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Thursday
Feb142013

Terrorism, climate change, and surprise

In one of the enlightening "drunkard's walks" that the internet enables, I bumped into this fascinating blog post at the site Grow this City. Shouldn't one show one's gratitude for the gratuitous conferral of this sort of benefit by making an effort to enable others to enjoy it too?  So I repost; and then offer a conversational response.

At a recent meeting of a class on climate change policy, my professor led a discussion on the psychology of climate change and why it is so difficult to motivate people to act on the dire warnings published by climate scientists.

The basis of our discussion was a set of three articles published by psychologists on the topic. Two were by Elke U. Weber: “Public Understanding of Climate Change in the United States” and “Why Global Warming Does Not Scare Us (Yet)”. A third was by Dan M. Kahan titled “The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change”. A couple lines from the abstract of one of Weber’s article’s sums up the conclusion that both she and Kahan reach:

“When people fail to be alarmed about a risk or hazard, they do not take precautions… The time-delayed, abstract, and often statistical nature of the risks of global warming does not evoke strong visceral reactions.”

Basically, people do not take action to prevent or prepare for climate change because climate change is not scary enough.

Reading those findings got me thinking – is there a phenomenon similar to climate change that does scare people?

Eureka! There is such a thing! It’s called Terrorism. And, unlike climate change, it scares the shit out of people.

The analogy between climate change and Terrorism holds up for these three reasons:

1. They are diffuse in their causes and in their harms.

2. Preventing them requires large-scale social coercion and massive diversions of resources.

3. They cannot be prevented with total certainty even if we employ all the coercion and resources we can muster.

I brought this idea up in class and might as well have detonated a flash-bang grenade. My peers were shell-shocked. Their ethical circuitry shorted out. A business major blurted, “Terrorism isn’t like climate change. It’s a big danger that we have to fight to defend our country.”

To this I said, “The chances of being injured or killed in an act of terror is very low. You have a better chance being struck by lightning.”

The business major countered, “Look at Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center, the Shoe Bomber. Terrorism happens all the time.”

I then suggested that it may be the case that the US government has acted more decisively and with more resources to the threat of terrorism than to the threat of climate change because the United States is a fossil fuel-based regime. The reason that there was such a thorough (and effective) propaganda campaign to justify the “War on Terror” was that it generated support for the invasion and decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those wars, I said, secured Middle Eastern oil for the United States, strengthening its fossil fuel-based regime. On the other hand, preventing climate change is not as strategically important to the USA, so our government has devoted more resources to fighting Terrorism than to addressing the problem of climate change.

My classmates went pale. My professor stayed silent. And the business major came at me again.

“The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were about terrorism. They had nothing to do with oil. They made us more safe from terrorism.”

I said, “Come on, the idea that we invaded those countries because of oil is not a crazy one. It’s obvious.”

But my classmates looked at me like I was insane, like I had jumped on the big oval table in the middle of the room and defecated before them.

But the normally quiet girl to my right spoke up. “It might also have something to do with class. 9/11 blew up a skyscraper in Manhattan. Climate change hurts poor people first.”

But my professor, who has a JD from Stanford and an aversion to talking about class or speaking ill of the US government, intervened. He changed the subject, and ‘terrorism’ didn’t enter into the same sentence as ‘climate change’ from then on.

Bonus fact: the Iraq War has been more expensive than the anticipated cost of the Kyoto Protocol to the US.

1. This is a really compelling & cool anecdote that powerfully illustrates how intriguingly & oddly selective perceptions of risk are. Obviously, an element of the phenomenon is how unaware people (we!) normally are of how oddly selective our perceptions are — they just seem so given, obvious, we don’t notice.  The failure of people (like your classmates but everyone else, including you and me at one time or another)  to “get” how oddly selective risk perceptions are — to react in fact w/ incomprehension mixed with irritation — when this is pointed out is obviously bound up with whatever it is in us that makes us form such strange schedules of risk perception in the first place.

Two other cool things in the story: at least for a curious person, the surprise at discovering instances of the odd selectively & realizing that they beg for explanation are pleasurable; and for the curious person the disappointment of finding out that other people actually resist being made to confront the puzzle is offset by what that teaches her about shape of the pieces she needs to solve the puzzle.

