8 September 2011

Science, The Tea Party and The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Ed Maibach and Anthony Leiserowitz at GMU, and the Yale Center for Climate Change Communication have released a fascinating study of the opinions of different political party members on climate change. This is all the more fascinating because it defines the Tea Party as a separate group and asks some interesting questions about climate science. Take a look at the highlights from the survey below and see if you notice what stood out glaringly to me.


  • Majorities of Democrats (78%), Independents (71%) and Republicans (53%) believe that global warming is happening. By contrast, only 34 percent of Tea Party members believe global warming is happening, while 53 percent say it is not happening.
  • A majority of Democrats (55%) say that most scientists think global warming is happening, while majorities of Republicans (56%) and Tea Party members (69%) say that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening.
  • Tea Party members are much more likely to say that they are “very well informed” about global warming than the other groups. Likewise, they are also much more likely to say they “do not need any more information” about global warming to make up their mind.
  • Tea Party members are more than twice as likely than any other group to say they don’t want to change the light bulbs in their house to energy-efficient compact fluorescent lights (CFLs).
  • Tea Party members are far more likely to have heard about the “climategate” email controversy (45%) than Republicans (20%), Independents (27%), or Democrats (16%).
  • Democrats are more likely to believe that human beings evolved from earlier species of animals (62%), compared to Independents (57%), Republicans (51%), and Tea Party members (34%).
  • The one that stood out like a sore thumb was the response from the Tea Party segment that said they did not need any more information to make up their mind. Here is the exact question and the responses:

    I’ve Made Up My Mind and Nothing You Say Will Change It

    In other words, they know all they need to know, and they are very certain of their position. It’s also noteworthy that only 34% of tea party members believe global warming is happening. This is perhaps the most amazing result when you consider the absolute mountain of scientific evidence that indicates their position is dead wrong.

    I could fill ten pages here talking about nearly every glacier on the planet is retreating, and the close match between the satellite measured temps and the thermometer record, and so on. Not to mention ice cores, sea level rise, species moving toward the poles, sediment cores and the rising number of record highs vs record lows. In reality there is a mountain of evidence that these 66% of tea partiers are wrong, and a paucity of reliable observations that one could claim as evidence that the planet is not warming!


    There is a name for the feeling I had when I read this and it’s called Fremdschämen. Daniel Hawes at Psychology today explains:

    “Fremdschämen describes embarrassment which is experienced in response to someone else’s actions, but it is markedly different from simply being embarrassed for someone else. ..

    Instead, Fremdscham (the noun) describes the almost-horror you feel when you notice that somebody is oblivious to how embarrassing they truly are. Fremdscham occurs when someone who should feel embarrassed for themselves simply is not, and you start feeling embarrassment in their place…Besides the emotional response, Fremdscham-inducing events and items (such as this creationist video) also usually cause one to ask this question: “how on earth can these people be unaware of how stupid they are being right now?”.

    As Hawes points out ,this is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Here is a brief definition from Wikipedia:

    The science cartoonist at xkcd offer a look into the twisted logic of those suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    The Dunning–Kruger effect

    “..is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes. The unskilled therefore suffer from ..rating their ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority.”

    To put this in plain language, you feel Fremdscham when that distant cousin launches into a speech on how aliens are visiting Earth at the family reunion. The reason he cannot see how silly he looks is because of the Dunning-Kruger effect. In other words, (to be blunt) he is too ignorant of his ignorance to realize he is making a fool of himself.

    Authoritarian Behavior

    According to Psychologist Bob Altemeyer this is classic authoritarian behavior. Altemeyer’s book is a fun (albeit rather scary) and eye-opening read, and he has a comment on his website about the tea party. If Altemeyer is correct about authoritarian behavior, then there is no amount of evidence, no matter how solid and convincing that will sway tea partiers from their belief that the planet is not warming and that scientists are manipulating data etc. They will accept claims that agree with their view without any pre-qualifications, and they have no idea how silly they look to others outside their very tight circle.

    When it comes to issues surrounding their world view, authoritarians show almost no critical thinking skills. You could say these people have a much stronger force field around their idea of reality than other people do and It’s nearly shatter proof. Authoritarians can easily dismiss and minimize the overwhelming evidence on climate and replace it with global conspiracy theories, involving thousands of researchers, that to most people are obviously downright silly.

    Thomas Friedman, the author of Hot, Flat and Crowded explains just how much you have to rearrange reality to believe that scientists are doing this for the money, and all that evidence for evolution and the age of the Earth is suspect. He was on CNN on Wednesday.

    Scientists and Dunning-Kruger

    The media is often frustrated by scientists who are reluctant to plainly state an opinion or make a concrete prediction about something. They are always qualifying their answers and for a reporter looking for a good solid sound bite, this can be maddening and puzzling. i.e. if the expert doesn’t know, who does! The Dunning-Kruger effect explains this as well, and in their original paper Dunning and Kruger ( you expected someone else??) quoted Thomas Jefferson in explaining it:

    Thomas Jefferson once said, “he who knows best, knows how little he knows.”