Bloggers and commentators have been talking a lot  lately about  a recent study, by Dan Kahan and colleagues in Nature Climate Change , capturing what I call the “smart idiot” effect : Conservatives who are more educated, or have a higher degree of scientific literacy, are more strongly in denial (or less worried) about global warming.
In this post, I want to underscore the robustness of this finding, by showing that it has also turned up in a study just out in the journal Polar Geography .
The paper (citation below; abstract here ; author’s draft here ) is by Lawrence Hamilton  and his colleagues at the University of New Hampshire. In it, the researchers examine a wealth of survey data about people’s knowledge of (and concern about) global warming in the polar regions—data collected by the General Social Survey in 2006 and 2010. Then, they cross-reference these results with measurements of general scientific literacy and political ideology…and, well, that’s when the smart idiots show up to be counted. As we’ll see.
First, though, some background.
Polar warming is, as Laurel Whitney recently explained  here, an extremely big deal. This isn’t just about what happens to the polar bears. The growing potential for exploitation of oil and gas in the Arctic , made accessible by ongoing sea ice and permafrost melting, adds a new variable to the global energy economy and also further amps up our potential carbon dioxide contributions to the atmosphere.
Perhaps even more important, however, is the risk–if global warming advances far enough—of destabilizing the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.
They contain so much water that they could, together, raise the global sea level by 13 meters (or about 42 feet). In such a scenario, the planet changes irrevocably.
Public knowledge increased about the polar regions from 2006 to 2010, based on the General Social Survey data unpacked by Hamilton et al in their new paper. And in light of the importance of these regions to our planetary future, you would think this would be unqualified good news. It isn’t, though, because concern about global warming at the poles did not increase in a way that corresponded with increased knowledge.
Why not? One simple word: Ideology.
Basically, if you’re a conservative, then the data show that you are likely to care less about the extinction of polar bears, about sea level rise, about ice cap melting, about what happens to the Inuits, and about threats to Arctic and Antarctic wildlife. But that’s not all. You see, the General Social Survey also assesses people’s degree of scientific literacy with “true or false” questions like ‘‘Electrons are smaller than atoms” and ‘‘Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.’’
Scoring better on polar knowledge, and scoring better on scientific literacy, tends to make most people more concerned about what’s happening to the polar regions. But that trend doesn’t hold up for political conservatives. As the authors report:
…among politically liberal, moderate or even slightly conservative respondents, concern about polar climate change, or support for reserving the Antarctic, tend to increase as science literacy goes up. Among the most conservative respondents, however, concern about climate and support for reserving the Antarctic stay level or even slightly decline as science literacy goes up.
The authors demonstrate this visually when it comes to a question about sea level rise. Respondents were asked how worried they were about 20 feet of sea level rise, leading to coastal flooding (frankly, coastal inundation). You’d think any thoughtful and well informed person would be concerned about such a thing, right? Indeed, you’d think a conservative would be particularly concerned about such a thing, given how destabilizing it would be, how disruptive to the way our lives have always been lived—right?
Wrong. Look what happens to ideological conservatives as they get more scientific literacy:
That’s right, kids. The more scientifically literate conservatives get, the less worried they are about 20 feet of sea level rise!
If that’s not smart idiocy, then I just don’t know what is.
Now, presumably these conservatives would be concerned about sea level rise if they thought it was a real threat—they just don’t think it’s is one. (I mean, after all, North Carolina is trying to legislate it away !) Their education and scientific literacy help them rationalize the idea that climate change isn’t happening, and then it is easy for them to dismiss all claims about how bad it is going to be.
In the conclusion of their paper, Hamilton et al set this phenomenon in the context of the growing mountain of research on biased reasoning, explaining how human foibles like confirmation bias and motivated reasoning likely explain this bizarre effect among conservatives. In other words, conservatives here are just showing a particularly extreme form of follies to which we are all susceptible.
In this case, though, it is particularly stunning. After all, you just know that many of these same conservatives will be thrilled to learn that the oil and gas companies in which they own stock are acquiring new reserves in the Arctic (or at least, thrilled to see their stock prices and dividends rise because of it). You can’t have that economic opportunity without the accompanying threat of dramatic sea level rise—but, well, there’s cognitive dissonance for you.
*** Lawrence C. Hamilton, Matthew J. Cutler & Andrew Schaefer (2012): Public knowledge and concern about polar-region warming, Polar Geography, 35:2, 155-168.