2. The thesis — we overestimate terrorism risks relative to climate change ones because of the vivid an immediate character of the former and the less emotionally sensational, more remote character of the latter — is very plausible, because it's rooted, as you point out, in real dynamics of risk perception. For a wonderful essay that elaborates on this hypothesis (without presenting it as a hypothesis, unfortunately; conjecture is beautiful, and supplies the motivation for investigation, unless it is disguised as a “scientific, empirical fact,” in which case is risks stifling scientific, emprical engagement; you aren’t doing that, btw!), see Sunstein, C.R. On the Divergent American Reactions to Terrorism and Climate Change. Columbia Law Rev 107, 503-557 (2007).

3. I want to reciprocate the friendly gesture reflected in your sharing this genuinely engaging and thoughtful insight (and the infectious nature of the excitement of your discovery of it) by suggesting that I think that explanatioin is not quite right!

The paper of mine that you cite — “Tragedy of the Risk Perceptions Commons,” a working paper version of Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L.L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G., The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks, Nature Climate Change 2, 732-735 (2012) — is actually meant to pit that hypothesis against a rival one.

You surmise — again, quite plausibly, in light of mechanisms of cognition that we know are very imporant for risk perception— that the public's relative ranking of terrorism and climate change risks is a consequence of the tendency of people to process information about risk heuristically, intuitively, emotionally (Kahneman’s “fast” system 1), as opposed to consciously, deliberately, analytically (“slow” system 2).

Our study presents evidence, though, that the disposition to think consciously, deliberately, analytically (to use system 2) doesn’t uniformly predict more concern about climate change. In fact, it predicts greater cultural polarization over climate change  risks and a whole bunch of other ones too! We treat this as evidence that public conflict or confusion over climate change risks is a consequence of “cultural cognition,” a dynamic that unconsciously motivates people to attend selectively to information about risk in patterns that reinforce their commitment to opposing groups. Those who see climate changes as higher in risk actually see terrorism risks as less of a concern for society. (Take a look, e.g., at the group variation reflected in this chaotic graphic. The effect only gets stronger as people's ability to engage in reflective, dispassionate analytical reasoning increases.

4. As I said, this observation is meant to reciprocate the spirit of your post. My aim is not to “set you straight,” but to deepen if I can your sense of wonder over things that are, as you recognize, filled with surprise!

If you in turn surprise me back by showing me that my solution to this tiny patch of the puzzle is also incomplete — I will be shocked (but not surprised again to find myself surprised), and once again grateful to you.

What a strange world!

But also what a sad situation the citizens of our democracy are in — to be in disagreement over such consequential things, and to feel motivated to react with resentment toward others who see things differently from them.

Maybe by indulging our curiosity, you and I and others will learn things that can be used to help the members of our culturally pluralistic society converge in their understandings of the best available evidence of the dangers we face and how to abate them.

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Reader Comments (16)

“When people fail to be alarmed about a risk or hazard, they do not take precautions… The time-delayed, abstract, and often statistical nature of the risks of global warming does not evoke strong visceral reactions.”

No statistically significant warming in over 15 yrs and only a 0.8d C increase in temps to date since the mid 1800's coming out of the Little Ice Age. Only 0.4d C of this 0.8d C total warming came in the last 60ys.

But as this is a statistical argument, instead of an emotional argument, it does not "evoke strong visceral reactions".

I have found that when arguments require emotion to be effective, the reasoning behind the arguments tend to be defective.

February 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

An interesting post - that clearly outlines an interesting debate.

In fact, it predicts greater cultural polarization over climate change risks and a whole bunch of other ones too!


I feel that thinking fast and thinking slow (and the biases they generate) can be found on both sides of almost any of these politically/socially/ideology divided debates. I'm skeptical that system 2 thinking "predicts" cultural polarization as a general tendency (not sure if that was your point, although it seemed to me like maybe it was?). I think it may be true that it predicts polarization in certain debates - but not so in others. For example, would more system 2 thinking predict more polarization over the use of vaccines? Is there some sort of rule that determines which debates might be more polarized by system 2 thinking?

I think this is related to another thought I've been ruminating about. You refer to a taxonomy of "values." My own take is that it isn't really a question of values, but a reflection in how values are associated with certain ideological "frames". In other words, I think that the "value" of disliking totalitarianism is actually equally shared by people who might be categorized differently according to the markers of hierarchical, egalitarian, communitarian, or individualist - although if asked questions about the role of government, they might fall into alignments associated with those categories on the basis of expressed views about totalitarianism. Does that make any sense whatsoever?

