06/01/2012 02:05 pm ET | Updated Aug 01, 2012

If Only People Understood Science Better...

...they might understand climate change better, right? Wrong! At least, according to a paper just published in the journal Nature Climate Change. That paper evaluated the perception of risk from climate change in a representative sample of U.S. adults assigned to two categories: "egalitarian communitarian" and "hierarchical individualist" (mainly independents leaning Democratic with a slight liberal bias, and independents leaning Republican with a slight conservative bias, respectively).

The results showed that individuals in the former category are more concerned about climate change risks as a whole than those in the latter -- no surprise there. But it also showed that among those who believe that there is low risk from climate change (hierarchical individualists), those with higher science literacy think the risk is lower; and among those with a preconception of high risk (egalitarian communitarians), the ones with higher science literacy think the risk is higher. The authors suggest that in both groups, as science literacy increases, people become more discerning of which scientific information aligns with their values, widening the gap in risk perception between those two groups.

Why is that important? Many advocates of science communication dedicate themselves to finding ways to better communicate climate science, ultimately believing that if people understand the message, they will see the actual risk from climate change. This study shows that this is not the case: people's perceptions and views are more based on their cultural and social values than on scientific understanding or literacy. I wrote about this in a previous post -- people want to "fit in" with their peers, and the study confirms this view. It follows that, if we want to change people's minds (if that is at all possible!), we must work on their core values. But how?

Just last week I attended the National Academy of Sciences' Sackler Symposium, which had the theme this year of "The Science of Science Communication." Dan Kahan, one of the authors of the paper discussed above, spoke about his research. Many other top scientists presented studies and ideas on how to better communicate science. However, if people understand the science but cling to their peers' views, we need something more than just better science communication. In fact, the paper concludes that one must focus on "creating a climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group's values," and suggests the use of culturally diverse communication that resonates with different communities. Just focusing on the science is not likely to get any results. So, there you have it: it's not the science. How we communicate matters more than what we communicate.