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Here's why climate change is dividing the highly educated

New research shows that education and facts don’t prevent climate change deniers from cherry picking evidence to support their own beliefs.

FILE: A frozen section of the Ross Sea at the Scott Base in Antarctica. Picture: AFP.

Many people concerned about climate change assume that eventually, the growing weight of facts will persuade those who dismiss humans’ role in the problem to think again. Surely, the theory goes, the plentiful evidence will eventually make any naysayer understand the severity of the situation.

But political ideology has a powerful effect, and new research shows that education and facts don’t prevent climate change deniers from cherry picking evidence to support their own beliefs.

A study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that among the most educated, there’s actually a deep divide in beliefs about controversial scientific issues.

The researchers analyzed public opinions on six topics, stem cell research, the big bang, human evolution, climate change, nanotechnology, and genetically modified foods, based on more than 6,500 responses from the General Social Survey (a national survey conducted once every two years). Overall, they found that education level was “at best weakly related” to acceptance of the scientific consensus.

They write:

“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.”

The study follows several previous studies that show political conservatives are more likely to dispute the scientific consensus on climate change if they have more education.

There are two plausible explanations for this finding, according to the researchers. Firstly, the notion of “motivated reasoning,” namely that “more knowledgeable individuals are more adept at interpreting evidence in support of their preferred conclusions.” And secondly, over-confidence, as the researchers explain, “knowledge increases individuals’ confidence more quickly than it increases that knowledge.”

So if you fail to persuade dogmatic family members to see reason, don’t be too surprised. Given the terrifyingly real dangers posed by climate change, it’s still worth presenting the facts, just don’t assume that deniers are dumb.

Written by Olivia Goldhill, weekend writer, Quartz.

This article was republished courtesy of the World Economic Forum.

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