The Challenge of Motivated Reasoning: Science, Education, and Changing Climates

October 6, 2015 | 0 comments

We know that anthropogenic climate change has become a politically polarized topic as our previous posts on The Merchants of Doubt and the role of science and sustainability communication have highlighted. How does the scientific consensus on climate change, the moral position it puts us in and the polarization affect our teaching environment on climate? What should our aims for education be in light of this political environment? This guest post by Joseph Henderson (Learning Sciences Researcher at University of Delaware) and David Long (George Mason University Center for Restructuring Education in Science and Technology) looks into these issues. You can find Henderson on here, and on Twitter: @josephenderson. You can learn more about David Long on the George Mason University website and on

They interrogate two questions many climate change and sustainability educators are asking: “What does it mean to know climate change?” What do we do when knowing something calls on us to change our values and courses of action? At the essay’s end they say, “We ask people not only to learn the principles of climate science, but also to see clear, entailed moral warrants by which they will, amidst an increasingly globalized, market-fundamentalist logic of practice, project out into the future a radical modification of personal consumption.  This is the educational task at hand.”  If you’ve been following our posts, you might consider their call to action in light of Dan Kahan’s post, “Summon reflective, serious people and inspire them,” which also focused on motivated reasoning.

This post was originally published on Savage Minds, “a group blog devoted to ‘doing anthropology in public’ — providing well-ritten relevant discussion of sociocultural anthropology that everyone will find accessible.” In 2006, Nature ranked Savage Minds 17th in their top 50 science blogs. 

“The Challenge of Motivated Reasoning: Science, Education, and Changing Climates”

What does it mean to know climate change? A recent study on the global awareness of climate change found that nearly 40% of adults did not know about climate change (Lee et al., 2015). Among those who did, formal education proved the biggest individual predictor of awareness, with more education leading to greater awareness. The researchers also discovered that awareness levels increased in so-called “developed” nations, where access to formal education tends to be greater. They also found that each nation had a risk perception dynamic unique to their particular context. For example, “developing” countries are more likely to experience the local effects of climate change in their daily lives, even though they rate lower official knowledge of abstract climate change concepts. This shaped perceptions of risk accordingly, toward the more tangible and concrete impacts of already existing climate impacts. Conversely, “developed” countries tend to be spatially and temporally detached from the immediate impacts of climate change (Norgaard, 2011). While simply knowing about climate change is a laudable educational goal, it is also not enough to merely know. Actually moving someone to action—that is, knowing what to do about climate change and why to do it—necessarily entails bringing one’s worldview and values into account, including the possibility that they might need to change. When change asks you to evolve your values, there is often anxiety and resistance.

How one experiences the changing dynamics of their particular place also matters (Tuck & McKenzie, 2014), and this point is reinforced by both the Lee et al. study above and Seamus McGraw in his masterful book on how residents in rural, conservative America are adapting to the realities of climate change:

As I’ve traveled around the country these past few years, I’ve seen it again and again, that deep, in-your-bones understanding that things are changing, carved into the brows of farmers and ranchers and fishermen. … Scratch any of them and you’ll likely as not find a climate skeptic. These are, after all, conservative people, by and large, and the issue of climate has become a cultural touchstone, a defining dogma that fits neatly into the whole catechism between gay marriage and gun control. (2015, p. 112-113)

It appears that knowing climate change is quite complicated, for it is now completely saturated by, and connected to, larger sociopolitical currents. Our own work in climate change education is closest to the fields of environmental and science education in the United States, and in this short essay we explore some of our current thinking as we engage climate change and education.

In the United States K-12 educational system, climate change is only just beginning to make its way into the curriculum (Colston & Ivey, 2015). Where present, it is most commonly found in science classrooms, especially among the states that have either adopted or adapted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013). The NGSS is predicated on the notion that science education needs to be modernized and brought more in line with the kinds of process skills that scientists use in their work. This means actually doing active inquiry into the problems we encounter in our lived world—not separating them as context-independent, discrete school subjects. As NGSS recommends in the case of climate change science, “students examine a given claim and the given supporting evidence as a basis for formulating questions.” Such an idealist vision assumes that active engagement with scientific evidence will lead to increased scientific literacy, and in turn, to a more scientifically informed society that knows what to do about climate change. We are not so sure.

