We Asked People to Do Climate Change Math. Their Answers Depended on Their Politics
By Will J. Grant
In an ideal world, people would look at issues with a clear focus only on the facts. But in the real world, we know that doesn't happen often.
People often look at issues through the prism of their own particular political identity — and have probably always done so.
In research published today in Environmental Communication, my colleague Matthew Nurse and I report that even some of the smartest among us will simply refuse to acknowledge facts about climate change when we don't like them.
Skin Cream Versus Climate Change
The research took place just before Australia's 2019 federal election.
We asked 252 people who were planning to vote for the Greens and 252 people who were planning to vote for One Nation to consider some data we'd put together. To understand that data, they would need to do some mental math, just like you would when looking at a typical scientific report.
While there was no significant difference in the mathematical ability between the two groups of voters overall, it seemed that political affiliations can have an impact on how people answered a mathematical question, depending on the subject.
For example, in one experiment we told participants that data in the scientific report was about whether a new skin cream would cure a rash, as shown below.
We asked them to indicate whether the experiment shows that using the new cream is more likely to make the skin condition better or worse. Participants in our study got the correct mathematical answer 48% of the time.
However, when we showed them exactly the same data but said it was about whether closing coal-fired power stations would significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the local area (by 30% or more), we got a very different set of answers.
For example, when the report showed CO₂ emissions would go down significantly, only 27% of One Nation supporters got the right answer.
When the report showed CO₂ emissions would not significantly go down, only 37% of Greens voters got it right.
So it seems our participants were less likely to answer a question correctly when it went against their political ideology.
Spilt People According to Math Ability
But what follows is really the interesting bit.
We decided to find out whether numeracy – math ability – played a role in people getting the wrong answers. First, we looked at those with below-average numeracy.
We found many of these people just gave their preferred, ideologically aligned answers when it came to the climate change question. This is a well-known effect called motivated reasoning.
But surely the more numerate groups of people, those better at math, would fare better? Well, not really.
The groups of people with above-average numeracy sometimes did worse than the less numerate groups. Some did no better than chance at 50%, and some did far, far worse than that, as the graph below shows.
When we showed people reports about CO₂ emissions, the more numerate people were much more politically polarized than any other group. For example, the participants considered a report showing that CO₂ would go down significantly, a One Nation supporter with a numeracy score of seven (out of nine) was only 5% as likely to provide the correct answer as a Greens supporter in the same numeracy category.
Motivations Change Brain Function
This is counterintuitive, but this isn't the first study to reveal this effect.
While Kahan's previous research focused on the politically polarizing issue of gun control in the U.S., some people suggested the same thing might happen with other topics, particularly climate change.
Our research is the first to confirm this.
These findings build on the theory that your desire to give an answer in line with your pre-existing beliefs on climate change can be stronger than your ability or desire to give the right answer.
In fact, more numerate people may be better at doing this because they are have more skills to rationalize their own beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence.
You might ask whether it really matters if people sometimes get the wrong answer on questions like this.
We'd argue yes, it does matter. Successful democracies rely on a majority of voters being able to identify and understand risks, and make the appropriate voting choices.
If people remain entrenched in their ideological corners when threats come along, and are unwilling to face facts, societal problems can fester, potentially becoming much more difficult to resolve later.
Just imagine scientists had discovered human activity was damaging our atmosphere. They said this problem would cause Earth's climate to get hotter and threaten our livelihoods. Politicians and the people they represented saw this as a legitimate issue worth acting on, regardless of their political views. Imagine the world united to fix this problem, even though it would cost a lot of money.
In fact, we don't need to imagine too much, as this isn't just a hypothetical situation. It actually happened when scientists found evidence the use of industrial chemicals was depleting the ozone layer.
In 1987, for the first and only time, all 197 members of the United Nations agreed to sign the Montreal Protocol regulating the man-made chemicals that destroy the ozone layer. More than 30 years later we can measure the benefits of this agreement in our planet's atmosphere.
A Matter of Science, Not Politics
Unlike the current climate change debate, people largely saw this risk as a matter of science, not politics.
But it seems people are increasingly encouraged to see risks like this through a political frame. When this happens, facts can become irrelevant because no matter how smart people are, many will simply deny the evidence to protect their side of the political debate.
Societies need to make good choices for their survival and those choices need to be based on facts, regardless of whether everyone likes them or not.
Will J. Grant is a senior lecturer at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, at Australian National University.
Disclosure statement: Will J. Grant does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
- The Thinking Error at the Root of Science Denial - EcoWatch ›
- 4 in 5 Parents Wish Teachers Taught Climate Change – But Most ... ›
A grim new assessment of the world's flora and fungi has found that two-fifths of its species are at risk of extinction as humans encroach on the natural world, as The Guardian reported. That puts the number of species at risk near 140,000.
- Climate Crisis Could Cause a Third of Plant and Animal Species to ... ›
- World Leaders Urged to 'Act Now' to Save Biodiversity - EcoWatch ›
- Bumblebees Face Extinction From the Climate Crisis - EcoWatch ›
- Plant Extinction Is Happening 500x Faster Than Before the Industrial ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
As human activity transforms the atmosphere, flowers are changing their colors.
- The Best Plants to Attract Pollinators, by Region - EcoWatch ›
- Corals Turn Bright Neon in Last-Ditch Effort to Survive - EcoWatch ›
- Hummingbirds Live in a More Colorful World, Study Confirms ... ›
By Sharon Zhang
Back in March, when the pandemic had just planted its roots in the U.S., President Donald Trump directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to do something devastating: The agency was to indefinitely and cruelly suspend environmental rule enforcement. The EPA complied, and for just under half a year, it provided over 3,000 waivers that granted facilities clemency from state-level environmental rule compliance.
A rare celestial event was caught on camera last week when a meteoroid "bounced" off Earth's atmosphere and veered back into space.
- Asteroid Could Strike Earth Before Election Day But Won't Cause ... ›
- Water May Have Originated on Earth, Study Finds - EcoWatch ›
By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>