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What should we teach kids (& others) about cultural conflict over science? And should science education aim to "overcome" cultural cognition?

I got into an interesting email exchange with my friend Mark McCaffrey, the Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education. (One of the many things for which I'm grateful to Mark for doing is disabusing anyone of the misconception that our Nature Climate Change study on science literacy and cultural polarization implies that science literacy is irrelevant to enlightened democratic decisionmaking.)

In the course of the correspondence, Mark noted

[I]n our arena of education, one of the top three issues for teachers in "what's going to happen and what can we do about it locally?", along with "how do scientists know what they know?" and "how do I deal with controversy in the classroom about climate change?"  Bringing local context (geography and culture) obviously is imperative.

He also stated,

I'm curious, in part due to a conversation [after the recent University of Colorado conference on culture and climate change], on what role education has in shaping and helping transcend cultural frames.

As Mark’s points often do, these ones provoked a chain of reflections on my part, which included these:

A. What to teach kids (and other curious people) about the nature of cultural conflict over science

 The report on the experience & interest of the teachers is fascinating. It makes me think of what a climate scientist told me recently.  He reported that when he talks to members of the public including student audiences, one thing they want to know is why there is such much controversy; that's not what they expect to see, not what they associate with scientific understanding of an issue & they find it mysterious & puzzling. 

I had two reactions:

(1) It's amazing -- inspiring, even -- to see that citizens are curious about this phenomenon, that they want to understand it; they (or some at least) notice and have the same reaction to this peculiar social phenomenon that they (or some) have to an intricate or surprising natural one. That sensibility is one of the most distinctive and admirable characteristics of our species; the commitment to giving people the resources to satisfy this sort of interest -- the education in science, certainly, to be able to comprehend the sort of knowledge that exists but also ready & reliable access to whatever knowledge has been amassed -- is one of the signatures qualities of a good society.

If in fact people -- including high school students (or maybe even younger ones) -- have this reaction to public conflict over science, then I think it would be very very worthwhile to figure out how to give them the resources a curious and intelligent citizen could use to participate in whatever collective knowledge we have about it. Certainly, I'd be happy to give advice to any science educator who thought this was a worthy objective. That's not the sort of education I do, really, but if someone who does do it wanted to have someone to work with who could try to help him or her identify what to try to make comprehensible to people, I'd be delighted to help. 

(2) When I heard this report -- of the citizens (including, again, high school students) who were confused about this issue, it made me think too that the chance to answer the question is itself a sort of civic opportunity to contribute to a climate for discussion that itself helps, if not to dispel the confusion, at least to ameliorate the negative impact it has on common engagement with contested science issues.

In response to the scientist who reported on the curiosity of the public to make sense of the climate-change controversy, another person in the conversation noted that there are people strongly committed to misleading members of the public and who were filling the media with misinformation.

I don't deny that but I don't think it is the aspect of the problem that it is most important or useful for these curious people to understand. What is is that the conflict about climate change is the signature of a kind of degradation of the science communication environment the quality of which is essential to the interest we all have in being able reliably to ascertain what is collectively known.

There will always be more that is collectively known (through science) than we can meaningfully comprehend (life is short, and the world complex enough to demand specialization). As a result, we have to make use of our ability to identify and properly interpret the signs around us about who knows what about what.

Ordinarily we are great at that; but sometimes something goes wrong -- maybe from deliberate efforts to confuse but often simply as a result of misadventure and miscalculation -- that creates conflict and chaos in those signs. That sort of state is something that inevitably confuses all of us; it is something we are all vulnerable to; and it is something the avoidance of which is critical to our common interests--however we feel about climate change, and however we feel about moral and social issues of the sort that inevitably divide people who enjoy freedom of thought.

We have to try to figure out how to respond to climate change as natural phenomenon, and as an issue that divides us. But we need to think more generally  about what we can do to protect our science communication environment from the sort of contamination that accounts for this peculiar and pernicious form of conflict over what we know.... 

