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Irish people trust science – so why don’t we take climate change more seriously?

Unthinkable: Examining ‘cognitive processes within populations’ can help to explain the gap between information and action

What will it take for us to treat climate change with the seriousness it deserves?

Studies show 97-100 per cent of climate scientists agree humans are causing global warming – and the latest report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it is “now or never” if we want to limit the temperature rise to a potentially catastrophic 1.5 degrees.

Why do such warnings not mobilise society in the way the Covid threat did? Why is RTÉ's Liveline not fielding calls every day for action over melting ice caps? Is it that people don’t believe in the science, or just that they don’t want to believe in it?

Research by Policy Expertise and Trust in Action (Peritia), a UCD-led European Commission-sponsored project, sheds some light on our behaviour. More than 12,000 people across six European countries were interviewed as part of the investigation into public trust in expertise. The findings have been released in tranches, covering views on government, science and the response to the Covid pandemic, as well as climate change.


A preview of the latest batch of research was given to a conference last week. It suggests that, for climate science to be communicated more effectively, policymakers should consider the “cognitive processes of populations” – how Irish thinking, for example, differs from British – and also “cognitive processes within populations” – how Dublin 4-types, say, might have a different outlook to Kerry folk.

Six countries fall under the study: Ireland, the UK, Italy, Germany, Norway and Poland – and it turns out Irish people are most trusting of scientists. The pollsters at the Policy Institute at King’s College London believe this has something to do with “entrenched cultural values”.

They measured each population according to how highly they valued personal achievement (such as endorsing a statement like “Being very successful is important to me”) compared to universalism (represented by a statement like “It is important that every person in the world should be treated equally”). Irish people put the lowest value on achievement and the highest value on universalism of the six populations surveyed.

“What we found is people who tend to value universalism more tend to trust science more, and people who tend to value achievement more tend to trust science less,” explained report co-author Finlay Malcolm.

Looking at divergent views within populations gives further insight on why we are slow to accept climate science. Between 15 and 25 per cent of people are disengaged entirely from the issue. Fatalistic views about climate change are strong in this cohort. But fatalism can also be detected to a significant extent in some people who are highly engaged on the issue, especially in the UK.

Co-author Paul Stoneman described as “really concerning” the spread of views to the effect that “it’s too late, or what’s the point”.

Fatalism is lowest in Ireland – 64 per cent of people here disagree that climate change is beyond control, compared to an average of 47 per cent in other countries. A quarter of respondents in Ireland, however, still said they had not given much, or any, thought to climate change and the people trying to address it.

So how do we get people to really engage with, and act upon, the science? How do we overcome what psychologists called knowledge resistance?

A clue may be gleaned from another event last week: the annual Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies day lecture on the Dark Side of Science. In an interview with science writer Seán Duke, scientific integrity expert and microbiologist Dr Elisabeth Bik explained her work exposing scientists who distort, falsify or fabricate results.

She estimates misconduct can be found in 5-10 per cent of published research, albeit this is guesswork based on the fact that she has only been able to expose “the dumb fraudsters”.

“Why would someone interested in the truth commit fraud?” Bik asks. Two specific scenarios are common, she says. First, researchers who have had “a taste of success” feel a need to manufacture results to cement their reputation. Second, junior researchers are bullied by a professor into delivering results the superior wants.

In both cases there is a kind of mental gymnastics where a scientist will justify the doctoring of evidence in their own mind. You could see it as an extreme version of valuing achievement – personal success, or career survival – over universalism.

Zooming back out to the global challenge, Malcolm asks: “If a large portion of the population is focused on self how can you sell to them climate change policies?” He offers what he calls the “slightly amateurish thought” that “you should do it in a way that somehow looks to benefit them rather than the wider population… You present the facts in a way that it’s going to affect you”.

Here’s another slightly amateurish thought: we need greater public awareness about how people reason. Knowledge resistance is something all human beings – even professional scientists – are susceptible to. Studies like the Peritia survey strengthen the case for mass education about our own cognitive processes so that we all develop an early warning system about thinking going wrong.

Each one of us could do with an internal alarm bell that sounds: am I rejecting the evidence because it doesn’t suit me personally to accept it?

Young philosophers

Belated congratulations to this year’s participants in the Irish Young Philosopher Awards. International prizes based on entries on the theme of trust were handed out last week, while the winners of the domestic competition were named last month.

The overall title was shared by two individuals: Shane Burke, a sixth-year student at CBS Dungarvan, Co Waterford, for a profound essay invoking Sartre, Schopenhauer, Kant and Heidegger to answer the question, “How are things different from one another?” and Cecelia Dowling, a fifth-year student at Scoil Pól, Kilfinane, Co Limerick, for a project on “The Impacts of Social Media as the Modern-Day Panopticon”.

The panopticon is that circular style of prison where guards can see every inmate but the inmates never know when they are being watched - Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin and Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast are two famous examples. Due to “peer surveillance”, Dowling argues, social media “has become a sort of de facto bondage” that encourages conformity even among those who opt out.

The awards were conducted online again this year but organisers plan a return of the in-person festival next year as it cements its place as philosophy’s answer to the BT Young Scientist awards.