Are we smart if we agree with others?

When looking for information to be used in a previous post, I came across this article: Pew: Americans the least concerned about climate change at the Washington Examiner. The thing that initially caught my attention was the first sentence:

Despite the heavy media and political pressure to make global warming and climate change the top issue in the nation, it is more of a concern to citizens in 36 of 40 other industrialized nations than in the United States, according to Pew Research Center.

I can imagine the frustation. The media and politicians did their very best to promote the global warming and climate change scare in the US, yet it was more of a concern in other countries… The irony.

But that is not what this post will be about. The most remarkable in that article was the screenshot of this tweet, just below that statement:

pew research twitter

So the challenge was to see how smart we are and how we compare to others. Not sure how smartness and agreement with others are linked. Does it mean that we are smart if we agree with others? Or vice versa? My guess is that he means that agreeing with the majority is the smartest thing to do. I can see where that comes from, but I think there are many reasons why majorities exists and those reasons are not necessarily good ones.

Anyhow, I became really curious about how I would do in that survey, so I went to the Climate Change Quiz page. These were the three questions:

  1. In your view, is global climate change a very serious problem, somewhat serious, not too serious or not a problem?
  2. Do you think global climate change is harming people around the world now, will harm people in the next few years, will not harm people for many years or will never harm people?
  3. How concerned are you, if at all, that global climate change will harm you personally at some point in your lifetime?

Global climate change can mean about anything, starting from its most neutral form (any change, natural and anthropogenic, good or bad) over Anthropogenic Climate Change (change by human emissions, good or bad) to downright Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Change (dangerous change in climate by human emissions, only/mostly bad). That means that if we start from any of these definitions, we will get different results, even dramatically different results. Let’s just try to answer those questions with the different definitions in mind.

In its most neutral form climate change means any change in climate, natural or anthropogenic, good or bad. When I would answer those three questions from this point of view, it would look like this:

  1. Whether climate change is a problem: that is a no-brainer. Climate changes, as it did in the past and will do in the future. I could imagine bigger problems like for example poverty (with the bonus that when people get out of poverty, they get more resilience against climate change) or diseases. So with this definition I would go for a “somewhat serious problem”. It is not a problem that could not be solved.
  2. When would it harm people: Climate change is harming people right now, so with this definition my answer would be “Now” (remember, I use the climate change in its most neutral form).
  3. Whether it would harm me in my lifetime: Belgium is not tornado alley or Bangladesh. There are some rather limited risks in flooding, storms, droughts, hail, thunderstorms,… The half a century that I have been here, I noticed no particularly worrying trend, so I would answer: “Not too concerned”.

If I enter those values I get 9 out of 12 as a result, which is quite high as a result (maximum is 12), but still in the lowest regions of the pew list. I can imagine though that there are regions that feel more dramatic effects right now. If they would fill in the same form, that will certainly result in higher scores than mine. I could imagine that some of those figures would even come near 12.

But Climate Change can also mean “Anthropogenic” Climate Change, the change caused by the addition of our emissions of CO2 in the atmosphere. That is less clear. Even if we assume that our emissions have an additional effect, this effect could be good or it could be bad. There probably will be winners and losers. Some areas in the world could undergo positive effects, while others negative effects and even others see no change. Even if it has a negative effect, it is the additional effect we are looking at. Answering the three questions from this point of view give this result:

  1. Whether climate change is a problem: anthropogenic climate change is a subset of anthropogenic + natural change, so I would go for “not too serious”.
  2. When would it harm people: as far as I know even the IPCC is talking about anthropogenic effects late in this century: “not harm for many years”
  3. Whether it would harm me in my lifetime: even if our quite benign climate would be somewhat more extreme, I would go for “Not at all concerned”

If I enter those values from the anthropogenic point of view, I get 5 out of 12 as a result. Also here, I could imagine that inhabitants of some regions would get higher scores than mine.