February 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

It's an interesting example - but in many ways it is still just another example of the mutual incomprehension between worldviews. You both note how selective those on the other side of the table are in their perception of risks, but isn't this just another example of how equally selective you are yourselves?

For example, there's all the "war-for-oil" stuff. Neither war was for oil;. Afghanistan doesn't have any, and Saddam would have been quite happy to sell his to anyone at all if the US and UK would only drop the UN sanctions. It wasn't exactly about terrorism, or 9-11 either, although they were what moved it from the 'somebody else's problem' category, and raised the political capital to allow them to do something about it.

Terrorism is a political trade-off. Smaller parties carry out limited atrocities and offer to stop doing it in exchange for additional political power. They only get away with it because it is easier for bigger parties to grant them that power than to either stop them by force or to take the political heat for not stopping them. But it's a balancing act - the terrorists have to do things big enough to get publicity but not so big as to provoke a real response, and governments have to allow them enough publicity and power that they won't escalate to get it, but not so much or so easily that they encourage more people to take it up. The trouble is, if it becomes known that any group with a grievance can get power by using terrorism, then every group will. "That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld You never get rid of the Dane," as Kipling put it.

Generally speaking, the average man in the street isn't particularly worried about terrorism, unless they're in an area particularly prone to it. What gives people the impression that it's a risk is the way the government responds to it. People naturally assume that they're doing so in response to people's fears, or because it is a genuine existential threat. But politicians are actually doing it for political reasons. It's true that people's perception of the risk of terrorism is skewed, but it's not simply motivated reasoning. The reason that people perceive the risks differently probably is - as people have different judgements about the political aims of the terrorists and the political trade-offs appropriate. If you agree with their politics, you'll likely see less downside in appeasing them.

But the risks from terrorism have never really been about the risk of personally getting killed. It's actually about the risk of public policy being changed.

Similarly, climate change is similar to terrorism in a different way. Climate change is about creating the perception of a threat in order to bring about certain political changes. The average man on the street is not personally very concerned, as far as the risk to themselves goes, but the way governments react as if it was a serious threat creates a sort of conventional belief - in that they know this is what they're supposed to believe. And this gives a certain leeway to politicians to introduce changes to 'appease' the greens and/or respond to the 'threat', but only so long as the cost and inconvenience is minor. Again, it's a political trade-off - you can get a little power and wealth, at a cost, but you mustn't try to grab enough to provoke a real response. You have to stay the right side of that line where appeasement is easier, and most people are too lazy to do anything about it.

There are many different perspectives on these issues, and none of us perceive all of them. The only thing I find suprising about the story is that anyone was surprised. This same argument has been going on for centuries.

February 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Generally speaking, the average man in the street isn't particularly worried about terrorism, unless they're in an area particularly prone to it. What gives people the impression that it's a risk is the way the government responds to it.

Sorry, NiV - but that's incredibly condescending. The "average man in the street" is particularly worried about terrorism. Your comment seems to show that you believe that people are just sheeple, manipulated by their government response to risk. no doubt, the motivation of politicians and the motivations of the electorate are not certain to be even largely congruent - but why would you believe that "people" only formulate their opinions about risk on the basis of governmental response? First, governments are comprised of people - so you have a structural problem with your logic. Second, where do you get your insight into what people really think - an insight that says that what they think is actually not what they say, but what you say it is? Let's look at climate change - public opinions about the risk involved operates mostly independently of government action, and in fact, public opinion drives government action not the other way around.

f you agree with their politics, you'll likely see less downside in appeasing them.

Not sure what to say about that except, wow! Who, exactly, are you describing there? Who sees "less downside" in "appeasing" terrorists because they "agree with their politics?"

Neither war was for oil;.

I mostly agree. It is difficult to extricate the military action in Afghanistan from the geo-politics of oil in that region, but I don't think that "oil" can be isolated as a single cause.

As for Iraq - it is hard to see that war being, for the power-brokers in the Bush administration - as anything other than what they had stated for years previously. Please read the documents of the PNAC - prior to the invasion of Iraq, about the hegemonic goals of those who were in positions of power in the Bush administration.

