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Climate change & the media: what's the story? (Answer: expressive rationality)

Max Boykoff has written a cool book (material from which played a major role in a panel session at the 2012 Ocean Sciences conference) examining media coverage of climate change in the U.S. 

Who Speaks for the Climate? documents in a more rigorous and informative way than anything I've ever read the conservation of "balance" in the media coverage of the climate change debate no matter how lopsided the scientific evidence becomes.

Boykoff's own take -- and that of pretty much everyone I've heard comment on this phenomenon -- is negative: there is something wrong w/ norms of science journalism or the media generally if scientifically weak arguments are given just as much space & otherwise treated just as seriously as strong ones.

I have a slightly different view: "balanced" coverage is evidence of the expressive rationality of public opinion on climate change.

News media don't have complete freedom to cover whatever they want, however they want to. Newspapers and other news-reporting entities are commercial enterprises. To survive, they must cover the stories that people want to read about.

What people want to read are stories containing information relevant to their personal lives. Accordingly, one can expect newspapers to cover the aspect of the "climate change story" that is most consequential for the well-being of their individual readers.

The aspect of the climate change story that's most consequential for ordinary members of the public is that there's a bitter, persistent, culturally polarized debate over it. Knowing that has a much bigger impact on ordinary individuals than knowing what the science is.

Nothing an individual thinks about climate change will affect the level of risk that climate change poses for him or her. That individual's behavior as consumer, voter, public discussant, etc., is just too small to have any impact --either on how carbon emissions affect the environment or on what governments do in response. 

However, the position an individual takes on climate change can have a huge impact on that' person's individual social standing within within his or her community.  A university professor in New Haven CT or Cambridge Mass. will be derisively laughed at and then shunned if he or she starts marching around campus with a sign saying "climate change is a hoax!" Same goes for someone in a mirror image hierarchical-individualistic community (say, a tobacco farmer living somewhere in South Carolina's 4th congressional district) who insists to his  friends & neighbors, "no, really, I've looked closely at the science -- the ice caps are melting because of what human beings are doing to the environment." 

In other words, it's costless for ordinary individuals to take a positon that is at odds with climate science, but costly to take one that has a culturally hostile meaning within groups whose support (material, emotional & otherwise) they depend on.

Predictably, then, individuals tend to pay a lot of attention to whatever cues are out there that can help them identify what cultural meanings (if any) a disputed risk or related fact issue conveys, and to expend a lot of cognitive effort (much of it nonconscious) to form beliefs that avoid estranging them their communities.

Predictably, too, the media, being responsive to market forces, will devote a lot more time and effort to reporting information that is relevant to identifying the cultural meaning of climate change than to information relevant to determining the weight or the details of scientific evidence on this issue.

So my take on Boykoff's evidence is different from his.

But it is still negative.

It might be individually rational for people to fit their perceptions of climate change and other societal risks to the positions that predominate in their communities but it is nevertheless collectively irrational for them all to form their beliefs this way simultaneously: the more impelled culturally diverse individuals are to form group-congruent beliefs rather than truth-congruent ones, the less likely democratic institutions are to form policies that succeed in securing their common welfare.

The answer, however, isn't to try to change the norms of the media. They will inevitably cover the story that matters to us.

What we need to do, then, is change the story on climate change. We need to create new meanings for climate change that liberate science from the antagonistic ones  that now make taking the "wrong" position (any position) tantamount to cultural treason.

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Reader Comments (3)

Very nicely put. I particularly like the phrases "expressive rationality" and "cultural treason" in this context.

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFourcultures

"What we need to do, then, is change the story on climate change. We need to create new meanings for climate change that liberate science from the antagonistic ones that now make taking the "wrong" position (any position) tantamount to cultural treason."

Politics and the media are the story.
They tell the tale people want to hear.
Any change in evidence presentation methodology will be pounced upon as "they were wrong" - "the hoaxers have had to listen to us and change their story to fit the "real" facts.".
It is a dialogue of the deaf.

Once you fall into the mindset of believing individuals or groups are fully rational in their views and behaviour then all sorts of "rationalist" misconceptions follow. The falseness of "utility" (every choice is made to maximise gain) that underpinned economic theory for so long is one example. People who smoke (including doctors and nurses) despite all the adverse evidence is another. When things don't work out, all sorts of excuses are dreamed up and argued over for decades, but no one stands up to say the emperor is naked. Being laughed at by the mob is a far more immediate a personal discomfort and personal risk than other societal risks - which always happen to someone else, not me. I will be all right.. USA is a culture of the individual not that of a large coherent society.

Climate Change is a peculiar case where you can believe the science but also not be too concerned because it is happening so slowly that the individual may be dead before the consequences really kick in. Hope the kids will be OK. Do I want my job in a polluting factory or do I want to be unemployed is a far greater risk to them. So actually they hold conflicting views but immediacy of personal risk dominates.

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

I agree with the post above that comments how great the terms "expressive rationality" and "cultural treason" are.
Looking forward to reading the book. I try to avoid I commenting on a review in advance of the reading the book (though I have read some of Boykoff's papers) but i can't help doing so here.

As to expressive rationality. I have been puzzling over how the Board of News Corporation is proudly 100% Carbon Neutral, yet its flagship unit the enormously influential, signal brand Wall Street Journal continues to set the standard for slanted coverage of the science (yes, not always, but for the most part they can be seen as tolerating the necessary evil of balance on the issue a bit more than their corporate cousins over at Fox News). There are some conventional wisdom-driven ideas as to why, which I find unconvincing -- plausible deniability for NC board members in terms of interacting with their peers, a need for editorial independence in this one case since NC is not known for such in other media properties, and so called greenwashing.

So how might this seeming contradiction fit into the expressive rationality framework?

To wit as s southerner the folks in Dan's South Carolina example have a strong degree of trust for the WSJ -- in that region perhaps even stronger the more educated they are. So I think this disconnect between the WSJ owners and the staff is unfortunate. And it is dynamic that I hope is covered in the book. Because their editorial direction exhibits influence on their readership, which itself feedbacks onto what the producer's can make and sell -- "give they people what they want!". So its a counterproductive (if one's goal is to inform) information cycle, a vicious circle, as it were.

February 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWalter Borden

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