Another meaning of Climate Change could be Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Change”, the change caused by our emissions of CO2 that leads to catastrophes like droughts, sea level rise and so on. I don’t really believe that the consequences of the addition of our emissions are wreaking havoc around the world or lead to tipping points. As far as I know, there is no evidence for that. Although the media tries to paint the image that extreme events, caused by our emissions, are already happening right now, as far as I know the data doesn’t show this. In some cases even the contrary.

  1. Whether climate change is a problem: if I don’t really believe in that, I would go for “not a problem”.
  2. When would it harm people: the same here: “will never harm people”
  3. Whether it would harm me in my lifetime: the same here: “Not at all concerned”

If I enter those values, I get 3 out of 12 as a result, which is the absolute minimum score. Okay, maybe I have been a bit extreme here. Never say never. But the way the survey is constructed, doesn’t give me the opportunity for nuances such as this.

My conclusion would be that the results depend highly on one’s definition of “global climate change”. Even people who believe that climate change is (predominant) natural would have a high score. How meaningful the result is, will depend on what they actually want to prove with it. But hey, with no clear definitions one could prove anything.


9 thoughts on “Are we smart if we agree with others?

    1. trustyetverify Post author

      Nevertheless it would be an interesting exercise to see how they managed to come to the conclusion that climate change is a big concern to the public, while in almost every other poll it is at the very bottom of concerns.


  1. Scottish Sceptic

    Anyone can disagree with someone – what takes intelligence is to disagree – because you at least have to think about what they are saying to disagree. So, I am always much happier when people disagree with me – because that at least proves they were listening and thinking about what I said.


  2. TinyCO2

    The people who commission these surveys are ignorant of climate, change and the difference between man made or natural. They don’t even know enough to be aware of their ignorance. They get people to generate the survey who also don’t understand the issues. Ultimately the survey returns useless results – except they do demonstrate the public don’t care about the issue. The only real measure of how worried people are is to ask what they’d be prepared to do or spend on it. The public and those who want the information will vastly underestimate how much reducing CO2 is costing, never mind how much it would cost to make a difference.

    A popular idea bandied about is that people are in denial about the risks. They’re so worried, that they bury the issue. Another is that we just don’t understand risk assesment. Both of these misunderstand human nature. We’re experts at risk assessment, we do it from the moment we start to walk. Whether we know it, we’re constantly trying to forecast the results of our choices and weigh the good with the bad. Sure, we get it wrong sometimes and some people are better than others but by and large we get it right more than we get it wrong. Human evolution is all about making the right gambles.

    People aren’t in denial about AGW, they’re doing a risk assessment. Does what I know about the hazards of this issue and what it would cost me to reduce the risk, outweigh the other risks in my life or that of my children? If the answer is ‘no’ then it’s not denial, although it might be ignorance.

    Basically the evidence isn’t good enough. More to the point, far from strengthening since 2006 (Al’s movie) it’s become more uncertain and that doesn’t even cover the dismal attempts at replacing fossil fuels.


  3. manicbeancounter

    You say

    Not sure how smartness and agreement with others are linked.

    In an IQ test, or in an examination they are linked. In both high scores will mean the answers you give will have strong agreement with other people with high scores. In those areas agreement with others is very much a secondary area of “smartness”. The primary area is the score, making agreement with others both a less accurate and superfluous form of assessment.
    But in any area of opinion or belief to say that smartness is based on agreement is like a threat. To openly disagree is to invite some sort of sanction from those you disagree with. In societies values this can be a good thing. But to confuse opinion or value judgments with factual statements or empirically well-supported scientific hypotheses (normative with positive statements) is something quite common to “climate” and in the political arena as well.


    1. trustyetverify Post author

      I agree. The call to compare with the level of concern in other countries doesn’t make much sense in the way it is used here. It assumes that the level of concern of the majority is the correct level. Yet, it is the perception of the people that is being measured and that perception is most probably based on one-sided information from the media.



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