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Thursday
Apr182013

Some Q & A on the "cultural cognition scales"

Below is part of an email exchange that I thought might of interest to others:

Q.  How do you conceptualize the attitudes being assessed by the cultural cogniton scales?  Do you think of them as inherent personality dispositions that color an individual's opinions across all sorts of issues?  Do people hold different orientations depending on the issue?  Also, are they changeable over time, and if so, what sources of influence do you think are most relevant?

My answers:

a.  The items that the scales comprise are indicators of some latent disposition that generates individual differences in perceptions of risk and related facts. The theory I see "cultural cognition" as testing is that individuals form perceptions of risk & related facts in a  manner that protects the status of and their standing in groups important to their well-being, materially & psychologically. This makes cultural cognition a species of "identity protective" cognition, a phenomenon one can observe w/ respect to all manner of group identities.  If "identity protective cognition" is what creates variance in -- and conflict over-- risks and related facts that admit of scientific examination, then one would like to have some way to specify what the operative group identities are & have some observable measure of them (since the identities themselves *can't* be observed, are "latent" in that sense).  The "group-grid" framework as we conceive of it specifies the nature of the groups & thus supplies the constructs that we try to measure w/ the scales.  Presumably, too, there are lots of other potential indicators, including demographic characteristics, behaviors, other attitudes, etc.  The scales we use are tractable & robust & so we are satisfied w/ them.  

b.  The identities they measure are *dispositional*-- not "situational"; so, they reside in people & are constant across contexts. Relatively stable too across time, although there's no reason why individuals can't shift & change w/ respect to them -- it's aggregate patterns of perceptions among individuals that we are trying to measure, so the history of particular individuals isn't so important so long as it's not the case that all individuals are always in flux (in which case we'd not be explaining the phenomenon that we *see* in the world, which involves identifiable groups of people, not a kaleidoscopic blur of conflict among groups whose members are constantly changing, much less changing as those individuals move from place to place!).  

c.  The dispositions necessarily exist independently of the risk or fact dispositions they are explaining--else they would not be explanations of them at all but rather part of what we are trying to explain.  Compare a hypothetical approach that simply categorized people as "the low perception of risk x group," "the medium perception of risk x group," and the "high perception of risk group"; that would not be useful, at least for what we want to do--viz., explain why people who have different group identities disagree about risk!  Accordingly, there has to be some historically exogenous event that creates the connection (in our theory, something that invests particular risk or fact perceptions with meanings that link them to group identities).  This means, too, that *not all* risk perceptions (or related beliefs) will vary in manners that correspond to these identities, since not all putative risk sources will have become invested with meanings that make positions on them markers of identity in this sense. 

d.   Also  the groups are in fact models! They are representations of things that are no doubt much more complicated & varied in reality. They help to make unobservable, complex things tractable so that it becomes possible to explain, predict, and form prescriptions (or at least possible to go about the task of trying to do so through the use of valid empirical means of investigation).  Their utility will be specific, moreover, to the task of explaining, predicting & forming prescriptions to some specified set of risk perceptions.  They might not have as much utility as some other "model" of what the motivating dispositions are if one is investigating something else, or something more particular.  E.g., perceptions of synthetic biology risks, or dispositions relevant to how people might understand issues relating to climate adaptation in Fla, or "who watches science documentaries & why."

e.   Beyond that, I find the task of characterizing the thing we are measuring --are they "traits" a "values" "dispositions"? etc -- as scholastic & aimless, although I know this question matters to some scholars in some perfectly interesting conversation.  If someone explains to me why it matters for the conversation I am in to be able to characterize the dispositions in one of these ways rather than another, I will be motivated to figure out the answer (indeed, without a "why" I don't know "what" I am supposed to be figuring out).

Some relevant things:

Kahan, D. M. (2012). Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk. In R. Hillerbrand, P. Sandin, S. Roeser & M. Peterson (Eds.), Handbook of Risk Theory: Epistemology, Decision Theory, Ethics and Social Implications of Risk (pp. 725-760): Springer London, Limited. 

Kahan, D. M. (2011). The Supreme Court 2010 Term—Foreword: Neutral Principles, Motivated Cognition, and Some Problems for Constitutional Law Harv. L. Rev., 126, 1.-77, pp. 19-24. 

Who *are* these guys? Cultural cognition profiling, part 1

Who *are* these guys? Cultural cognition profiling, part 2

Cultural vs. ideological cognition, part 3

Cultural vs. ideological cognition, part 2

Cultural vs. ideological cognition, part 1

Politically nonpartisan folks are culturally polarized on climate change

What generalizes & what doesn't? Cross-cultural cultural cognition part 1

"Tragedy of the Science-Communication Commons" (lecture summary, slides)

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Reader Comments (12)

I found this interesting:

The theory I see "cultural cognition" as testing is that individuals form perceptions of risk & related facts in a manner that protects the status of and their standing in groups important to their well-being, materially & psychologically. This makes cultural cognition a species of "identity protective" cognition, a phenomenon one can observe w/ respect to all manner of group identities.

