Many science writers and policy wonks nurse the fond hope that fierce disagreement about issues like climate change is simply the result of a scientifically illiterate American public. If this “public irrationality thesis” were correct, the authors of the Yale study write, “then skepticism about climate change could be traced to poor public comprehension about science” and the solution would be more science education. In fact, their findings suggest more education is unlikely to help build consensus; it may even intensify the debate.
Led by Yale University law professor Dan Kahan, the Cultural Cognition Project has been researching how cultural and ideological commitments shape science policy discourse in the United States. To probe the public’s views on climate change, the Yale researchers conducted a survey of 1,500 Americans in which they asked questions designed to uncover their cultural values, their level of scientific literacy, and what they thought about the risks of climate change.
The group uses a theory of cultural commitments devised by University of California, Berkeley, political scientist Aaron Wildavsky that “holds that individuals can be expected to form perceptions of risk that reflect and reinforce values that they share with others.” The Wildavskyan schema situates Americans’ cultural values on two scales, one that ranges from Individualist to Communitarian and another that goes from Hierarchy to Egalitarian. In general, Hierarchical folks prefer a social order where people have clearly defined roles and lines of authority. Egalitarians want to reduce racial, gender, and income inequalities. Individualists expect people to succeed or fail on their own, while Communitarians believe that society is obligated to take care of everyone.
The researchers report that people whose values are located in Individualist/Hierarchy spaces “can be expected to be skeptical of claims of environmental and technological risks. Such people, according to the theory, intuitively perceive that widespread acceptance of such claims would license restrictions on commerce and industry, forms of behavior that Hierarchical/Individualists value.” On the other hand Egalitarian/Communitarians “tend to be morally suspicious of commerce and industry, which they see as the source of unjust disparities in wealth and power. They therefore find it congenial, the theory posits, to see those forms of behavior as dangerous and thus worthy of restriction.” On this view, then, Egalitarian/Communitarians would be more worried about climate change risks than would be Hierarchical/Individualists.