It wasn't exactly about terrorism, or 9-11 either,

For who? For the Bush administration? Probably not. For the American public? Of course it was!

People naturally assume that they're doing so in response to people's fears, or because it is a genuine existential threat. But politicians are actually doing it for political reasons.

This is a false dichotomy. Politicians are responding to public opinion for political reasons, and the opinions that they are responding to is the public perception of risk.

February 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan - in case you hadn't seen this - I thought you might find it interesting.

http://news.brown.edu/pressreleases/2013/02/fear

From the final paragraph:

“We can roll our eyes and get really frustrated at Congress for being paralyzed, but we’re applying a rational perspective to it because we’re detached. But we have to recognize that a lot of what’s driving the paralysis and disagreement has to do with emotional factors that are not necessarily amenible to or easily shifted by rational arguments,” McDermott said.

Heh. You'd almost think the reference was to climate change.

February 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Joshua,

"The "average man in the street" is particularly worried about terrorism."

Think back over the past week and count up how many times you thought about terrorrism. You went to the shops - did you think about whether you might get blown up while you were there? You visited or said 'hello' to a neighbour, did you consider whether they might be a terrorist? You saw a person wearing a bulky jacket walking down the street towards you, did you immediately think 'suicide bomber'?

People are not in the least bit concerned about terrorism, up until the point when you ask them "Are you worried about terrorists?" when they say "Yes, of course." It's a conventional belief, it's what you're "supposed to say". But unless you live somewhere like Jerusalem, nobody but the paranoids actually is.

"but why would you believe that "people" only formulate their opinions about risk on the basis of governmental response?"

They are influenced in their beliefs by what society, the people around them obviously believe. Partly, they feel the pressure to fit in, partly, they assume that if they go to all this trouble there must be something to it. I say government because governments can mandate what measures society takes, which people pay attention to. But if governments had ignored terrorism - gone after the bad guys but not bothered anyone else about it, would people even think about it now?

"First, governments are comprised of people - so you have a structural problem with your logic."

As noted, government people can mandate what other people do, and governments are more often motivated by politics.

"Second, where do you get your insight into what people really think - an insight that says that what they think is actually not what they say, but what you say it is?"

By being one. Do you really think people always tell you what they think?

"Let's look at climate change - public opinions about the risk involved operates mostly independently of government action, and in fact, public opinion drives government action not the other way around."

On the contrary. Governments fund various NGOs and 'fake charities' to lobby government on the politicians' favoured policies, the media report that as 'a groundswell of popular opinion' and governments respond to the manufactured tide of public opinion. A lot of ordinary people seeing all this tend to follow the herd. The average man in the street knows no climate science - concern about the risks does not originate with them. They've been told what to worry about.

"For who? For the Bush administration? Probably not. For the American public? Of course it was!"

Quite so! And you see the same mechanisms I was just discussing at work here, don't you? The general public were not concerned about Saddam. The government were concerned about him for political reasons, and told the public stuff that led them to become concerned. The government were then able to act, to do what they wanted to do all along. Do you think the government's war in Iraq was in response to public opinion? That after 9-11 the population spontaneously rose up and said "We must do something about Saddam!" and the government meekly complied?

People see in The War on Terror exactly what they fail to see in The War on Climate Change, (and vice versa, of course). That's motivated reasoning.

February 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

NiV -

Think back over the past week and count up how many times you thought about terrorrism. You went to the shops - did you think about whether you might get blown up while you were there? You visited or said 'hello' to a neighbour, did you consider whether they might be a terrorist? You saw a person wearing a bulky jacket walking down the street towards you, did you immediately think 'suicide bomber'?


That in the last week I haven't suspected anyone on the on the street of being a terrorist does not meant that I'm unconcerned about the issue. It is a background concern. By your definition, does there have to be some threshold, where I need to have a certain percentage of my daily activities focused on something, in order to be (as determined by you as opposed to determined by me) concerned about that issue?

I am concerned about poverty. I am concerned about the environment. I am concerned about my partner's parents. I am concerned about crime and my own safety. I have thought about those issues in the past week, and I have thought about issues related to terrorism in the past week.

