How to Get a Liberal to Question Global Warming

Readers of my posts will know that I’ve often focused on the work of Yale’s Dan Kahan and his colleagues, who have published fascinating research on how our political and cultural views skew our perceptions of scientific reality. In particular, Kahan et al find that “hierarchical-individualists” (aka conservatives) have very different responses to a variety of facts than do “egalitarian-communitarians” (aka liberals), and that these responses spring not from objective assessments of the evidence, but rather, from deeply seated worldviews that color our perceptions of what is true.

Such research has often been interpreted in a way that has made conservatives look, well, kinda bad. In one Kahan study, for instance, hierarchical-individualists overwhelmingly rejected the very idea that a scientist could be considered a real and legitimate “expert” because of that scientist's opinion that global warming is real and caused by humans. This is not exactly what I would call open-minded behavior.

But the research coming out of the Kahan group is actually quite balanced and does not merely target conservatives. And since I myself am often drawing on these sort of studies to criticize the right, I think it’s only fair to discuss a new Kahan et al study that, if you look closely, appears to show liberals also reasoning in a biased fashion.

[Don’t worry: I still think conservatives have much more deeply rooted issues with science. But it’s a complicated world out there, and it isn’t like liberals and environmentalists are complete innocents all the time. In my view, if we're going to criticize our ideological opponents, we've also got to try hard to see our own blind spots.]

So how do you get liberals to behave in a manner that, at least to my mind, might be called ideologically biased?

The trick, in the new study, was to discuss climate science in the context of geoengineering—the idea that we might have to interfere with the planet further in order to stave off the global warming that we have already set in motion. It's a gravely serious topic: The climate problem has gotten so bad that many responsible scientists have been forced, by the direness of the situation itself, to consider this disturbing possibility.

But because geoengineering is a techno-fix that interferes with the environment, it can be expected to draw more negative responses from liberals and environmentalists (or egalitarian-communitarians) than from conservatives (or hierarchical-individualists). Indeed, many conservatives might even be inclined to applaud geoengineering, since it emphasizes relying on human ingenuity and technology to solve problems. 

Enter the new experiment by Kahan et al. Studying 3,000 people—half of them from the U.S., half from the UK—the researchers asked their subjects to read a mock-scientific article from a journal called Nature Science (yuk, yuk), reporting that global warming is even worse than we thought and, indeed, spinning out of our control. But before reading the fake paper, some of the subjects first read news reports that framed that paper in different ways—either as supporting even stricter limits on greenhouse gas emissions, or as supporting geoengineering.

We already know, based previous research, what framing climate science as supporting greenhouse gas cuts does. It makes conservatives—who hate forced restrictions on industry—even more dismissive of the science than they are already to begin with. And indeed, that’s what the new study showed.

But what’s fascinating is that the geoengineering framing—which, to my knowledge, has not been tried before in such a controlled study—had a very different effect. It made conservatives somewhat more accepting of the fake study's findings, and made liberals somewhat more dismissive of them. And it did so in roughly equal amounts.

Granted, liberals were still much more concerned about global warming overall than conservatives were–and also were much more convinced by the fake article. But nevertheless, when the results were framed around geoengineering, they were significantly less convinced by them. See here for details.

Now, something good actually did come out of this: The geoengineering frame made conservatives less dismissive of global warming, and thus helped to depolarize the issue overall. Based on this, Kahan et al conclude that talking more about geoengineering in the context of climate change might actually be a good thing if we want to have a rational, democratic deliberation take place. Because simply put, a conversation that features geoengineering seems to undercut the conservative penchant for denialism.

That's an important finding, but I'm frankly much more interested in what the liberals were up to in the study. To my mind, Kahan et al have done a service by showing that you can definitely put liberals and environmentalists in situations where, just like conservatives, they will call into question science because they don't like its implications—e.g., we might have to pump sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere. That's an unpalatable conclusion indeed for many liberals, and this study seemed to capture them reacting to that discomfort.

The interesting question, to my mind, is whether this evidence suggests that liberals and conservatives really are the same kind of creatures after all when it comes to biased reasoning, or responding to inconvenient scientific information.

Kahan has argued that biased reasoning is ideologically symmetrical. I'm not sure I agree, but I do think that he has just captured some biased reasoning on the left.

I think we can go further: There is no doubt that liberals can be made to act defensive when put in ideologically tough positions. So if there is a difference between liberals and conservatives, it is probably not as simple as the notion that one group is always being ideologically defensive while the other not.

However, there still are real differences between liberals and conservatives–big and potentially profound ones, see here–and they still may point to an understanding of why we see so much conservative reality denial.

But we’re going to need a more nuanced explanation for this than simply postulating knee-jerk conservative defensiveness—because liberals can show that too. And the new Kahan study has helpfully pushed us towards this richer line of thinking.


If you were hypothetically to the point where drastic measures were needed like pumping the atmosphere with aerosoals or employing other drastic geoengineering techniques where we don’t know what the future consequences will be, then why not just go nuclear?

