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Public Knowledge, Scientific Literacy, Numeracy, and Perceptions of Climate Change  

Jaime Gilden and Ellen Peters

It is a widely accepted scientific fact that our climate is changing and that this change is caused by human activity. Despite the scientific consensus, many individuals in the United States fail to grasp the extent of the consensus and continue to deny both the existence and cause of climate change; the proportion of the population holding these beliefs has been stable in recent history. Most of the American public also believe they know a lot about climate change although knowledge tests do not always reflect their positive perceptions. There are two frequent hypotheses about public knowledge and climate change beliefs: (a) providing the public with more climate science information, thus making them more knowledgeable, will bring the beliefs of the public closer to those of climate scientists and (b) individuals with greater cognitive ability (e.g., scientific literacy or numeracy) will have climate change beliefs more like those of experts. However, data do not always support this proposed link between knowledge, ability, and beliefs. A better predictor of beliefs in the United States is political identity. For example, compared to liberals, conservatives consistently perceive less risk from climate change and, perhaps as a result, are less likely to hold scientifically accurate climate change beliefs, regardless of their cognitive abilities. And greater knowledge and ability, rather than being related to more accurate climate change beliefs, tend to relate to increased polarization across political identities, such that the difference in beliefs between conservatives and liberals with high cognitive ability is greater than the difference in beliefs between conservatives and liberals with low cognitive ability.