There are all sorts of factors that might trigger my thoughts about any of those issues at any time - the reason being that they are background concerns. In any given week, I might not think about any of those issues. That doesn't mean that they aren't primary concerns of mine. Now I am not particularly worried about my own personal safety w/r/t terrorism, because I think about the probabilities and I actively think about risk perception, but consider what would happen if someone in Muslim clothing with a beard starts photographing a bridge. If I saw them, I'd probably at first react with concern whether that person was a terrorist -- because I do have a background concern - but then reconsider the probabilities and not do anything (although it's an interesting question and I'm not entirely sure what I'd do). Many other people would probably react with concern about whether that person was a terrorist and call the police, because they don't think the probabilities through. Why would they call the police if they were unconcerned about terrorism?

Of course people's thoughts about risks are affected by proximity of the risk or other triggering factors. When a terrorist attack of high publicity occurs, levels of immediate concern over immediate safety increase. But just because concerns are more a part of the background of daily activities does not mean they aren't a concern.

Using your test - apparently I'm not concerned about poverty because I haven't, in the past week, looked at some poor kid in my neighborhood and thought about the social factors that are associated with her poverty? Apparently I'm not concerned about my partner's parents because in the past week I haven't looked at an older person on the street and associated that person with my partner's parents failing health and deteriorating cognitive functioning?

They are influenced in their beliefs by what society, the people around them obviously believe. Partly, they feel the pressure to fit in, partly, they assume that if they go to all this trouble there must be something to it. I say government because governments can mandate what measures society takes, which people pay attention to. But if governments had ignored terrorism - gone after the bad guys but not bothered anyone else about it, would people even think about it now?

This fails to address my points. Yes, people are influenced by what society, the people around them, obviously belief. Although that is an influence, it is not determinative. People are influenced by many factors, and that is only one of them. I have many beliefs that are well outside of the mainstream of society - even though societal beliefs certainly influence me.

I say government because governments can mandate what measures society takes, which people pay attention to.

Again, fails to address my points. The governments that "mandate" what measures society takes are: (1) comprised of citizens and, (2) reactive to the opinions of those citizens. Your counterfactual of "if governments had ignored terrorism" has and hasn't happened in varying degrees in various contexts largely as a function of public concern - which is not unrelated to government actions but is not, also, merely a product of government actions.

But if governments had ignored terrorism - gone after the bad guys but not bothered anyone else about it, would people even think about it now?

Would people in the US be thinking about terrorism if the US government had gone after Al Qaeda and not notified the public that they had done so? Of course they would - because the public would be concerned that Al Qaeda would still be an active threat (although the concern would be disproportionate to the actual level of personal risk relative to something like, say, flying on an airplane or driving down the street in a car). If the government had gone after and largely mitigated the threat from AQ, and not told the public it had done so, concern would be diminished to the extent that time had passed w/o further attacks - but you have actually described a situation where government action likely lessened concern about terrorism, by virtue of telling people that it has mitigated an known threat. What precipitated higher levels of concern about terrorism (disproportionate as they are to the actual threat) in the US wasn't the government response to 9/11- it was the attack itself.

Do you really think people always tell you what they think?

Non-sequitur. No, I don't "really" think that people "always" tell me what they think. Do I think that polls that ask large numbers of people about their levels of concern about various issues are useful for gaining insight into people's concerns about various issues? Yes. This would be true regarding the debt, regarding the environment, regarding climate change, regarding terrorism, etc.

Now I'm not saying that the numbers are precise or that concern isn't selective. For example, if we polled Tea Partiers about their level of concern about public debt, we would find their levels of concern to be very high. But those same people will have had a history of voting for politicians who say that the debt isn't a problem, or for a party that, when it held the executive branch over the past 60 years or so, has seen higher ratios of debt/income and debt/GDP relative to the other major party. Their expressed concern about debt certainly reflects current events (a higher debt) and political influences, and it reflects how issues are triggered by the mechanisms of motivated reasoning (social, cultural, personal, psychological, ideological identifications around political rhetoric that focuses on debt). But I'm not going to be so condescending as to say that they aren't really concerned about the debt. That's like when someone *cough,* *cough* says that because people advocate for perhaps poorly-reasoned policies in response to gun violence, they aren't actually concerned about gun violence, *cough,* *cough.*

On the contrary. Governments fund various NGOs and 'fake charities' to lobby government on the politicians' favoured policies, the media report that as 'a groundswell of popular opinion' and governments respond to the manufactured tide of public opinion.

