never made the mistake of equating any one given event with climate change. In addition they generally say that it’s just too soon to say how any given types of storms are going to be affected. The “skeptics” howled when Muller presented his preliminary results in testimony before Congress, even though he emphasized their preliminary nature, because they didn’t agree with what they expected.

  6. The “skeptics” (who can be subject to claims as misleading as those for global warning, what’s possible, and what we should do) are dwarfed by the major problem, the activism that has even invaded (or now pervaded?) science as well as elsewhere in academia and the media (and government).

    I wish more people with authority would remind (of if need be, teach) everyone else that there is no excuse for irrational responses to CO2 discharge into the atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion, much less silly to disastrous policies sought for decades. What idiotic inferences, or worse, conclusions, from it!:

    http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/

    Given the disgusting track record by some so far, I shudder at what could happen when we reach the 400 parts per million level.

    But some more may learn better or simply outgrow it by then.

  7. There is an underlying problem with this study in that the scientific question addressed does not have proven hypothesis.

    If the scientific / policy question was that gravity was increasing and so people were gaining weigh because of it, basic experiments would show that either gravity increased, decreased, or remained the same over the past 100 years. The question of increased scientific learning would then rely upon such experiments, and their results wold provide verifiable results outside rhetoric or statistical manipulation.

    The current theory of AGW does not have such an experiment. CO2′s constant increase in the atmosphere has not shown a corresponding increase in temperature rise as hypothesized by the warmist crowd. The one to one relationship implied by CO2 atmospheric content and higher temps has not been demonstrated in the data.
    One may wish to argue otherwise for policy reasons, but without the backing of a scientific experiment proving that relationship, supposition is all one can argue.

    The real problem tangential to the AGW question revolves around the decidedly unscientific way data for experiments have been manipulated or kept from attempts at replication of results. As example, can any scientist provide a reason why historical record temps of the 1930s have been lowered more than once to make 1998 the hottest year to date? What is the scientific basis for lowering historical temp records?

    Likewise, why were the original 1600 land ground stations reduced to less that 900 sites, and the majority of sites removed were rurally located? Has no one wondered why it’s cooler in the country on a given day than it is on the same day in the city? The Urban Heat sinks remain part of the data, but the cooler historical record has been removed. This was done by policy, not good scientific methodology.

    If this piece wishes to argue that learning science is bad for some policies, then I concur.

  8. The current theory of AGW does not have such an experiment. CO2?s constant increase in the atmosphere has not shown a corresponding increase in temperature rise as hypothesized by the warmist crowd. The one to one relationship implied by CO2 atmospheric content and higher temps has not been demonstrated in the data.

    Global warming pause linked to sulfur in China

    Scientists have come up with a possible explanation for why the rise in Earth’s temperature paused for a bit during the 2000s, one of the hottest decades on record.

    The answer seems counterintuitive. It’s all that sulfur pollution in the air from China’s massive coal-burning, according to a new study.

    Sulfur particles in the air deflect the sun’s rays and can temporarily cool things down a bit. That can happen even as coal-burning produces the carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming.

    “People normally just focus on the warming effect of CO2 (carbon dioxide), but during the Chinese economic expansion there was a huge increase in sulfur emissions,” which have a cooling effect, explained Robert K. Kaufmann of Boston University. He’s the lead author of the study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    But sulfur’s cooling effect is only temporary, while the carbon dioxide from coal burning stays in Earth’s atmosphere a long time.

    Chinese coal consumption doubled between 2003 and 2007, and that caused a 26 percent increase in global coal consumption, Kaufmann said.

    Now, Chinese leaders have recognized the effects of that pollution on their environment and their citizens’ health and are installing equipment to scrub out the sulfur particles, Kaufmann said.

    Sulfur quickly drops out of the air if it is not replenished, while carbon dioxide remains for a long time, so its warming effects are beginning to be visible again, he noted. The plateau in temperature growth disappeared in 2009 and 2010, when temperatures lurched upward.

  9. DQ

    From Climate 4you.com

    http://www.climate4you.com/ima.....verage.gif

    statistically, there has been the same nominal increase seen in temps for the past 40 years.

    The earth has been warming at this rate since the LIA.

