You hear it all the time. People must be stupid if they don’t believe in climate change. The scientific evidence is so overwhelming, only a moron would deliberately be a climate denier, right? By that analysis, Scott Pruitt must have an IQ slightly below that of table salt. And yet, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claims that educated people are perfectly capable of picking and choosing the information they need to deny that the earth’s climate is changing in any significant way. Here’s the abstract that precedes the results of the study:
“Although Americans generally hold science in high regard and respect its findings, for some contested issues, such as the existence of anthropogenic climate change, public opinion is polarized along religious and political lines. We ask whether individuals with more general education and greater science knowledge, measured in terms of science education and science literacy, display more (or less) polarized beliefs on several such issues.
“We report secondary analyses of a nationally representative dataset (the General Social Survey), examining the predictors of beliefs regarding six potentially controversial issues. We find that beliefs are correlated with both political and religious identity for stem cell research, the Big Bang, and human evolution, and with political identity alone on climate change.
“Individuals with greater education, science education, and science literacy display more polarized beliefs on these issues. We find little evidence of political or religious polarization regarding nanotechnology and genetically modified foods. On all six topics, people who trust the scientific enterprise more are also more likely to accept its findings. We discuss the causal mechanisms that might underlie the correlation between education and identity-based polarization.”
Religion & Political Beliefs Trump Education
The study was based on 6,500 responses from the General Social Survey, a national survey conducted once every two years. Overall, the researchers found that education level was “at best weakly related” to acceptance of the scientific consensus. “We found that where religious or political polarization existed, it was greater among individuals with more general education and among individuals with greater scientific knowledge, as measured by both whether they had taken science courses and how they scored on a test of science literacy.”
In other words, just because someone has a Ph.D from some fancy schmantzy university, political and/or religious beliefs have little difficulty overriding any tendency to accept scientific findings as true. Two possible explanations for this are offered by the researchers. First, they note that “more knowledgeable individuals are more adept at interpreting evidence in support of their preferred conclusions.” Second, “knowledge increases individuals’ confidence more quickly than it increases that knowledge.” In other words, the more you know, the more you think you know.
“Jane, You Ignorant Slut”
The point of this is simply to suggest that attacking someone by calling them an ignorant lout has limited persuasive power and may actually discredit your argument. Let me give a few illustrations. When stopped by the police, it is contrary to your best interests to refer to the officers parents as genetically defective people with diminished brain capacity. Similarly, suggesting the judge hearing your case has the intellectual capacity of cottage cheese is equally unhelpful.
Climate change is serious business. Getting in someone’s face and calling them names will seldom help them see the light of reason. Those of us who wish to enlighten climate deniers should avoid name calling, intellectual slurs, or suggesting the person has the brains of a Golden Retriever. All are unhelpful to the cause.
Instead of attacking someone, work on changing their mind. Sales professionals do this every day. One of the most common techniques the pros use is something called “feel … felt … found.” Let’s say a customer comes to you and says the car you are selling is too small. Here’s one way a pro would handle that.
“Gee, Mr. Customer, I know how you feel. In fact, I used to feel the same way myself. But then I did some research and I found that the headroom on the Belchfire 5000 is actually greater than in a Mercedes S-Class sedan. Slide right in behind the wheel and see for yourself.” This is a technique by which many sales are consummated. In general, it is far more effective then looking the customer in the eye and saying, “Gosh, you really are a dumbass, aren’t you?”
They say that in any argument, the first person to start shouting is the loser. If you truly want to help others understand the importance of climate action, don’t start by insulting them and suggesting they are dumber than a head of lettuce. Try a softer, more nuanced approach. It just might work.
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