You may have read a little while ago about a study in Nature showing that as scientific literacy increased, “liberal” people became more concerned about climate change, but “conservatives,” oddly, became less concerned about it. In other words, the more conservatives know about science, the less likely they are to think that climate change is a serious problem. The reaction was the opposite direction in liberals: scientifically literate liberals are very concerned about climate change. The authors of the study concluded that the problem was not necessarily bad education about science: it was that people (not just conservatives but also liberals) tend to adopt beliefs that are confirmed within their own distinct subcultures.
There’s a new study (h/t DeSmogBlog) which is going to be used for similar purposes, I suspect, but has a much more appalling message: conservatives are idiots. Of course liberals may be idiots, too: in these studies, getting the scientifically correct answer doesn’t necessarily prove you know what you’re talking about, just that you’ve happened to bumble in the right direction. We shouldn’t forget that. Nevertheless, there is simply no way to read the following chart without feeling a cold chill go up your spine:
Let’s be clear about what’s being asked here. This survey didn’t ask whether people believed a 6-metre rise in sea level over the next century was likely. That’s the question the Nature study was asking, basically, and in that case, scientifically literate conservatives tended to think it wasn’t likely.
Instead, this study asked a hypothetical question: if the sea level does rise by 6 metres, would this event be of “high concern”? There are any number of interesting things about this chart. For instance, uneducated liberals are less likely than uneducated conservatives to think that a massive change in sea level would be a serious problem. But the most interesting thing is that scientifically literate conservatives are the least likely group to think that massive sea level change might just pose some problems for us.
We shouldn’t blow this too much out of proportion. Ten percent of intelligent liberals and 20 percent of intelligent moderates also think there won’t be much trouble. More than half of intelligent conservatives do have a grasp of the obvious. But the yawning gap is terrifying. What are these people thinking?
For the record, if sea levels do rise by 7 metres (which is not quite yet a certainty), that would be of an event of high concern. Pretty much every city with a saltwater port will be partially or completely under sea level, from New York to Shanghai. That includes both Vancouver and Halifax. River deltas where millions of people live and where many developing countries derive much of their food production will be submerged. A number of island nations will simply sink beneath the surf. And all the while, more than one in three conservatives expects to watch the carnage without concern.
The last study supported their argument that people (of all political persuasions, not just conservatives) tended to hold beliefs that were affirmed by their social group, rather than all of us genuinely trying to figure out the objective truth. The new study can be interpreted in the same way, but it points to something much more significant: a disturbingly large minority of conservatives, especially the “scientifically literate ones,” are simply incapable of reasonable thought.
I should stress, we don’t know for sure that the same thing isn’t true about liberals. A lot of them may be following the Nature theory and just fitting into their social group, by saying they’re concerned about a sea level change even while they don’t really have the slightest clue what it would actually mean. That’s a definite possibility. I’d go further and say it’s almost certainly true.
But how do we rationalize all of this in the light of the fact that the “scientifically literate” conservatives weren’t concerned by the prospect of drowning many of the world’s major cities? I’ll try and think more about that in my next post.Tweet