How does this theory then explain the change from one group identity to another? You don't argue that such change doesn't occur, I see, since you say that there's "no reason why individuals can't shift & change w/ respect to them" -- but why isn't there such a reason, since you've given a good phenomenological description of the group pressures brought to bear on individuals to keep them in the herd, so to speak?

And a related question would be: how do the group perceptions of risk themselves change over time? Ruling out mystical or telepathic bonds between group members, how does a change get started, who starts it, and how or where do those starters derive their perception of risk? (Consider, e.g., nuclear power.)

These questions themselves derive from a sense I have that the group-identity theory of risk perception is not wrong but incomplete, and the area in which it's incomplete is of major importance in addressing any theory of communication to do with risk -- that area is the objective reality of risk, as determined not by group adherence, and not by authority (even the authority of a science establishment), but rather by evidence and reason.

April 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

How does this theory then explain the change from one group identity to another? You don't argue that such change doesn't occur, I see, since you say that there's "no reason why individuals can't shift & change w/ respect to them" -- but why isn't there such a reason, since you've given a good phenomenological description of the group pressures brought to bear on individuals to keep them in the herd, so to speak?

Not to speak for Dan (who in contrast to me, knows what he's talking about), but IMO, for your question to be meaningful, you have to be more specific.

To be more specific: Why did Charles Johnson, once a "skeptic" and rightwing blog favorite "change" to being a "realist" and leftwing blog favorite? The underlying mechanisms of his "motivated reasoning" did not change. He changed the groups he was identifying with. There might be any number of reasons for that. But his tendency towards biased reasoning and his habits of making weak generalizations about those he disagrees with has not changed. He applies the same weak analytical approach (at least sometimes, certainly not always) both before and after changing the groups he identified with. Biased reasoning is not a product of a specific group identification - it exists in all groups.

The theory explains part of what happens as the result of group identification. Why should it have to "explain" change from one group to another?

These questions themselves derive from a sense I have that the group-identity theory of risk perception is not wrong but incomplete, and the area in which it's incomplete is of major importance in addressing any theory of communication to do with risk -- that area is the objective reality of risk, as determined not by group adherence, and not by authority (even the authority of a science establishment), but rather by evidence and reason.

Hmmm. "Objective reality of risk." Let me guess - the only group that appropriately assesses risk on the basis of evidence and reason, the only group that understands the "objective reality of risk" is the group that you identify with? Probably just a coincidence.

April 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Sounds like you don't buy the objective reality of risk as a factor in the change in group identity, Joshua. I notice, though, that you do like to identify the group you identify with as ""realist"", which, despite the scare quotes, is obviously begging the question in any debate over climate change. Nevertheless, how then would you explain change in group identification? Is it just random jostling about? Can you draw any conclusions from your Charles Johnson example? And do you think such change, however explained, might actually have a bearing on communication modes, or particularly on any science of science communication?

April 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Larry - I'm skeptical about anyone who identifies some kind of categorical "objective reality of risk." Risk assessment necessarily, at some point, rests on subjectivity.

I use "realists" in quotes just like I use "skeptics" in quotes. I use the terms groups like to use to refer to themselves. I have seen skeptical "realists" and unskeptical"realists." I've seen realistic "realists" and unrealistic "realists." I have seen unskeptical "skeptics" and skeptical "skeptics." I've seen unrealistic "skeptics" and realistic "skeptics." There are no perfect or un-polluted terms to be used here - so I choose one particular imperfect taxonomy. It is relatively unimportant, IMO.

IMO, change in group identification is not what exactly I would call "random." I'd guess it happens for reasons, so I'm not sure that "random" applies.

In Johnson's case, he says that he changed views on climate change once he began looking in more detail at the evidence - basically the same claim that I have seen many "skeptics" use to explain their change in the opposite direction.

More likely, IMO, is that after 9/11, his identification with one group - that of "Americans" - raised in importance over his identification with other group identifications. That led to a shift towards identifying with the group of "righwingers."

Speculating further: An external factor cased something of a realignment in his hierarchy of group identifications. We all have a very individualistic hierarchy of group identifications, and it is not fixed and it is subject to external influences. As the immediate influence of 9/11 subsided, his group identifications realigned (and not coincidentally, in such a way that more closely resembled his hierarchy pre-9/11).

But the explanation doesn't have to be rational. It doesn't have to necessarily be consistent with any specific cultural legacy (although it tends to be). It is very personal and complicated and mailable.

Conclusions from the Charles Johnson example? No, I can't think of any.

And do you think such change, however explained, might actually have a bearing on communication modes, or particularly on any science of science communication?

