When it comes to maths, politics can cloud your vision

Research from the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at ANU has found that even the smartest Australians struggled to correctly interpret information about climate change when the correct interpretation clashed with their political attitudes.

Master of Science Communication student Matt Nurse said the research showed that people with lower than average numeracy did a far better job at interpreting data about climate change, compared to those with higher levels of numeracy, who largely interpreted the information in line with what they wanted to be true.

“When we showed highly numerate people with conservative political views data suggesting that closing coal-fired power stations would significantly reduce CO2 emissions they simply refused to believe it,” Mr Nurse said.

“And when we showed highly numerate left-leaning people data that showed that taking this action wouldn’t have much of an effect, they too tended to reject the data.”

However, both groups could correctly interpret similar data about the effectiveness of a skin cream in line with their numeracy abilities, not their politics. The research suggests people with higher levels of numeracy use that ability to rationalise interpretations of scientific data to match their political attitudes to climate change.

“This partly explains why getting people to agree on taking action on climate change is so hard. They don’t see this issue as a matter of science. Instead they see it as a matter of political identity with neither side keen to agree with the other,” Mr Nurse said. 

It is the first time the motivated numeracy effect has been seen in Australians.

Dr Will Grant said in an ideal world people would change their attitudes to climate change by looking at the facts.

“Facts don’t often change attitudes, and they are particularly useless when they challenge someone’s identity, regardless of how well they can interpret them,” Dr Grant said.

This research suggests that communicators need to truly understand our audiences and their identities before they communicate about sensitive topics like climate change, and other publicly controversial topics like vaccinations, genetically modified foods and nutritional science.

“However, this does provide an opportunity for science communicators. If we can harness the power of identity, we can persuade people to take greater action on climate change,” Dr Grant said.

The research was published today in the journal Environmental Communication.