Knowledge is Righteousness

In a recent linky-post, I mentioned a study that suggests that skeptics of global warming are actually more scientifically knowledgeable than believers:

Some righties are getting a real kick out of a new study suggesting that global warming skeptics have more scientific and numeric literacy than its believers. Since that was clearly not the results that the study’s founders had hoped to find, that’s icing on the cake. Seriously, I don’t consider it particularly relevant. I don’t consider it surprising. I consider it funny as hell.

At some point I will write my magnum opus on this, but some things can’t wait.

What the study actually found was not that there was a strong correlation on skepticism and scientific knowledge, but actually that the more knowledgeable someone was, the more polarized they were:

We conducted a study to test this account and found no support for it. Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest.

This makes nothing less than complete sense to me. Studies have shown that both Republicans and Democrats tend to be smarter and more knowledgeable than independents. The more intelligent and knowledgeable, the more extreme. This is a little foreign to me, personally, because the more I read and consume, the less certain I become about anything.

In another way, however, it makes perfect sense. We do not consume information objectively. When we sort out data and turn it into information, we often do so with an endgame in mind. Rather than increased intellectual firepower and knowledge resulting in a greater objective understanding of anything, it merely results in the ability sort information to confirm our existing biases. It allows us to rationalize or contradict inconvenient information, and to make more sense of and expound upon affirming information.

In the case of global warming, people assign scientific concepts they know or have heard about (a glass of icewater not overflowing when the ice melts) in misapplied ways towards global warming (doesn’t apply because ice will be falling off actual land and into the water).

The cause-effect here can be circular. The mind tries to find order in all of the chaotic information in processes. Intelligent minds are more capable of this than not. And so as more information comes in, it’s sorted to fit a particular pattern. On the other side, people with a particular passion tend to seek out more information on something. There are anti-evolution people who know far, far more about the theory of evolution than I ever will – and they sought it out with a particular conclusion in mind. The same applies to anti-vaccination people, who know a lot more about vaccinations than anybody but researchers, doctors, and activists on the other side. More information sought, more information processed, more righteousness accumulated.

Over the past few years, I have known people who have gone from unreasonably right to unreasonably left. They were intelligent before, and they are intelligent now. All that was required was a massive re-sorting of data. Full speed, other direction.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.