    Here’s the 100 year graph from HadCRUT

    http://www.climate4you.com/ima.....alysis.gif

    that’s a 0.7 degree increase in 100 years and that fits the 1000 year trend. Looking at a ten year section out of a 1000 year trend demonstrate nothing statistically significant.

    Believe me DQ, I’m only pointing to science here, not policy / political analysis.

  10. We are destroying our earth, which has been known for a long time.

    The changes aren’t precisely predictable. The AGW people have started an amazing complex model for explaining and predicting those changes, but it’s still in its infancy. It’s a process that many models have had to go through. For political reasons, I think it’s been trotted out a bit early, which may cause problems as it matures and becomes more useful.

    History is full of great ideas that were rejected because people and institutions resist change. Nothing in the climate change models will be able to change that.

  11. Dave Hemmann wrote:

    [W]hy were the original 1600 land ground stations reduced to less that 900 sites, and the majority of sites removed were rurally located? Has no one wondered why it’s cooler in the country on a given day than it is on the same day in the city? The Urban Heat sinks remain part of the data, but the cooler historical record has been removed. This was done by policy, not good scientific methodology.

    and Jim Satterfield wrote:

    The “skeptics” howled when Muller presented his preliminary results in testimony before Congress, even though he emphasized their preliminary nature, because they didn’t agree with what they expected.

    after I quoted from Muller’s study site:

    Our aim is to resolve current criticism of the former temperature analyses, and to prepare an open record that will allow rapid response to further criticism or suggestions. Our results will include not only our best estimate for the global temperature change, but estimates of the uncertainties in the record.

    What I had intended but forgot to add originally was the link to Muller’s study site.

    Here is the link to the study site (main page),

    http://berkeleyearth.org/index

    and here is the announcement of initial findings and Muller’s testimony about preliminary results (see link below).

    Initial Findings
    The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project has not yet completed the analysis of the full data set with corrections to produce a global surface temperature trend. Our first step was to analyze a small subset of data (2%) to check our programs and statistical methods in order to confirm that they function effectively. We are correcting our programs and methods while still “blind” to the results so that there is less chance of inadvertently introducing a bias.

    A preliminary analysis of 2% of the Berkeley Earth dataset shows a global temperature trend that goes up and down with global cycles, and does so broadly in sync with the temperature records from other groups such as NOAA, NASA, and Hadley CRU. However, the preliminary analysis includes only a very small subset (2%) of randomly chosen data, and does not include any method for correcting for biases such as the urban heat island effect, the time of observation, or other potentially influential biases.

    Additionally, The Berkeley Earth team has now also taken an in-depth look at the issue of station quality. Analysis has been done on 100% of the stations that have been ranked by the Watts team – and is therefore distinct from the 2% results. All of the sites ranked by Watts are located in the United States.

    On March 31st, Dr. Muller was called to testify before congress at which time he shared some of the preliminary result of this project. Though our preference would have been to wait to release the results of our analysis when they were complete, we felt obligated to provide our best testimony at this congressional hearing. Dr. Mullers’s testimony, with the preliminary results included, is available here. [NOTE: See link below. -- DLS]

    http://berkeleyearth.org/Resou.....March_2011

    Muller is the professor whose writeup about global warming or climate change remains the best work for a lay audience I’ve seen to date. (His chapters in his paperback book, the earlier Physics for Future Presidents before his longer textbook [Physics and Technology for Future Presidents] was released, constitute perhaps the best writeup of all on the issues.)

    You’ve by now seen the textbook excerpt of Muller’s that’s available on his Web site that I’ve linked to. (I can’t add the link again here, good though that may be, because of TMV’s new comment system. Scoot back up on this thread to find it.)

    He’s a “skeptic” that doesn’t deny global warming, but he does reject BS like a few of us others.

    Incidentally, Don Quixote’s note about Chinese coal pollution possibly causing a pause for now in warming was also noted in Muller’s two books when discussing the disastrous warming that is happening in much of Alaska (where permafrost has ruled).

    The temperature trends of Alaska could well consist of a rise due to global warming, with a downward fluctuation in the last decade caused by something else. (There have been serious papers suggesting that soot from Chinese coal power plants is responsible; another paper points to the possibility of a decadal El Nino kind of sea variation that takes place naturally in the Arctic Ocean.)

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