Really? Not to say that government policy is unaffected by lobbying efforts (why would corporations and other groups spend all those billions on lobbying if it has no effect?), but you're really going the "climate change is just a hoax perpetrated by governments stoking fear so they can raise taxes, and scientists that want to line their pockets" route? Sorry, but that is just too conspiratorial for me to even respond to. You're entitled to your beliefs. There is no reason for us to go any further with that aspect of the discussion.

I guess since you don't believe that the public believes anything other than what you determine irrespective of what they say, we're doomed to a basic disagreement here, but I see various governments taking different kinds of action w/r/t climate change, and from the evidence I see (based on my belief that opinion polling is not perfect but contains valid information about opinions) there is no direct causal link between those actions of particular governments and public opinion just as there is no direct causal link between public opinion and governmental action. The causality is complicated - but I am quite certain it is bi-directional, and not categorically unilateral as you describe. But if you simply dismiss opinion polling, as you see to do, then I can't exactly refute your argument along those lines as you are working from a different basis of valid evidence.

The government were concerned about him for political reasons, and told the public stuff that led them to become concerned. The government were then able to act, to do what they wanted to do all along. Do you think the government's war in Iraq was in response to public opinion?

Again - false dichotomy. The public was concerned about terrorism post 9/11. It was not particularly concerned about Saddam. The government launched a campaign to link concern about terrorism to Saddam. Why? Because w/o public support, it couldn't act. Yes, in a sense, the public's concern about Saddam, specifically, was a product of government action in that the government action promoted information that supported a particular line of response, but the public concern about terrorism was not the result of the government's response to terrorism - as you have described the causal mechanism. The public concern about Saddam was clearly not because of the government's response to Saddam, but because of information promoted to the public about his links to terrorism (and his supposed possession of WsMD). If we are going to simplify what occurred, the government action against Saddam was a function of public opinion, not the other way around. But clearly, such a simplistic analysis doesn't reflect reality. In reality there is a much more complex dynamic that occurs. That is the problem with conspiracy-tinged thinking; like full-on conspiracy thinking, it requires a world that is much simpler than reality.

February 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Joshua,

Or to put it more succinctly, "people are complicated".

I think you may be reading me too literally. I can only express one perspective at a time. You say, 'yes, but it's more complicated than that' and of course I would agree. People have lots of different reasons, different people have different reasons, and they all interact. I merely point out certain features and patterns of interest - I don't claim it to be the whole picture, or for these effects to be determinative.

Do people really call the police every time they see a Muslim photographing a bridge? Sounds peculiar to me.

I didn't say anything about the government going after AQ and not telling anybody. I was talking about them going after AQ and not bothering everyone else with all the pointless security theatre.

I understand that when people are polled on their concerns, the economy and the deficit come out near the top, terrorism and climate change come out near the bottom.

Don't confuse the Tea Party with Republicans. The Tea Party happen to have made alliance with Republicans - a lot of Republicans have been persuaded that they have merit - but it's a distinct ideology and set of policies from classic Republicanism, orthogonal to the left-right axis. They are in a sense a brand new political party. So comparisons with past Republican policies are not very relevant.

(Interestingly, the Tea Party is much more a case of public opinion taking its own direction, and dragging the political establishment with it. That's probably why they get vilified by the existing political class from all sides. It is said that a lot of the top-level Republican powerbrokers don't like them either, but think they can ride the wave of their popularity to power, and then tame them or dump them. It will be interesting to see if they succeed.)

You ask if I'm really going the "climate change is just a hoax perpetrated by governments stoking fear so they can raise taxes, and scientists that want to line their pockets" route. Are people really going the "Iraq was a war for oil" route? Or at least, a war for reasons other than publicly stated? Isn't that equally "conspiratorial"?

No, as usual it's not that simple. Some see it as a way to raise more taxes. Some see it as a way to reign back capitalism. Some see it as a way to return to a "natural" way of life. Some see it as a way to force the developed world to pay huge piles of money to the developing world. Some see it as a way to hold back the developed world so the developers can catch up. Some see it as way of setting up a world government. Some see it as a way to introduce more regulations and bureaucracy, giving bureaucrats more control. Some see it as a route to milk the taxpayer for subsidies, and the eco-concerned for carbon credit indulgences. Some are enjoying a jet-set life of awards and conferences and committees and global fame where world leaders pay close attention to their guidance. Some are raising donations and political support, or seeking a little good publicity as a person who cares. Some feel vaguely guilty about all the good things they have and enjoy, and are trying to atone for it a little. Some like the community, and the days out going on protests together. Some like to feel they're doing their bit in the great effort to save the world, or at least to make it a slightly better place.

