As arguments about climate change heat up, don’t underestimate your opponent.

It turns out that people who are the furthest apart in their views on a scientific issue are often the most educated and informed, according to a study published yesterday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Looking at a nationally representative survey of views on stem cell research, the Big Bang, human evolution, nanotechnology, genetically modified views and climate change, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that respondents with the most education and the highest scores on scientific literacy tests had the most polarized beliefs.

On climate change, the researchers found that political identity was a more important signal of where respondents stood than their academic acumen or scientific sophistication.

“Conservatives with higher scores display less concern about climate change, while liberals with higher scores display more concern,” the authors wrote. “These patterns suggest that scientific knowledge may facilitate defending positions motivated by nonscientific concerns.”

This is a manifestation of what researchers call motivated reasoning: a phenomenon where people evaluate facts and figures with a goal in mind, often signaling allegiance to a political group.

For climate change, that means people who most fervently call for action to lower greenhouse gas emissions and those who think rising average temperatures are scarcely a problem can draw on the same body of evidence to support their views.

It also means that waving scientific studies and researchers’ findings at opponents is unlikely to change minds in a debate, and may in fact make people further entrench their opinions.

“What you believe about climate change is more an indicator of whose side you’re on,” said Dan Kahan, a professor of law and a professor of psychology at Yale Law School who was not involved in the study.

Having a certain opinion on climate change signals solidarity with political compatriots, regardless of someone’s familiarity with the scientific method, he said.

“It’s not a measure of what they know; it’s a measure of who they are,” Kahan said.

To bridge the divide on climate change, he explained, disentangling the issue from its political trappings and focusing on tangible economic concerns—like dealing with sea-level rise—would give public officials a means to tackle the issue without jeopardizing their bona fides among their constituents.

Kahan said the new findings affirm a growing body of work on how people come to their views on climate change.

“It’s comforting to know that previous findings on the culturally polarizing impact of greater science comprehension can be replicated,” he said, adding that the findings are particularly reassuring in an era when many findings in social sciences are facing intense scrutiny over replicability.

John Cook, an assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University who was also not involved in the new study, noted that the kind of information people receive is more important in shaping views than augmenting general scientific knowledge.

“For example, there’s no political polarization on climate change with greater understanding of the greenhouse mechanism that drives global warming,” he wrote in an email. “Similarly, a number of studies have found that telling people about the 97% scientific consensus on human-caused global warming has a neutralizing rather than polarizing effect.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at