Science

Question Authority, But Trust Science

There’s a big difference between skepticism and denialism.

But can you replicate it?

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The results of a new Pew Research Center poll on politics and climate change surprised even some of those who study public attitudes toward science. Forty-five percent of respondents who identified as conservative Republicans said they had little or no trust in climate scientists, compared with 6 percent of self-described liberal Democrats. Only 15 percent of conservatives said they trust climate scientists “a lot.”

This is surprising, according to Daniel Kahan, a Yale professor of law and psychology, because Americans have unparalleled confidence that scientists know what they’re doing. After all, global warming and other science-related issues are complex. Most people don’t have time or training to gather their own data, he said, so they have to defer to experts.

Still, some of Kahan’s research shows that people’s views don’t always line up with what they know the experts think. One study, published 2014, found that people across the political spectrum know that scientists agree carbon dioxide causes global warming and humans evolved from other animals. But when such statements were presented without the phrase “according to scientists,” conservatives were more likely to say they were false.

Liberals showed their own deviations from science-based views. Many wrongly agreed with the statement “Nuclear power generation causes global warming,” but they were more likely to correctly mark it false when it was preceded by “Scientists believe.” Subjects on both sides were about as likely as not to wrongly answer that scientists believe global warming interferes with photosynthesis and causes skin cancer.

Kahan said he’s still struggling to fully understand these results. He doesn’t believe Americans are losing trust in science. In times of controversy, people rarely admit to being anti-science, he said. Instead, they find scientists who agree with them. Even creationists tried to appear to more scientific by creating the science-y sounding concept of “intelligent design” and recruiting a few Ph.D.-level biologists to defend it.

When controversy erupts around an issue, Kahn said, both sides think they are aligned with science, “just like in waging war, both sides think they have God on their side.”

Another study of Kahan’s showed that the better people are at math and reasoning, the more likely they are to align their views with their ideology, even if those views included creationism or other unscientific stances.  This, he attributes to the fact that people are social creatures, and voicing the “wrong” political ideology can cost them friends, job opportunities, or a sense of community. 

It would be nice if people could be more rational about science-related matters, he said, “but we live in an environment where these issues have been associated with admission to a group.” That creates a polluted science communication environment. He compares Americans trying to sort out complex scientific issues to the Saturday Night Live character Toonces the Driving Cat: “They can do it, but not very well.”

And Americans can still find experts who go against the scientific consensus on the dangers of global warming. This week, for example, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed titled The Phony War on CO2. It was written by physicist Rodney Nichols and Harrison Schmitt, who is not only a geologist but an astronaut -- an American hero.

If scientists can be found on all sides of such important issues, then what good is trusting them? That’s a reasonable question, said MIT professor of nuclear science and engineering R. Scott Kemp, who recently chaired a panel discussion at the university on the election and threats to humanity. At a place like MIT, it goes without saying that global warming is an existential threat, along with nuclear war. But the experts didn’t agree on how to go about cutting carbon emissions.  

Cutting back on fossil fuel use will come at an economic price, said Kemp. Nuclear power could fill in the gap, since it doesn’t emit carbon dioxide, but it brings its own hazards. Experts have opinions, said Kemp, not all of them equally well-informed. “Lots of scientists happily speak publicly on issues of nuclear power safety,” he said, “but the reality is they are only experts on corrosion rates or thermal transfer.”

Where does that leave citizens who want to make informed choices? One answer is for people to trust science without necessarily trusting individual scientists. Science is the most powerful method humans have ever devised to understand our world. If there weren’t some inherent truth to science’s current understanding of gravity, motion, germ theory, genetics, cell biology and electromagnetism, we wouldn’t be talking on cell phones and watching spacecraft land on other planets. Science is a collective enterprise, and truth emerges from multiple experiments converging on the same answer.

According to the last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate models are converging on a temperature rise of 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius, or even higher, by the end of the century if emissions continue unabated. That’s become more than just an opinion. But in the WSJ editorial, the authors say carbon emissions will warm the planet by only 1 degree Celsius. When a claim falls that far from established science, even heroes owe us an explanation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Faye Flam at fflam1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tracy Walsh at twalsh67@bloomberg.net

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