It is a worthwhile aspirational goal of proponents of teaching the nature of science that, at the end of the day, the formal, demarcated tenets that define science as a social activity will be respected in service of the reasoned argument and scientific progress. According to this view, reasonable people will, in service of being good little empiricists, respect, as South Park’s Eric Cartman might have us believe, science’s ‘authoritah.’ This is both a well-reasoned and normative assumption that science education has worked with for quite some time (Lederman, 2007). It also, as we now can see, is quite inadequate as a teaching strategy for polarizing topics such as evolution and climate change. For example, both Berkman and Plutzer’s (2010) large-scale survey research and Long’s (2011) ethnographic work with creationists found that evolutionary science was well known, understood, and still rejected for violating the narrative content and values of learners’ home and community worlds. For some, science needs to respect God’s primary ‘authoritah.’ In the case of climate change, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway (2010) have shown, it is not just community values that are being placed at risk by science education. Critical reasoning skills being fostered within future adults are placing multinational energy sector profits from fossil fuels at risk.

Recent findings from anthropology (Callison, 2014), social psychology (Kahan et al., 2012), and sociology (McCright & Dunlap, 2013) show that how one comes to reason about climate change and its implications is shaped by the sociocultural context within which one exists. As Dan Kahan and co-authors have shown as part of their larger Cultural Cognition Project, individuals shape their perceptions of climate change risks to conform to their pre-existing beliefs about the world: They motivate their reasoning to support cultural and ideologicalpriors. Such motivated reasoning does not occur with currently uncontroversial scientific topics like gravity and the germ theory of disease because, over time, the social work of changing worldviews is largely complete, and dissenting voices on these topics are marginal. And as Bruno Latour has shown (1993), a whole network of social and material relations must also be constructed for scientific findings to become normalized into one’s daily life and society. This process is currently happening as we come to know climate change (Edwards, 2013). As such, climate change is currently both polarized and polarizing, and this presents unique challenges for educators.

As Kahan’s work and the line of motivated reasoning work that parallels it (Damasio, 2005; Lakoff, 2009; Haidt, 2012; Nyhan & Reifler, 2010) have all shown, people, regardless of what science educators wish, struggle to reason when the science under question conflicts with dominant narratives key to their identity, whether economic or religious or otherwise. In the case of evolution, the fact that humans have evolved is cognitively troublesome for the most theologically conservative Christians just as coming to understand climate change may demand equally troubling reconsiderations by those subscribing to market fundamentalism (Hursh, Henderson, & Greenwood, 2015). In both cases, ideology first and foremost dominates the evaluation of evidence.

What can anthropologists and educationalists do with this knowledge? Change has to come from within, from trusted members of the community making repeated appeals to the point (see Hayhoe and Ohio Interfaith Power and Light for salient examples). This point has long been known in the communication sciences and anthropology. The problem is doubly hard in communities that do not have a good proportion of those who are so ideologically inclined to want to repeat this message toward more ameliorative goals (Henderson & Duggan-Haas, 2014). In rural fossil fuel producing states, taking a firm stand against the community’s sole source of good paying jobs is fraught with real social risk. It is also the case that ideological allegiance has never been required of the teaching profession at this level of granularity.  It has been unquestioned that science teachers should believe that all children can learn; it has not been under consideration whether teachers should advocate social action about energy policy. It remains largely unknown to what degree teachers themselves are the kinds of reasoned actors who will take up the science of climate change for the purposes of social change.

Beyond programmatic and curricular issues, the NGSS, by merit of its special focus on climate change, appears by most skeptical readers of educational policy—especially those on the informed edges of the political right—to be transparent in its social advocacy. AsColston & Ivey (2015) have shown, in the political space between state mandate and the practices of the local teacher, climate science’s presence in the NGSS has been actively altered. It is without a doubt the virtuous intention of the NGSS, at least sub rosa, thatknowledge of climate change should be used as knowledge for social action. So on this account, yes, educators are trying to change who you are—if being who you are, on the merit of your educational ontology, means you are open to change. Science itself demands this of us or we are not doing science. The alternatives that typify fixed, foreclosed epistemology are not pretty.

