As regular readers of this blog know, I have spent a lot of time discussing what we call the “smart idiot” effect: Political conservatives who know more about science—or, have a higher level of education—tend to be more in denial of science or facts in contested areas, like global warming, than are less knowledgeable conservatives.
Any way you look at it, this is a puzzling phenomenon. For after all, we also know that leading climate scientists—e.g., those who have the most knowledge, the most expertise—clearly accept the science, and are deeply worried about it. A 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), for instance, examined the scientific publication records of climate researchers and compared these with their views on global warming. It turned out that the scientists publishing most in the literature were overwhelmingly accepting of the idea that human beings cause global warming.
What this suggests is there is a level of scientific training and expertise beyond which the smart idiot effect largely vanishes. In fact, while there are assuredly some climate skeptics remaining within the scientific community, the PNASstudy found that on average, their “relative climate expertise and scientific prominence” tended to be “substantially below that of the convinced researchers.”
What this implies to me is that the conservatives who become worse science deniers with a little knowledge or education may be evidence of an odd effect that, in the psychology literature, goes by the name of Dunning-Kruger (after the researchers who famously discovered it). In other words, they may be over-confident in their abilities, but simultaneously, unaware of it. (A little knowledge truly can be a dangerous thing.)
Democracy is utterly dependent upon an electorate that is accurately informed. In promoting climate change denial (and often denying their responsibility for doing so) industry has done more than endanger the environment. It has undermined democracy.
There is a vast difference between putting forth a point of view, honestly held, and intentionally sowing the seeds of confusion. Free speech does not include the right to deceive. Deception is not a point of view. And the right to disagree does not include a right to intentionally subvert the public awareness.