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The conservative white male effect August 3, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in papers, research, societal commentary.
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I had two very interesting things pop up in my Twitter stream yesterday, and they are rather related.

The first is a research paper that appeared in the journal Global Environmental Change titled Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States by McCright and Dunlap.  Unfortunately, it’s under a pay wall, so all you may be able to read is the abstract.

The authors present the notion that climate change denial is primarily caused by the intersection of two social aspects.  The first is termed “the white male effect”.  The authors explain it this way:

In their initial study, Flynn et al. (1994) found that the white male effect was caused by a subgroup of white males who reported high levels of risk acceptance—30% of the white males in their national sample. This subgroup of risk-accepting white males had an affinity for hierarchy, had greater trust in authorities, and opposed democratization of risk management, leading the authors (1994, p. 1107) to emphasize the need to “move away from gender and toward sociopolitical explanations.”

So the ‘white male’ aspect comes from the fact that white males were more likely than people of other races or opposite gender to accept that the people higher than them in the hierarchy were making the right decisions, and they were more willing to trust authority than democratic decision making.  This by itself, however, doesn’t account for *why* they believe this.   They cite another paper by Kahan:

The authors (2007, p. 474 [emphasis in original]) argue that white males with a hierarchical cultural worldview would be the most likely to downplay or ignore environmental risks, perceiving them as challenges to the existing social, political, and economic hierarchy:

… to the extent that assertions of environmental risk are perceived as symbolizing a challenge to the prerogatives and competence of social and governmental elites, it is hierarchical men—and particularly white ones, insofar as minorities are more likely to be disproportionately egalitarian in their outlooks—whose identities are the most threatened, and who are thus most likely to form an extremely dismissive posture toward asserted risks.

The gist of this is that white males with hierarchical views (giving them conservative leanings) are more likely to view themselves as part of the crowd of those making the decisions.  Thus, they are trying to protect the system which has traditionally worked well for them.

The study by McCright and Dunlap seems to verify this.

The top half of Table 2 reports the percents of conservative white males and all other adults espousing climate change denial views for each of our five indicators. Across the five items, significantly greater percentages of conservative white males than of all other American adults report denialist views. For instance, while 29.6% of conservative white males believe that the effects of global warming will never happen, only 7.4% of all other adults believe so. Also, 58.5% of conservative white males but only 31.5% of all other adults deny that recent temperature increases are primarily caused by human activities. The pattern for these first two items demonstrates that conservative white males are more likely than other adults to reject the scientific consensus on climate change—stated as early as the IPCC’s (2001) Third Assessment Report and the NRC’s (2001) Climate Change Science. Not surprisingly then, the pattern for the third item indicates that conservative white males are more likely than other adults to deny the existence of a scientific consensus (58.8% and 35.5%, respectively). Further, slightly more than twice as many conservative white males (65.1%) than all other adults (29.9%) believe that the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated in the media. Finally, 39.1% of conservative white males but only 14.4% of all other adults do not worry at all about global warming.

So in every case, white male conservatives were at least twice as likely as all other groups together to deny climate change or it’s anthropogenic origin.

The paper goes on to say that, among those who are climate change denialists, conservative white males are more likely than others to claim that they understand well the science behind climate change.  The authors state that this is likely due to the stronger emotional and psychic energy expended to justify the status quo.

Going to the second item on my Twitter stream, I think I saw this very thing in action.  A lot of people were tweeting and retweeting the interview with Bill Nye on Fox News regarding the discovery of ancient volcanoes on the moon.  In the interview, the anchor, Jon Scott, asked if this disproved global warming.  (He didn’t articulate the question well.  After listening to the whole interview, though, I am going to posit that he was thinking that, if global warming were true, the moon wouldn’t have cooled down with all these volcanoes spewing greenhouse gases there.)  If you haven’t seen the video, Geekwire has it posted here.

You’re probably wondering why I think this interview and the paper are connected.  Near the end of the interview, Bill Nye states:

“The great thing about science is … it’s true for all of us. You can run the test, I can run the test, and we try to get the same results. And if we don’t, then we find out why.”

This is why so many people were excited about the interview.  He put out there what science is really all about and how it has nothing to do with belief and politics but verifiable and repeatable information.

