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  • Date: 02/12/16
  • Kip Hansen, Climate Etc.

Right-leaning subjects (Conservatives-Republicans) who have a better understanding of current science and math and/or can be characterized as having the personality trait of actively cultivating an open mind have less belief in the consensus version of climate change. A new research paper labels this finding a ‘perverse’ effect of ‘actively open-minded thinking’.

Dan M. Kahan and Jonathan C. Corbin, of the Cultural Cognition Project, have a new study titled “A note on the perverse effects of actively open-minded thinking on climate-change polarization” appears in the journal Research and Politics (October-December 2016) [link to full manuscript].

The study is summed up by the first two sentences of its abstract:

“This research note presents evidence that political polarization over the reality of human-caused climate change increases in tandem with individuals’ scores on a standard measure of actively open-minded thinking. This finding is at odds with the position that attributes political conflict over facts to a personality trait of closed-mindedness associated with political conservatism.”

Kahan and Corbin call this a “perverse” effect of “actively open-minded thinking”. One might wonder why.

Kahan has been a champion of the idea of Cultural Cognition which he defines as:

“Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.”

In a long series of studies he has found that Liberal-Progressive-Democrats (the left) generally support the scientific consensus on climate change and the better these individuals score on Kahan’s survey/test of “Ordinary Science Intelligence” – how well the individual understands basic current science and math – the more they would agree with these two basic questions about climate change:

C. Acceptance of human-caused climate change

The outcome variable for acceptance of human-caused climate change was formed using these items, scoring “1” for the response sequence “Yes” and “a” and “0” otherwise:

  1. WARMER. From what you’ve read and heard, is there solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades, or not? [YES/NO]
  2. WHYWARMER [only if WARMER = YES]. Do you believe that the earth is getting warmer (a) mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels or (b) mostly because of natural patterns in the earth’s environment?

[Note that the “correct” answers are “Yes” andmostly because of human activity”. See the underlined answer in the image below –kh]

In Kahan’s system of left-vs-right/Democrat-vs-Republican cultural cognition, this first premise is upheld by surveys performed. But, contrary to expectations, the better Right-leaning/Republicans scored on ordinary science intelligence; the less they accepted the consensus-version of climate science.


As if this wasn’t bad enough, in this new study, comes this finding: “As subjects’ AOT [actively open-minded thinking] scores went up, their acceptance of human-caused climate change increased only if they held left-leaning political outlooks. Among right-leaning subjects, higher AOT scores were associated with slightly less acceptance (Table 1).” [my emphasis]


Translation, taking both results into account:  Right-leaning subjects (Conservatives-Republicans) who have a better understanding of current science and math and/or can be characterized as having the mental/personality trait of actively cultivating an open mind have lessbelief in the consensus version of climate change.

This is the result that Kahan and Corbin label “perverse”.  In order for their hypothesis of cultural cognition and open-mindedness to be supported in regards to climate change, at least, increasing open-mindedness should reduce the amount of polarization on the topic – if everyone was more open-minded, they would see each other’s viewpoints and agree more.

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