Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Tea Party, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and Climate Change - Too Sure of Themselves?

As Cara Horowitz posted about earlier on Legal Planet, some recent polling data emerged today regarding politics and global warming, looking at the views of Democrats, Republicans, Independents and the Tea Party.  The report was put together by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication.  The data contained lots of interesting information, but the most interesting tidbit to me was that:

"Tea Party members are much more likely to say that they are 'very well informed' about global warming than the other groups. Likewise, they are also much more likely to say they 'do not need any more information' about global warming to make up their mind."

Certainly being a specialist in an area does not always make one correct, but reading reports and keeping up with the science of climate change is part of what many of us do for a living. For me personally that is a task separate and apart from my politics, as there is plenty on both sides of the political spectrum with which I both agree and do not agree.  So while I have to rely on the understanding and processes of the scientists engaged in the research, due to my woeful scientific incompetence (I am not, after all, a climate scientist), I can still be somewhat sure from my review of the materials that 95% of scientists truly do maintain a consensus position on the human contribution to climate change, ocean acidification, etc.  Yet I have seen the mindset reflected in the poll when discussing the science of climate change, where I can throw paper after paper and report after report at someone and within minutes they are responding that it just cannot be true, that the debate is still open, etc.  Speed readers? I don't think so.

It reminds me of the Dunning-Kruger effect, but before I get into that let me make very clear that what I am discussing is a derivation of the actual effect. The actual effect is seen across all segments of society regardless of political affiliation, and involves less capable people overestimating their abilities while those more capable underestimate their own abilities relative to others.  But I wonder how this combines with political affiliation to cause people to purposefully put themselves in a position of being "less capable." By that I mean is there a bias toward not believing in climate change that is ideological, but that causes those people to exhibit some Dunning-Kruger-esque view that they are "very well informed" about global warming - more-so than folks who actually trust the science - and that they "do not need any more information"? This is certainly not an argument on my part that members of the Tea Party are less "capable" from an intellectual perspective. I have many, many extremely capable acquaintances who sympathize with the concerns of the Tea Party, but who simply aren't interested in digging deeper than Fox News to find the facts about climate change. Rather, it is that Tea Partiers seem to choose to put themselves into a position where their capability to understand and accept the science is compromised by their political views - they don't even want to track down the data and study it closely because if they do it might demonstrate something incongruous with their political viewpoints. Until one reads the reports and makes an effort to understand the science, that person is "unskilled" in the sense that Dunning-Kruger posits, and is prone to overestimate his or her skill in assessing the "truth" of climate change - just as unskilled as I am at performing surgery or engineering the construction of a building. 

John Cook actually posted about Dunning-Kruger over on Skeptical Science last year.  The site is widely regarded as a respectable source that addresses the arguments for and against the human contribution to climate change.  Cook states:

There are many with a cursory understanding who believe they're discovered fundamental flaws in climate science that have somehow been overlooked or ignored by climate scientists. Some take this a step further and believe they're being deceived . . .

Cook provides the following example:

In the discussion on whether CO2 is a pollutant, a graph was included to show CO2 levels over the last 10,000 years. The graph includes ice core data for CO2 levels before 1950. For values after 1950, direct measurements from Mauna Loa, Hawaii were used.

CO2 Levels

A comment was posted querying the data in this graph. Here is the comment in full:

"Whoa, hold on a minute here. CO2 readings from ONE LOCATION prove we have an enormous GLOBAL spike in CO2 levels? You've got to be kidding me. This is science? That would be like me taking hydrological readings at the bottom of Lake Superior and then declaring that the entire surface of the earth must be covered with water based on my readings. 

By the way, isn't Mauna Loa an active shield volcano? ( Hmmmm, you don't suppose that's where all that extra CO2 came from, do you? C'mon, people, wake up. I find it shameful that this obvious manipulation is allowed to pass as "proof". This is certainly NOT an unbiased scientific conclusion."

The commenter is asking whether it's appropriate to take CO2 readings from one location. Particularly when situated near a volcano which are known to emit CO2. Surely a better metric would be a global average of CO2 levels? These are legitimate questions. However, I deleted this comment as our Comments Policy allows no accusations of deception, whether the attack is directed towards skeptics, scientists or myself. This restriction is necessary to keep discussion constructive and restricted to science. Unfortunately, the comment began with a commendable question and ended with a not-so-commendable personal attack.

If the comment had stayed on methods and not strayed into motive, I would have posted the following response. Mauna Loa was used is because its the longest, continuous series of directly measured atmospheric CO2. The reason why it's acceptable to use Mauna Loa as a proxy for global CO2 levels is because CO2 mixes well throughout the atmosphere. Consequently, the trend in Mauna Loa CO2 (1.64 ppm per year) is statistically indistinguishable from the trend in global CO2 levels (1.66 ppm per year). If I used global CO2 in Figure 1 above, the result "hockey stick" shape would be identical.

Unfortunately, this type of presumptive misunderstanding is seen all too often. Someone doesn't understand a certain aspect of climate science which is understandable considering the complexities of our climate. Rather than investigate further, they assume a flaw in the climate science or worse, an act of deception. This response is often more a reflection of the gap in their own understanding than any flaw in the climate science.  

