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We Asked People to Do Climate Change Math. Their Answers Depended on Their Politics

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A man carries a poster in New York City during the second annual nationwide March For Science on April 14, 2018. Kena Betancur / Getty Images

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.



However, in an environment of fake news, filter bubbles and echo chambers, it seems harder than ever to get people to agree about simple facts.

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.

These findings build on research previously done by a Yale professor, Dan Kahan. The phenomenon is a type of motivated reasoning called motivated numeracy.

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.

So What?

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.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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