What we face, as both an educational and social engineering project, is the need to move the imagined future of many people to one that is radically altered in its use of carbon-intensive resources.  Our primary problem is not one of knowledge deficits, although ameliorating them is certainly a start. Rather, it is one of anxiety toward change.  Such change, as Jonathan Lear (2008) has shown, requires people with vested interests—not simply economic, but laden with all manner of culturally acquired and protected capital—to divest and take up new ways of life. Lear showed in his work with the oral histories of the Crow nation that the ethically appropriate path forward, in their precarious situation at the end of the nineteenth century, was impossible. For the Crow, the systems of honor upon which a virtuous life were constructed, were going away with the annihilation of the bison.  Facing cultural devastation in the face of European American western movement and the violently new enframing of a radically re-conceptualized economic and property ownership-bound world, the Crow had no way to move forward into this new cultural space and be Crow.

In a more contemporary context, Long’s ethnographic work (2011) with creationists asked in what ethically sound way are creationists to account for evolution in the constitution and flourishing of their lives—for the purpose of being a creationist.  Learning from this, what we face, in the case of climate change and educational futures is a much bigger, wicked issue—one that affects us all, not just fringe views of science.  We ask people not only to learn the principles of climate science, but also to see clear, entailed moral warrants by which they will, amidst an increasingly globalized, market-fundamentalist logic of practice, project out into the future a radical modification of personal consumption.  This is the educational task at hand.


Berkman, Michael, and Eric Plutzer. 2010. Evolution, creationism, and the battle to control America’s classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Callison, Candis. 2014. How climate change comes to matter: The communal life of facts. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Colston, Nicole M., and Toni A. Ivey. 2015. (un) Doing the Next Generation Science Standards: Climate Change Education Actor-networks in Oklahoma. Journal of Education Policy ahead-of-print: 1-23.

Damasio, Antonio. 2008. Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason and the human brain. New York: Random House.

Edwards, Paul N. 2010. A vast machine: Computer models, climate data, and the politics of global warming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Vintage.

Henderson, Joseph A., and Don Duggan-Haas. 2014. Drilling into Controversy: The Educational Complexity of Shale Gas Development. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 4(1): 87-96.

Hursh, David, Joseph Henderson, and David Greenwood. 2015. Environmental Education in a Neoliberal Climate. Environmental Education Research 21(3): 299-318.

Kahan, Dan M., Ellen Peters, Maggie Wittlin, Paul Slovic, Lisa Larrimore Ouellette, Donald Braman, and Gregory Mandel. 2012. The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate Change Risks. Nature Climate Change 2(10): 732-735.

Lakoff, George. 2008. The political mind: Why you can’t understand 21st-century politics with an 18th-century brain. New York: Penguin.

Latour, Bruno. 1993. The pasteurization of France. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lear, Jonathan. 2006. Radical hope: Ethics in the face of cultural devastation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lederman, Norman G. 2007. “Nature of Science: Past, Present, and Future.” In Handbook of Research on Science Education, Sandra K. Abell and Norman G. Lederman, eds. Pp 831-879. New York: Routledge.

Lee, Tien Ming, Ezra M. Markowitz, Peter D. Howe, Chia-Ying Ko, and Anthony A. Leiserowitz. 2015. Predictors of Public Climate Change Awareness and Risk Perception around the World. Nature Climate Change ahead-of-print

Long, David E. 2011. Evolution and religion in American education: An ethnography. New York: Springer Science & Business Media.

McCright, Aaron M., and Riley E. Dunlap. 2011. Cool Dudes: The Denial of Climate Change among Conservative White Males in the United States. Global Environmental Change 21(4): 1163-1172.

McGraw, Seamus. 2015. Betting the farm on a drought: Stories from the front lines of climate change. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, by States. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Norgaard, Kari Marie. 2011. Living in denial: Climate change, emotions, and everyday life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Nyhan, Brendan, and Jason Reifler. 2010. When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions. Political Behavior 32(2): 303-330.

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. 2010. Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. New York: Bloomsbury.

Tuck, Eve, and Marcia McKenzie. 2014. Place in research: Theory, methodology, and methods. New York: Routledge.


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