Some, I suppose, might even believe it. Although given that they seem to carry on their lives consuming energy and making no more than token gestures, I'm not sure if they believe it very much. It's one of those things where what people say and what they do tell different stories. How do you interpret that?

February 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@Joshua: Definitely no reason for higher science literacy or disposition to engage in systematic reasoning inevitably to polarize people. Presumably it just increases likelihood of getting "right" answer. Theory for the polariation effect is that *some* issues of risk or fact that admit of scientific investigation become entnagled w/ social meanings, turning them in effect into markers of membership in & commitment to group. In that situation, there will be equivalent of a psychic incentive to form group-congruent beliefs, and people are higher in science comprehesnion will be even better at doing that. In that situation we can say that the science communication environment has become polluted. The Nature Climate Change article presents that theory but its set forth very compactly in the my Nature "Worldview" commentary, too. Sound right to you?

February 15, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

In that situation, there will be equivalent of a psychic incentive to form group-congruent beliefs, and people are higher in science comprehesnion will be even better at doing that.

I"m having difficulty understanding that. When you say "better at doing that," doesn't it mean, essentially, better at being polarized and hence, more polarized? If someone is driven to acquire more data by virtue of a system 2 orientation, and accordingly is better at filtering those increased data to confirm bias, doesn't that necessarily translate into being more polarized?

That doesn't quite fit with my non-empirical assessment of human nature. My guess is that scientific literacy probably has little effect on one's tendency towards polarization (not zero effect - I assume that "literacy" as a general characteristic on a macro-scale is associated with less antagonistic behavior) , but someone who is more unequivocal in their viewpoint is more likely to seek out information to confirm their bias (because their identity is more closely associated with that viewpoint and they have more to lose if they're wrong) - and even more so if they happen to have a system 2 orientation.

Again, I'm thinking it's a question of direction of causality. What is operative isn't an inherent characteristic of whether one is inclined towards system 1 or 2 thinking, what is operative is the depth of identification. Someone who is deeply identified with a particular perspective may not be a system 2 thinker, and thus will become more polarized through system 1 methodology. Someone else who is deeply identified with a particular perspective may be a system 2 thinker, and thus will become more polarized through system 2 methodology

I take this from your link:

If anything, social science suggests that citizens are culturally polarized because they are, in fact, too rational — at filtering out information that would drive a wedge between themselves and their peers.

That also seems to me to suggest a positive correlation between "rationality," (as a proxy for scientific literacy or system 2 orientation?) and a deeper wedge, i.e., more polarization. Isn't the implication of that sentence that someone less "rational" - ostensibly someone more oriented towards system 1 thinking - would be less distanced from their peers?

Sorry if my thinking is confused there - I'm trying to understand.

Tangentially - Looking at the macro-scale, and thinking about analysis that looks at what societal attributes correlate with military conflict, it is interesting to consider the data that associate democracy with less military conflict. I think I've seen arguments that such an association is not valid - but I have to think that democracy suggests a value placed on dialog, and dialog is associated with less conflict. It is interesting to me to consider that when thinking of the mitigating effect of dialog on motivated reasoning.

February 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua: this seemed like an interesting enough thing for us to discuss that I made your query & a cleaned up version of my response into a post.

I think you've got it -- it being my claim: that in environment in which positions on risk or facts of policy-significance become suffused with identity-signifying meanings, there will be polarization b/c of the pressure people have to protect their stake in group memebership; and the polarization will be greater in proportion to quality of reasoning dispositions, because people who have higher skill in fitting information to their purposes will use those abilities to attain a tighter fit between their beliefs and their identities (through motivted search for information, through closer scrutiny of messages that might contain meanings threatening to or affirming of group identity, & through formulation of innovative counterarguments).

You say you have trouble with this claim b/c it your own observation & sense of human nature?