Small portable units could be used the size that power subs for small towns & in the meantime, large scale reactors could be built. By then, Gen IV reactors would be a reality & we could decommision the Gen 1-2-3 reactors.

no Gen 1 NPPs left.  Barry Brook on Brave New Climate illustrates why and how Gen 3 & Gen 4 work together in the fissionables ‘cycle’.

“Barry Brook on Brave New Climate illustrates”

I subscribe to that site also, but there are too many hard core enthusiasts there, who accept no other solution besides nuclear. Its hard to talk with people who have that kind of view.

I think that once Gen 4 reactors become a reality, the barriers will be broken down with public perception & they will be the new default baseload power stations of the future. Its just that they are decades away & Gen 2-3 reactors & their waste have a bad public perception. Fukushima was just unfortunate that they were stupid enough to build it on a fault line, but the public perception damage is done now. Hard to put the cork back in the bottle.

Baryy Brook wants a climate solution.  After some time he has found that (mainly) NPPs is it.

I do too and I’ve done my own analysis.  I come to the same conclusion.

Its a hard sell convincing people that the new technolgies, wind and solar, won’t help.  The former at least, seem to hinder actually obtaining a climate solution.

I’m excited about this study.  As a newish environmental lawyer, I run across incredible hostility towards presumed “warmists” (as an enviro I guess I qualify) even in a context when no one is mentioning climate climate such as a zoning dispute.

I’ve often described the situation including in this comment space (!)) as the “post-modern abyss” because it often seems to me that there is no type of evidence, no set of facts, no version of reality, nothing at all with which to try to persuade my opponents that they should reconisder. 

So I’ve tried to put myself in their shoes by imagining a scientific consensus in support of something I would find politically or even morally repulsive, and how hard I would then try to convince myself that the scientists were wrong about my cherished belief and I would search  for any crack in the edifice. 

This new Kahan study seems to me to confirm the wisdom of this approach. By reminding me that motivated reasoning is something that all humans do, even when we think we’re being hard-nosed and rational, has at least helped me to keep my blood pressure down during discussions, and to view the chain emails and facebook postings with more equanimity, even if I’m still not sure how to use the information most persuasively.

I’m not sure this study actually proves anything other than it is possible to bias liberal readings of science.  Last I looked, we were all human, which if you look in the fine print of the owner’s manual says, “Subject to subjectivity.”

Say geoengineering and I too get shaky.  However, that is always true.  I don’t happen to think we can solve this problem by adding more stresses to the environment.  Neither do I find support for this approach in the scientific literature unless I’m reading in the wrong places.  But it doesn’t, so far as I can tell, bias me against climate science.  What climate science tells me still alarms me even if I say “geoengineering” to myself and sniff the wind for sulphur.  

All of which is–again, unless I am reading the evidence with liberal bias or something–entirely different from conservatives and the word “taxes” or the phrase “government regulation.”  Say those words and conservative anti-science bias springs immediately into action.  Seems so to me, anyway.

How are the two equivalent?  And where are the concepts that liberals are afraid of everyday which makes them doubt science as much as conservatives do?

Iamnot a fan of phsycho babble.

What I see is  that the media doesn’t report on climate change, and do not report on global climate disasters .

Occassionally an artcle will mention “climate Change”, but rarely

We are losing the PR battle because no one  is fighting on our side. The useless Environmnetal organizations do  nothing to put the facts before the public

What we need to  do  is fight fire with fire, The facts are scary as hell,( see link at top )


“What I see is  that the media doesn’t report on climate change, and do not report on global climate disasters .”

As someone who supports the science on AGW I’m frustrated by this too. However, I do feel we risk alienating people by blaming everything on climate change. Even I cringe if I read some news site & someone says “it’s a hot day today!”….followed by someone that says “Its climate change”, or news channels in the USA reporting there is very little snow & a warm winter this year so far……..then commenters say “its climate change”. For all we know, it is climate change causing it, but there is no instrument we can use to measure the weather which says “yep, that one is attributed to climate change”. The science of climate change says, this is exactly what will happen, but its not until a few months pass or a year or so, that they attribute it to climate change. Obviously for large events like the Texas drought, or the Thai floods it is easier to attribute them to climate change. Deniers would say none of its attributable to climate change, its all happened before.

I think the media are reticent to attribute events to climate change, when scientists themselves are not saying it is. All they say is, we will get worse weather, the climate will get warmer & we will see more extreme events. For the media, words like “most likely” are not sensational enough. E.g. “The Texas drought was most likely caused by climate change”. They much prefer “Texas was devasted by drought, caused by the dramatic effects of climate change”. 

We know that at least some, if not many extreme weather events are caused by climate change, but are all? Which ones are attributable to climate change & which ones are natural?

“What we need to  do  is fight fire with fire, The facts are scary as hell,( see link at top )”

Fight fire with fire how? The link says ‘report not found” can you repost?

The facts are scary as hell”

I agree, but maybe they should focus more on the less talked about consequences of climate change, like food & water shortage, potential for war due to fights over  resources & mass migration from poorer nations to first world countries.