Does reality shape our beliefs, or do our beliefs shape "reality"?

A fascinating paper by "Did the Arctic Ice Recover? Demographics of True and False Climate Facts" by Lawrence Hamilton examined this question using polling data on people's beliefs about climate change and their knowledge of several key climate facts, including that the Arctic sea ice is decreasing.

Climate Change Effects in Arctic
 Record low Arctic sea ice, September 16, 2012
 (NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio)

Hamilton finds that existing beliefs about climate change influence acceptance of the facts, or, better put, which "facts" one chooses to accept. In the study, 80% of people who believe climate change is happening and is caused by human activity know that sea ice is declining. Of those who do not believe climate change is happening or who do not think it is caused by human activity, however, only 60% think the Arctic sea ice has been in decline.

Hamilton argues that two things are at play here. One is simply science literacy: if you are right about the facts, you likely believe climate is changing. The other is what experts call "biased-assimilation": you choose or seek facts that match your worldview. The results are not that surprising in light of all the research on public perception of scientific issues. On the ice question, wrong answers are predicted by the responses to political and belief factors in the poll.

This post was inspired not so much by that core finding, as by something in the background polling data: more people (70%) knew that there is less Arctic sea ice(than 30 years ago) than knew that CO2 concentrations were increasing (~60%) or than knew the meaning of the greenhouse effect (~55%).

The fraction of the respondents aware of the increase in CO2 concentrations is not in itself surprising. Though lower than what most of us in the science community would like to see, it is decent considering low public literacy on so many different science issues. What's really striking is that more people know about an impact of climate change than the main driver of climate change.

This raises two interesting, and quite different questions, which I'll leave for readers to answer:

1. Do climate change communicators and the media work so hard to connect human-caused climate change to physical events that they neglect to reinforce the basic causes of climate change? Maybe we really are doing a poor job of communicating the basic facts.

2. Does it matter? In more explicit terms, does everyone need to understand the guts of what is causing climate change, or is it enough to know the impacts, and trust that there are people with expertise who know why it is happening? Many communication and sustainability experts I encounter argue that public education about climate science is largely irrelevant; so long as people trust there's a problem, something that education about science alone cannot change, and see benefits from possible solutions, what is the difference?

One note on the latter: Though I find this attitude is troubling, as I should being in a profession centered around education, it is food for thought. After all, we make decisions everyday predicated on science that we do not understand. We take medication. We use computers. And, as Richard Alley reminds regularly in presentations, we use, or at least trust the concept of, heat-seeking missiles, whose development hinged on the discovery that CO2 is a greenhouse gas.