My guess would be that it both fits many impressions most people have of how things work, and doesn't fit many impressions they have that suggest something else could be going on (I feel this way). This is the situation we are in usually -- possessed of more plausible conjectures about what is going on than can really be true. That's why we should hypothesize, measure, observe, & report; it is why we shouldn't tell stories, that is, present imaginative conjecture embroidered w/ bits of general psychological reasearch as "scientifically established" etc accounts of what's going on.

So I don't offer my account as "established scientifically." I offer it as my conjecture. And I offer both the science compreheniosn & polarization study and the congitive reflection, motivated reasoning, and idelogy experiment as evidence that I think gives us reason to treat this conjecture, this account, as more likely true (or closer to useful truth) than alternatives. And then I wait for others to produce more evidence that we can use to adjjust further.

So I am content if people start with the idea, "the expressive rationality thesis" is plausible, What do you have to say for it?

If they say, it's not plausible, I'm puzzled; most of us have enough common material in the registers of casual observation to be able to recognize how people could believe one or another of things they find plausible.

But if that person finds it implausible, I say, well consider this -- my evidence. I imagine after you take on the evidence you willl still not be convinced, since you are starting w/ prior odds so long against the claim. But my hope is that you'll see the evidence I have collected as having a likelhood ratio > 1, and will thus at least now have posterior odds that are less long. As long as we both keep iterating, we'll converge eventually

February 16, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"Governments fund various NGOs and 'fake charities' to lobby government on the politicians' favoured policies, the media report that as 'a groundswell of popular opinion' and governments respond to the manufactured tide of public opinion."

A bit off topic, but when I read that I thought of MADD and the politics of drunk driving. I wouldn't be as quick as Joshua to dismiss that phenomenon. Go through the lists of DOJ pass-through grants to the states and you'll find myriad examples.

I'd also strongly disagree with an hypothesis that would "associate democracy with less military conflict." If one considers the United States a "democracy," our outsized military budget, the global scope of military installations and our bellicose foreign policy would seem to belie the notion. Who engages in more military conflicts than the United States?

February 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGritsforbreakfast

Well, I can only comment on myself. I do not find terrorism alarming. I do not find climate change alarming. I do find innumeracy in the alarmists of both sides. I do find the "sales" of an idea by proponents. I do find that an objective relief of the basis does not support the alarmism as stated. That there is a reason to be concerned about either CC or terrorism, does not by itself lead to a policy. Though, I would say activists claim that.

February 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

GSB - make of it what you will.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_peace_theory

February 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Gritsforbreakfast "..I'd also strongly disagree with an hypothesis that would "associate democracy with less military conflict........Who engages in more military conflicts than the United States?"

One can also expand on this. It can also be argued that democracies make for worse allies and are worse for upholding treaties than do those ruled by hereditary elites such as kings. Hereditary elites strive for stability more so than do democracies.

When the entire focus of government can be upended every couple of years in a democracy vs the stability of policy of a ruling house, one can see why true democracy does not exist in the world and true republics are also rare in history.

One can also make the argument that the current general peace and prosperity seen in the world is due to more to capitalism than to democracy (which does not really exist) or republicism. Capitalism strives for stability of markets and contracts, which most people pray for. The ancient Chinese expressed this sentiment very well: "May you be cursed to live in interesting times."

February 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

Ed -

It can also be argued that democracies make for worse allies and are worse for upholding treaties than do those ruled by hereditary elites such as kings. Hereditary elites strive for stability more so than do democracies.

Yes - it could be argued. However, would there be any evidence in support?

When the entire focus of government can be upended every couple of years in a democracy vs the stability of policy of a ruling house, one can see why true democracy does not exist in the world and true republics are also rare in history.
.

Does "true" anything exist in the world? Send me a postcard (with directions) when you find Shangri-La.

One can also make the argument that the current general peace and prosperity seen in the world is due to more to capitalism than to democracy (which does not really exist) or republicism. Capitalism strives for stability of markets and contracts, which most people pray for.

Vague definitions make for unclear arguments. I'd say that among Western democracies (sorry, dude, just because they aren't "perfect democracies" doesn't mean they aren't democracies), ours is towards the least socialistic end of the spectrum while also being towards the end of the spectrum of democracies most inclined towards using militaristic force against other countries. Should I therefore conclude that socialism is associated with peaceful resolution of conflict - or do you think that such a conclusion might reflect confirmation bias? : -)

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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