Unfortunately, that wonderful quote probably fell on deaf ears.  If conservative white males (which are most of Fox’s demographic) are hierarchical and averse to democratizing risk assessment, then the fact that *anyone* can do science doesn’t mean much.  He is trying to undermine the system or hierarchy that is already in place with this ‘science’ thing that’s accessible to everyone.  (Which is ironic given the largest demographic in science is still the white male.)

I think Bill did a great job, and I think he does a wonderful job of explaining things.  However, if he has the chance to do it again, I hope he is better able to appeal to the values of that particular group.

McCright, A., & Dunlap, R. (2011). Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States Global Environmental Change DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2011.06.003



1. mareserinitatis - August 3, 2011

At the request of @devbisme, I’m including information of how the study was conducted. From the paper:

“Our data come from the Gallup Organization’s annual environment poll, conducted each March in anticipation of Earth Day (April 22). The ten Gallup surveys covering 2001–2010 are based on telephone interviews with nationally representative samples of adults (age 18 years or older), ranging from 1000 to 1060, in the United States. For our multivariate statistical analyses, we combined the available data into pooled samples.5 The March 2001 survey was the first to include the key variables employed in this study. “


2. Luke Holzmann - August 4, 2011

I’m fairly conservative (I guess). I’m very white. And I’m rather male. So… well… my comments may account for nothing considering all the biases I have [smile].

While I agree with Bill Nye, I also very much disagree. Not because of a problem with the practice of Science, but because of the problem with our application/interpretation of it. We can run experiments and all get the same results (which is the foundation of the wonderful power of Science). But that is only the beginning. What do the results mean? That’s where people start to disagree and things get more and more confused the more complex the whole mess is.

Worse still, the kinds of experiments that are performed are directly tied to dollars. Thus, politics and religious thought do absolutely skew data because studies that aren’t funded don’t get done.

Prime example of this would be the TED Talk on Car Seats (the video and the comments). I found it all fascinating and an excellent example of dollars driving studies and opinions about what the data means changing everything.

So… yes, Science is fantastic because we can get data from it and find out all sorts of things about the life, the universe and everything. But where Science gets into trouble is when we realize that “42” isn’t nearly as helpful as we’d have liked.

My two cents.

Of course, I’m not a scientist… so that’s yet another strike against me. The study does show that I should have an over-estimation of my scientific knowledge, and I’m guessing I do (because in reality I know very little). So I’m really looking forward to your insights.




mareserinitatis - August 4, 2011

You bring up a lot of good points, Luke.

“What do the results mean? That’s where people start to disagree and things get more and more confused the more complex the whole mess is.”

This is a serious problem, and I think it comes about when people without training in analytical thinking start to look at results and try to evaluate them. Very often, I’ll hear things like “this defies common sense”. Yeah, a lot of time it does…but that doesn’t make it false. So my feeling is that the majority of the American population is scientifically illiterate, which is one source of the problem.

“Worse still, the kinds of experiments that are performed are directly tied to dollars. Thus, politics and religious thought do absolutely skew data because studies that aren’t funded don’t get done.”

Again, I agree with this. This is why I’m more likely to believe studies from NSF and NIH funded researchers than those funded by gas and oil or pharmaceutical companies. The former are being funded to find an answer, while the latter are being funded to find a *particular* answer.

But this is both the blessing and the bane of blogging. You can find blogs by actual scientists who do the research and are trying to explain to people about the science…and then you can find people who are trying to discredit it who really don’t have the skills to do so or are pushing an agenda. I think the answer is to get people into more regular contact with the scientists rather than having it filtered through the media which adheres to the notion of balance because, frankly, most journalists don’t understand the facts any better than the average person.


3. Luke Holzmann - August 5, 2011

Good stuff, Cherish! Thanks for taking the time to tease this out a bit more.



4. Mother Jones admits Romney Tape Edited - Page 2 - Religious Education Forum - September 26, 2012

[…] to be in charge of the world's largest nuclear arsenal. Edit: I know you're a curious chap. Enjoy! https://cherishthescientist.net/2011/…e-male-effect/ __________________ "Nonsense should be free" Last edited by Alceste; Today at […]


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