Open-Minded, Scientifically Literate Conservatives Less Likely to Believe Humans Cause Climate Change

By Barbara Hollingsworth | December 12, 2016 | 2:22pm EST
Holding his two-year-old granddaughter on his lap, Sec. of State John Kerry signs the Paris Agreement on Climate Change at the UN headquarters in New York on April 22, 2016. (US State Dept.)

( – Conservatives who engage in “actively open-minded thinking” (AOT) and receive the highest scores on “science intelligence” tests are less likely to accept the premise that human activity causes climate change than their more close-minded and less educated peers, according to scholars at Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project.

A recent study published in the latest edition of the journal Research & Politics found that liberal Democrats were 39 percent more likely to believe that human activity causes climate change than conservative Republicans.

But researchers found that the disparity was not due to conservatives’ lack of AOT, defined as “the motivation to seek out, engage, and appropriately weigh evidence opposed to one’s strongly held beliefs.”

In fact, the more open-minded conservatives were, the more likely they were to diverge from the "consensus" position.

"As subjects' AOT scores went up, their acceptance of human-caused climate change increased only if they held left-leaning political outlooks," the study found. “Among right-leaning subjects, higher AOT scores were associated with slightly less acceptance” of human-caused climate change.

This finding is at odds with the position that attributes political conflict over facts to a personality trait of close-mindedness associated with political conservatism,” study co-authors Dan Kahan and Jonathan Corbin concluded.

The researchers noted that they had expected that the 39 percent gap between liberals and conservatives would have narrowed as their AOT scores increased, but that’s not what happened.

 “If polarization over the reality of human-caused climate change is a consequence of a deficit in AOT among conservatives, then one would expect the conservatives lowest in AOT to be substantially more skeptical of climate change than those highest in AOT,” the study noted.

“Likewise, if an ideological asymmetry in AOT drives partisan conflict over climate change, then the gap between partisans ought to narrow as partisans’ AOT scores go up. These results were not observed in the data.”

“One might naturally expect that individuals highest in AOT to converge, not polarize all the more forcefully, on contested issues like climate change,” the study stated, adding that “our evidence contravenes this expectation.”

 “The net result is that subjects highest in AOT are in fact the most polarized, just as individuals highest in numeracy, cognitive reflection, and science comprehension are,” the study found.

A previous study by Kahan published in 2014 in the Journal of Risk Research also found that “the probability of belief in human-caused global warming increases slightly for relatively left-leaning individuals,” but “is unaffected for right-leaning ones as OSI_2.0 [scale of ‘ordinary science intelligence’] scores increase.”

The co-authors explain this polarization as the result of “social dynamics” that “are characterized by more or less myside bias” that mainly reflect the study subjects’ group identity.

Thus, both liberals’ and conservatives’ “’beliefs’ about human-caused climate change and a few select other highly divisive empirical issues are ones that people use to express who they are, an end that has little to do with the truth of what people, ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ know,” the latest study concludes.

But one critic pointed out that there could be another explanation.

“Conservatives who know more about science and math are less likely to accept consensus climate science,” climate writer Kip Hansen pointed out on in a blog on Climate Etc, adding that “Kahan never once considers that maybe there is something about consensus climate science that makes it less likely to be accepted by the more conservative scientifically knowledgeable and conservatives who are more open-minded.

“Maybe, just maybe, the more one understands the principles and facts involved in climate science and the more open-mindedly one delves into the gory details — not just taking the word of Acknowledged Authorities and Learned Societies — the less likely one is to simply accept consensus-version climate science,” he added.

MRC Store