Lack of Science Knowledge Not to Blame for Environmental Skeptics After All

Advocates for pressing new measures on sustainability in order to curb the potential threat of climate change have often claimed that their opposition was mired in a lack of understanding of the science behind global warming. The thought was that a lack of science literacy could explain the steadfast divide in the United States between believers and deniers. According to a recently published study by Yale Research, however, the “You just don’t get it!” argument doesn’t pan out. The research reveals that allegiance to cultural identity carries more weight than the science-based lobby of climatologists, suggesting that progress in sustainability will need a message that resonates with cultural groups in different ways.

The hypothesis of a national deficit of scientific knowledge being the wedge on environmental issues was certainly convenient due to the fact that it helped focus the efforts of proponents on a model persona. It also fostered the belief that education was not on the side of the naysayers. For better or worse, when it comes to global warming there is no data to support this assumption. According to the study of 1,540 Americans, “members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change.”

” This result suggests that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.”

Researchers refer to this condition as Cultural Cognition whereby societal groups are unconsciously “motivated to fit their interpretations of scientific evidence to their competing cultural philosophies.” Specifically, the data suggests that egalitarian communitarians are more concerned than hierarchical individualists with climate change risks. This would parallel the political divide between conservative and liberal tendencies. Collectively, all of this continues to point to the lesson that the framing of the environmental problem is failing to penetrate a certain series of cultural values that could have more to do with maintaining personal freedoms than necessarily disagreeing with scientific research. Put another way, the opposition may be less of a case of not knowing if climate science is right and more of not wanting it to be right.

Regular readers could note that I do not often dwell on climate change as a topic on Intercon, largely due to its polarizing nature that results in a series of unnecessary battle lines being drawn. The truth is that we are not short on reasons to pursue a more sustainable culture even without global warming in the mix. However, I bring up this example because I think sustainability in general (what does that mean again?) suffers from similar cultural divides.

So regular readers (you rock by the way) may also note that while I do claim that our lack of sustainable progress is due to ignorance rather than apathy, I do not specify scientific literacy and I think the difference is an important one. The missing piece needed to spark action in most people is not the fact that there is a problem or whether or not we can prove it, but how their individual daily lives contribute to the issue. Understanding the complicated series of interconnections that help discern from the cultural norms that are caustic and those that are benign is just as important, if not more important, than understanding the scientific spine of nature’s carbon cycle.

This new study does not change the issues or alter their severity, but it is one more piece of evidence pointing to a need for changing the diction or dialect used in conveying those issues to a wider audience. I know many architects out there can empathize with the difficult task of translating our specific language for describing a very specific process to an array of people outside of our profession. I am sure other professions share the same challenge. In order to succeed, some core components of sustainability (namely climate change) may need re-branding to become more palatable.

There is a secondary message to take away from the research results. The weight attributed to influence of social relationships means that “for the ordinary individual, the most consequential effect of his beliefs about climate change is likely to be on his relations with his peers.” Another way to read this could be that a proponent of sustainability could have a better chance of convincing a friend with slightly different beliefs within a common social circle than a total stranger with the same mindset. If you have friends that aren’t doing the simple things that can contribute to a larger difference then you’re surrounded by some of your best chances of success.

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