Does providing information on geoengineering reduce climate polarization?

This article was originally published at Skeptical Science on March 4, 2013.

Dan Kahan of Yale University and four colleagues have just published an article in Annals of the AAPS titled: Geoengineering and Climate Change Polarization Testing a Two-Channel Model of Science Communication that investigates the effect on study participants’ attitudes to climate change after reading an article about geoengineering. In their abstract, they write:

We found that cultural polarization over the validity of climate change science is offset by making citizens aware of the potential contribution of geoengineering as a supplement to restriction of CO2 emissions.

I will argue here that this experiment achieved no such result because the premise was wrong. Specifically, the information on geoengineering that was presented to the study participants (in the form of a fictional newspaper article) bears no relation to mainstream scientific opinion on geoengineering nor, even, to the opinions of advocates of geoengineering. Geoengineering is portrayed in the fictional newspaper article as a strategy with no uncertainty about how well it might work and, it is claimed, will “spare consumers and businesses from the heavy economic costs associated with the regulations necessary to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 450 ppm or lower”. This is hardly depicting geoengineering as a “potential solution” or “a supplement” to the restriction of emissions, as is claimed in the abstract of the paper.

In fact, what Kahan et al. have demonstrated is that presenting misinformation dressed up as fact can affect people’s opinions about climate change. That may be interesting as a social science experiment conducted on consenting adults, but it is not much use as a guide to effective public science communication, constrained as it is to tell the truth.
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Consensus, Criticism, Communication

Thanks in good part to our critics, our paper Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature keeps getting more attention. It almost seems that you can’t open up a browser without seeing the “97%” meme somewhere. The extra interest prompted by Richard Tol’s recent critical article has maintained the rate of downloads of the paper at 500 per day and has pushed the total to nearly 200,000. The recent buzz has also spurred discussions on And Then There’s Physics, Variable Variability, Twitter, in The Guardian and a renewed line of criticism in a series of articles by Yale University Professor Dan Kahan.

I was surprised—a little shocked even—at some reactions to the release of our consensus paper. I was prepared, of course, for an angry response from those people who maintain that the expert consensus on the basics of anthropogenic climate change is either non-existent or crumbling. But my colleagues and I were never expecting to change their minds.

However, strong and sharply-worded opposition was unexpected from people like Dan Kahan (sarcasm), Mike Hulme (“infamous”), some journalists (“unwarranted attention”) and some climate scientists (satire), none of whom actually dispute the existence of an expert consensus on the basics of anthropogenic climate change. That the criticism often seemed tinged with peevishness (at least before they did some back-tracking) was especially surprising. I never saw our work as in any way undermining their approaches and analyses, but rather complementing them. And the complaints continue.

To give you a flavour of the nature of the recent discourse, here are some Tweets. (Keywords: Haha, doesn’t work, distraction, diversion, Sad, don’t inform, They insult, psychological control):


The apparent anger and the throw-everything-at-the-wall criticism suggest that this is something other than a measured scholarly critique. Let’s first look at the main strands of argument in a bit more detail. Continue reading

Scientific literacy and polarization on climate change

Originally posted at Skeptical Science

It is not news that people are polarized over their assessment of the risks posed by climate change. But is it true that the most polarized people are those who are more scientifically literate? Counter-intuitive though it may seem, the answer is: Yes, it is. This is the result of a recent article by Dan Kahan and six colleagues in Nature Climate Change (henceforth, the Kahan Study).  This study has received a lot of attention, with blog articles, for example in The EconomistMother Jones and by David Roberts at Grist.

At Skeptical Science, our goal is to debunk false arguments and explain the science behindclimate change. In the light of this peer-reviewed research, we have to ask ourselves: if we are striving to increase scientific literacy, won’t we just be making the polarization that exists aroundclimate change worse?  We will come back to that question at the end of this piece, but first, we’ll look in some detail at the Kahan Study itself.

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