With the (deserved) popularity of Kahneman's accessible and fun synthesis "Thinking Fast and Slow" has come a (predictable) proliferation of popular commentaries attributing public dissensus over climate change to Kahneman's particular conceptualization of dual process reasoning.
Scientists, the argument goes, determine risk using the tools and habits of mind associated with "slow," System 2 thinking, which puts a premium on conscious reflection.
Lacking the time and technical acumen to make sense of complicated technical information, ordindary citizens (it's said) use visceral, affect-driven associations--system 1. Well, climate change provokes images -- melting ice, swimming polar bears -- that just aren't as compelling, as scary as, say, terrorism (fiery skyscrapers with the ends of planes sticking out of them, etc.). Accordingly, they underestimate the risks of climate change relative to a host of more gripping threats to health and safety that scientific assessment reveals to be smaller in magnitude.
The problem is that it is wrong. Empirically demonstrably false.
- Variance in the disposition to use "fast" (heuristic, affect-driven, system 1) as opposed to "slow" (conscious, reflective, deliberate system 2) modes of reasoning explains essentially none of the variance in public perception of climate change risks. In fact, when one correlates climate change risk perceptions with these dispositions, one finds that the tendency to rely on system 2 (slow) rather than 1 (fast) is associated with less concern, but the impact is so small as to be practically irrelevant.
- What does explain variance in climate change risk perception -- evidence shows, and has for years -- are cultural or ideological dispositions. There is a huge gulf between citizens subscribing to a hierarchical and individualistic worldview, who attach high symbolic and material value to commerce and industry and who discount all manner of environmental and technological risk, and citizens subscribing to an egalitarian and communitarian worldview, who associate commerce and industry with unjust social disparities.
- Because climate change divides members of the public on cultural grounds, it must be the case that ordinary individuals who use system 1 ("fast") modes of reasoning form opposing intuitive or affective reactions to climate change -- "scary" for egalitarians and communitarians, "enh" for hierarchical individualists. Again, evidence bears this out! (Ellen Peters, a psychologist who studies the contribution that affect, numeracy, and cultural worldviews make to risk perception has done the best study on how cultural worldviews orient system 1/affective perceptions of risk, in my view.)
- Individuals who are disposed to use system 2 ("slow") are not more likely to hold beliefs in line with the scientific consensus on climate change. Instead, they are even more culturally polarized than individuals who are more disposed to use "fast," system 1 reasoning. This is a reflection of the (long-established but recently forgotten) impact of motivated reasoning on system 2 forms of reasoning (i.e., conscious, deliberate, reflective forms).
So why do so many commentators keep attributing the climate change controversy to system 1/2 or "fast/slow"?
The answer is system 1/2 or "fast/slow": that framework recommends itself -- is intuitively and emotionally appealing (especially to people frustrated over the failure of scientific consensus to make greater inroads in generating public consensus) and ultimately a lot easier to get than the empirically supported findings.
This is in fact part of the explanation for the "story telling" abuse of decision science mechanisms that I discussed in an earlier post.
There's only one remedy for that: genuinely scientific thinking.
Just as we are destined not to solve the problems associated with climate change without availing ourselves of the best available science on how the climate works, so we are destined to continue floundering in addressing the pathologies that generate public dissensus over climate change and a host of other issues unless we attend in a systematic, reflective, deliberate way to the science of science communication.