Perhaps most interesting when considering the Dunning-Kruger effect is that cross-cultural comparisons have demonstrated that Americans may be more prone to the effect than other cultures.  If so, perhaps it is not surprising that American acknowledgement of the threat of climate change trails almost the entire rest of the world: "People nearly everywhere, including majorities in developed Asia and Latin America, are more likely to attribute global warming to human activities rather than natural causes. The U.S. is the exception, with nearly half (47%) -- and the largest percentage in the world -- attributing global warming to natural causes. Americans are also among the least likely to link global warming to human causes, setting them apart from the rest of the developed world."

Ultimately, I wonder if the Tea Party suffers from a politics-induced version of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and simply does not want to dig deeper. Actually, maybe they do want to dig deeper, but only so they can continue to bury their head in the sand.

- Blake Hudson

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mahtso displays tremendous ignorance about both climate science, economics, and logic, and once again demonstrates that those who deny the science of global warming are motivated by political ideology. mahtso makes reference to what he's read. but clearly that reading is highly selective when 98% of climate scientists and every reputable science organization accepts the reality of AGW. He's wrong about the costs of reducing the release of fossil CO2, wrong about the benefits, wrong about how much the temperature will increase if we don't decrease release of CO2, wrong about what the estimated increase is based on, wrong about it being a matter of his personal lifestyle, wrong about the carbon footprint of public figures, wrong that about its relevance, wrong that anyone is saying to shut up -- rather, we are saying to take your fingers out of your ears and pay attention to the evidence, and wrong about whether the science is settled ... while there are numerous questions and details to be resolved as there are throughout science, that the planet is heating up is expected from basic physics known since Faraday and has been directly measured by satellites and thermometers. There's more doubt about the human contribution -- that's only known to a certainty of 95% or so.

Posted by: Marcel Kincaid | May 7, 2012 1:51:13 PM

Haha, it's funny you mention Lonesome Dove. I just watched it for the first time recently (Netflix). This is totally unrelated to anything we are discussing, but I had emailed myself Gus's quote that "Me and Woodrow always like to get to where we started for even though it don't make a damn bit of sense." I thought it was funny, but now that I think about it, it may describe both parties in Congress these days!

Posted by: Blake Hudson | Sep 8, 2011 5:49:38 PM

In the movie version of Lonesome Dove, during a discussion about Abe Lincoln, Gus says to Pea Eye: You are in over your head. I’ll readily acknowledge that I am in over my head when it comes to much of what you have written, but on a more base level:

Considering your oncology example, although I will quibble with what you suggest, I think there are four factors that people consider when assessing how to react to what experts are telling them to do: the costs, the benefits, how reliable they believe the experts are, and what are the experts themselves doing?

In the global warming case, the perceived costs are enormous because people are talking about radically altering a carbon-based energy system. The perceived benefits are very small if those benefits are given as reduction in the predicted increase of average temperature. (When people were urging the US to adopt Kyoto, I saw reports that the change would be miniscule.) As to the reliability, I’ve read enough to suggest it is very low because the experts are basing their predictions on computer models that have flaws (e.g., inability to model ocean currents), that cannot be calibrated to past conditions without resort to fudge factors, and in which positive feedbacks account for a large percentage of the predicted increase in temperature.

I can’t speak to what the experts are doing, but certainly some of those telling me to alter my lifestyle live in mansions and fly in private jets.

The quibble with the oncology example: many people smoke despite a consensus that it causes cancer. Granted, that is an addiction, but there is also tanning; and other counter examples unrelated to oncology include not practicing safe sex, refusing vaccinations, and drinking and driving. Perhaps the “deniers” are as irrational as the drunk drivers, but a lot of what I read is little more than “shut up, the science is settled.”

Posted by: mahtso | Sep 8, 2011 4:04:25 PM

I pondered this aspect as well Mahtso. If this post is so certain that the effect applies, then does that mean it doesn't apply per Dunning-Kruger - in that I am overestimating my certainty? As you point out that might be a convenient line of attack to those who claim certainty on climate science. I started to put that in the post, but then read more and realized that Dunning-Kruger really turns on level of "skill" - meaning that it is the "unskilled" on a certain subject who are likely to overestimate their abilities. I am certainly unskilled at putting doors up in screened-in porches, and sure enough I overestimated my ability to do so - now I have a half functional screen door on my back porch. So I personally have no problem saying that the scientists engaged in climate science are skilled in the subject, and thus their level of certainty over the data they are collecting is not be the vector analyzed by Dunning-Kruger related to overestimation of ability. If another group wants to engage in the skilled activity of climate science and the trend shifts toward most of those scientists saying the data does not support it - fantastic. I am pretty sure we don't say that Dunning-Kruger applies to oncologists when, say, 70% of them are fairly certain that X vector causes cancer. We would probably take preventative measures to avoid X vector (based on 70% probabilities). Yet with climate many people reject such precaution.

Posted by: Blake Hudson | Sep 8, 2011 9:13:20 AM

“Ultimately, I wonder if the Tea Party suffers from a politics-induced version of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and simply does not want to dig deeper. Actually, maybe they do want to dig deeper, but only so they can continue to bury their head in the sand.”

I haven’t a clue about the tea party, but given the mantra that there is a consensus such that science is settled, this sounds like it applies to a good portion of the alarmist crowd.

Posted by: mahtso | Sep 8, 2011 8:58:39 AM

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