ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Over the past few months, polls show that fewer Americans say they believe humans are making the planet dangerously warmer, and that is despite a raft of scientific reports that say otherwise. And that puzzles many climate scientists, but not social scientists.
As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, some of their research suggests that when people encounter new information, facts may not be as important as beliefs.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: The divide between climate believers and disbelievers can be as wide as a West Virginia valley, and that's where two of them squared off recently at a public debate on West Virginia Public Radio.
Coal company president Don Blankenship is a doubter.
Mr. DON BLANKENSHIP (CEO, Massey Energy Company): It's a hoax because clearly anyone that says that they know what the temperature of the earth is going to be in 2020 or 2030 needs to be put in an asylum because they don't.
JOYCE: On the other side, environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr.
Mr. ROBERT KENNEDY JR. (Environmentalist): Ninety-eight percent of the research, climatologists in the world say that global warming is real, that its impacts are going to be catastrophic. There are 2 percent who disagree with that. I have a choice of believing the 98 percent or the 2 percent.
JOYCE: For social scientist and lawyer Don Braman, it's not surprising that two people can disagree so strongly over science. Braman is on the faculty at George Washington University and a part of a research group called Cultural Cognition.
Professor DON BRAMAN (George Washington University Law School/The Cultural Cognition Project): People tend to conform their factual beliefs to ones that are consistent with their cultural outlook, their worldview.
JOYCE: Braman's group has conducted several experiments to back that up. First, they ask people to describe their cultural beliefs. Some embrace new technology, authority and free enterprise - the so-called individualistic group. Others are suspicious of authority, or of commerce and industry. Braman calls them communitarians.
In one experiment, Braman then queried his subjects about something unfamiliar: nanotechnology, new research into tiny, molecule-sized objects that could lead to novel products.
Prof. BRAMAN: These two groups start to polarize as soon as you start to describe some of the potential benefits and harms.
JOYCE: The individualists tended to like nanotechnology; the communitarians generally viewed it as dangerous - all based on the same information.
Prof. BRAMAN: It doesn't matter whether you show them negative or positive information, they reject the information that is contrary to what they would like to believe, and they glom on to the positive information.
JOYCE: So what's going on here?
Professor DAN KAHAN (Yale University Law School/The Cultural Cognition Project): Basically, the reason that people react in a close-minded way to information is that the implications of it threaten their values.
JOYCE: That's Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale University and a member of Cultural Cognition. He says people test new information against their preexisting view of how the world should work.
Prof. KAHAN: If the implication, the outcome, can affirm your values, you think about it in a much more open-minded way.
JOYCE: And if the information doesn't, you tend to reject it.
In another experiment, people read a United Nations' study about the dangers of global warming. Then the researchers said, okay, the solution is to regulate pollution from industry. Many in the individualistic group then rejected the climate science. But when more nuclear power was offered as the solution...
Prof. BRAMAN: They said, you know, it turns out global warming is a serious problem.
JOYCE: And for the communitarians, climate danger seemed less serious if the only solution was more nuclear power.
Then there's the Messenger Effect. In an experiment dealing with the dangers versus benefits of a vaccine, the scientific information came from several people. They ranged from a rumpled and bearded expert to a crisply business-like one. And people tended to believe the message that came from the person they considered to be more like them - which brings us back to climate.
Prof. BRAMAN: If you have people who are skeptical of the data on climate change, you can bet that Al Gore is not going to convince them at this point.
JOYCE: So should climate scientists hire, say, Newt Gingrich as their spokesman? Dan Kahan says no.
Prof. KAHAN: The goal can't be to create a kind of psychological house of mirrors so that people end up seeing exactly what you want. The goal has to be to create an environment that allows them to be open-minded.
JOYCE: And Kahan says you can't do that just by publishing more scientific data.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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