Climate Change

The Cooler: Why Everyone’s Being Rational About Climate Change

August 9, 2013

Greenland glacier breaking off into the Atlantic Ocean. Image credit: Tim Norris/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Bob Lalasz directs science communications for The Nature Conservancy.

One of the most common narratives among climate activists is that conservatives who oppose policy action on global warming are somehow more ideologically driven and less rational than those of us who see the impending risk of global warming and want to press for policy that does something about the problem.

Now Dan Kahan, the brilliant Yale scholar of risk communications who’s contributing some of the most incisive and valuable research around on why we are at such an impasse over risk issues such as climate change, has new research out that shows this narrative is fiction.

The study, out in the journal Judgement and Decision Making, finds that both liberal climate activists and conservative climate deniers bring not just the same level of bias to their thinking about climate change, but the same level of reflective thinking.

And the more reflective they are as thinkers, the more ideologically biased they were in their approach to the climate question. (The study also found that political conservatives were not less likely to be reactive, unreflective thinkers, as measured by the standardized Cognitive Reflection Test.

So the question of whether you support or oppose action on climate change is not one about thinking it through — or System 2 thinking, as Daniel Kahneman would call it.

The research also reinforces an argument Kahan and other scholars have been making for a while: that motivated reasoning is an entirely rational response to scientific findings that contradict your peer or cultural group’s norms.

Why rational? Because taking a position in favor of such science, Kahan says, has no personal, immediate benefit to you. But accepting such science could have negative consequences — by setting you against your identity group.

On the other hand, disputing such science (and the expertise of those who have produced it) reinforces your identity within your community.

Of course, as Kahan acknowledges, such individual rationality can lead to collective irrationality on risk issues:

When societal risks become suffused with antagonistic social meanings, it is (often if not always, and with respect to many if not all issues) individually rational for ordinary members of the public to attend to information in a manner that reliably connects them to the positions that predominate in their identity-defining groups. Nevertheless, if ideologically diverse individuals all follow this strategy simultaneously, they will be collectively worse off, since under these conditions, democratic institutions are less likely to converge, or to converge as rapidly as they otherwise would, on policies that reflect the best available evidence on how to protect everyone from harm. But because what any ordinary individual believes about policy will not make a difference, the collective irrationality of ideologically motivated reasoning does not by itself create any reliable pressure or mechanism to induce individuals to process information in a different, and morally and politically superior, way.

The paper is rich and the research design ingenious — I encourage you to read the whole thing. (Scott K. Johnson at Ars Technica has a good summary — HT to him.)

What are the next steps? Kahan has been consistent in his call for re-engineering the way we do science communications — applying lessons from the science of science communications to the way we talk about climate.

That’s a hard road. It means no quick fixes, working mostly at the local rather than the national level, and thinking through audience at a granularity most scientists and science communicators aren’t willing to tackle.

But after a quarter-century of little to no progress on communicating the urgency of addressing climate change, the ways we work today aren’t working.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. 

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