A study just published online in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that the answer to both questions is no. Indeed, asmembers of the public become more science literate and numerate,the study found, individuals belonging to opposing cultural groupsbecome even more divided on the risks that climate change poses. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the study was conductedby researchers associated with the Cultural Cognition Project atYale Law School and involved a nationally representative sample of1500 U.S. adults. "The aim of the study was to test two hypotheses," saidDan Kahan, Elizabeth K. |
Dollard Professor of Law and Professor ofPsychology at Yale Law School and a member of the study team."The first attributes political controversy over climatechange to the public's limited ability to comprehend science, andthe second, to opposing sets of cultural values. The findingssupported the second hypothesis and not the first," he said. "Cultural cognition" is the term used to describe theprocess by which individuals' group values shape their perceptionsof societal risks. It refers to the unconscious tendency of peopleto fit evidence of risk to positions that predominate in groups towhich they belong. The results of the study were consistent withprevious studies that show that individuals with more egalitarianvalues disagree sharply with individuals who have moreindividualistic ones on the risks associated with nuclear power,gun possession, and the HPV vaccine for school girls.
In this study, researchers measured "science literacy"with test items developed by the National Science Foundation. Theyalso measured their subjects' "numeracy" -- that is,their ability and disposition to understand quantitativeinformation. "In effect," Kahan said, "ordinary members of thepublic credit or dismiss scientific information on disputed issuesbased on whether the information strengthens or weakens their tiesto others who share their values. At least among ordinary membersof the public, individuals with higher science comprehension areeven better at fitting the evidence to their groupcommitments." Kahan said that the study supports no inferences about thereasoning of scientific experts in climate change. Researcher Ellen Peters of Ohio State University said that peoplewho are higher in numeracy and science literacy usually make betterdecisions in complex technical situations, but the study clearlycasts doubt on the notion that the more you understand science andmath, the better decisions you'll make in complex and technicalsituations.
"What this study shows is that people with highscience and math comprehension can think their way to conclusionsthat are better for them as individuals but are not necessarilybetter for society." According to Kahan, the study suggests the need for sciencecommunication strategies that reflect a more sophisticatedunderstanding of cultural values. "More information can help solve the climate changeconflict," Kahan said, "but that information has to domore than communicate the scientific evidence. It also has tocreate a climate of deliberations in which no group perceives thataccepting any piece of evidence is akin to betrayal of theircultural group." In addition to Dan Kahan and Ellen Peters, other study researcherswere Maggie Wittlin of the Cultural Cognition Project, Paul Slovicof Decision Research, Lisa Larrimore Ouellette of the CulturalCognition Project, Donald Braman of George Washington University,and Gregory Mandel of Temple University.
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