B. Does knowing what is known by science require teaching students to "overcome" cultural cognition?

On overcoming cultural frames with education ... My reaction is "yes & no."  

Yes in the sense that I think the sort of influences associated with cultural cognition are not "all there is" -- by any means! -- to engaging scientific information, and are qualified in particular by "professional habits of mind." That is, I think part of the nature of professionalization is that it imbues in those who are subject to it a set of conceptual frameworks, a collection of reasoning skills, and also a cluster of dispositions (some reflective & conscious but others more or less automatic and even emotional) that help them reliably to engage information in the manner suited to accomplishment of the expert reasoning task at hand.

This is so for scientists; but it is true for doctors, lawyers, journalists etc. These habits of mind will usually steer professionals away from the sorts errors they might make were they to engage information through the mechanisms distinctive of cultural cognition.

But I don't think that it is feasible for everyone to attain the professional habits of mind of the expert with respect to every domain in which they will need to participate in or have access to expert knowledge. Even those who have experts' professional habits of mind in one domain will need to make use of information outside of it, in ones in which the habits of mind most suited to engaging information are different from the ones they use in theirs.

Here, then, is where I come to the "no" part of the answer. Because we must in fact participate in or apprehend what is known in domains in which we lack the substantive knowledge and habits of mind distinctive of those who produce it, we will -- all of us-- need to exercise a distinct faculty suited to ascertaining what is collectively known (one that often involves being able to identify who knows what they are talking about).

This is conjecture on my part but I am of the view that the dynamics associated with cultural cognition are integral to the operation of that faculty. We figure out what is known by accessing cues of certification that are native to affinity groups within which we are comfortable and socially competent. The groups are diverse (how could they not be in a pluralistic society?); but they are all generally *reliable* in guiding their members to an accurate understanding of what is collectively known -- by science and by other expert ways of knowing (which groups could possibly persist that failed to put their members in touch with such knowledge, which is critical, in fact, to individual well-being).

So "cultural frames" are not something to be overcome in the interest of making us able to know things; they are vital pieces of equipment that we need in order to participate in what is collectively known. The most one could do, I suppose, is replace them with something else -- but the other thing would not be professional habits of mind, since those will always be out of reach for most and in any case domain specific -- but rather some other regime of social certification.

I don't see cultural cognition as a bias, or even as a "heuristic." It is an intrinsic component of human rationality. But its reliable operation presupposes certain conditions -- what I would characterize, have characterized already in this msg, as an uncontaminated or clean "science communication environment." The goal is not to "overcome culture"; it is to protect the conditions in which culture can make the valuable -- and amazing -- contribution that it does to our being rational beings capable of acquiring knowledge through aggregated, cumulative inquiry into the workings of nature.


Mark responded, predictably and characeristically, with additional thoughtful comments relating to whether these sorts of ideas (which I think he himself might qualify or revise; he is the one with the professional habits of mind suited to educating people, including science educators) might be turned into concrete directives and materials relevant to science education. That would be fantastic in my view. I'd certainly be willing to help him or other science-education experts explore this possibility! 

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Reader Comments (2)

On the question of how to teach the relevant habits of mind, see my paper,
Why teach thinking. It starts from where you are, namely, the fact that we cannot teach everyone everything.

September 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJon Baron

Although some object to the notion of "teaching the controversy" - as an educator I think it is absolutely key to help students explore the concept of motivated reasoning - which is essentially teaching the controversy of how culture aligns with positions on climate change (or evolution). That is simply a reality and doesn't necessarily elevate the scientific validity of any one perspective.

One reason why motivated reasoning exists as prominently as it does is because so many folks simply deny its existence or believe it exists only in those who disagree with them (ironically). Frankly, I don't understand how anyone can explore climate change with students without exploring how culture affects how people evaluate the data.

October 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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