No. If anything, I'd guess communication mode is more explanatory for someone who changes as dramatically as Johnson did - from one highly partisan identification to a very opposite partisan identification - than the other way around. But I would say that it is a moderator or mediator, not a causal factor.

I'd say that if anything, by way of what might be explanatory, communication mode and the dramatic change in group identification are both "explained" by a different variable - a deeper reasoning attribute (that isn't categorical).

April 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua -- to start from the end:

1) By "communication mode" I wasn't referring to the mode or style of communication used by cultural cognition group (CCG) changers, but rather to the mode or style of communication used to communicate science to others -- i.e., to the communication concerns that, as I understand it, Dan is talking about here generally.

2) The Johnson example simply shows that people are not always driven by group loyalty in their perceptions of risk. One response might be, so what? To my mind, a consequence is that a communication mode tailored simply to people's CCG loyalty will, for a significant number, begin to look suspiciously like an attempt at manipulation. I'm not saying that's what Dan advocates or does, but I am suggesting that without making explicit, in the theory underlying what is done, the idea that other factors besides group loyalty influence how people perceive risk -- and what the more important such factors might be -- the risk (!) of communication failure increases.

3) Virtually any sort of assessment necessarily rests on subjectivity, since we don't have any direct apprehension of reality. By "objective reality", then, I'm simply referring to a particular way people have of assessing such reality -- that is, by relying on reason and evidence as opposed to tradition, authority, or the opinion of others. Of course that's going to differ from one person to another, and from one cultural cognition group to another, but it remains an important factor in how people assess risk that is distinct, in varying degrees of consciousness, from the sort of pressures of group loyalty that Dan has described elsewhere. (There is yet another important factor, I think, distinct from either of the others, that might be described as intellectual or ideological cohesion and purpose, but that just introduces an unnecessary complication at this point.)

April 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Larry -

2) The Johnson example simply shows that people are not always driven by group loyalty in their perceptions of risk.

I would doubt that anyone has suggested such. Of course cultural cognition is not the only influence - and hence not the only "driver." Could you show me where anyone said that it is the case? If Dan has said so, I would certainly disagree with him.

One response might be, so what?

So then I might say "so what?" to someone's claim that conclusions might sometimes be influenced by a dispassionate and unbiased "objective" analysis of risk.

To my mind, a consequence is that a communication mode tailored simply to people's CCG loyalty will, for a significant number, begin to look suspiciously like an attempt at manipulation.

The problem I have there is with the "begin to look..." Sure, if someone tries to oversell something it raises suspicion - but I have seen little evidence of that as the "driver" in the polluted climate debate. What I see is a lot of people who claim that they are "skeptical" because they felt something was being oversold - and that may certainly be true in any individual case - but the evidence shows that may very well not be the case as any kind of generalizable explanation. The evidence shows that for most folks, their opinions on CC can be predicted by a variety of cultural, political, and ideological identifications, and that the associations between those identifications and perspectives on CC increases in strength along with more information about climate change I would say that what that shows is that your "begin to look..." starts in the middle, not the beginning. When someone is looking for something from the jump - when in fact they are looking to confirm a bias of something from the jump, then the evidence they find turns out to be what they were looking for. That, it seems to me, is a much more likely causal explanation.

I'm not saying that's what Dan advocates or does, but I am suggesting that without making explicit, in the theory underlying what is done, the idea that other factors besides group loyalty influence how people perceive risk -- and what the more important such factors might be -- the risk (!) of communication failure increases.

I'm not entirely sure what you're saying there, but if you're saying that a lack of control for potentially influencing variables weakens the strength of a thesis, I certainly agree. But I don't see your argument here as validly applying that criticism to Dan's science - because while Dan controls for the influence of variables by using validated data and testing for the effect of various variables, you are merely speculating in a completely uncontrolled (and I would say to some extent unscientific) manner.

3) Virtually any sort of assessment necessarily rests on subjectivity, since we don't have any direct apprehension of reality. By "objective reality", then, I'm simply referring to a particular way people have of assessing such reality -- that is, by relying on reason and evidence as opposed to tradition, authority, or the opinion of others.

Both sides claim to rely on reason and evidence. Your characterizations of a substantively different reasoning process on the two sides of the debate are highly subjective, and IMO, not borne out by the evidence. Only a tiny % of people can fully grasp or have full knowledge of the science so as to be able to make a credible claim about "relying on reason and evidence" without giving strong consideration to the weight of "expertise." (And I'd have to say, of that distinctly tiny group, "realism" predominates - although that doesn't give dispositive evidence that "realism" is correct.).

Relying on "tradition" occurs on both sides of the debate; indeed, what else to we see except that in the predictive power of group ideology (certainly that is "tradition" if anything is)?

Relying on authority is also ubiquitous on both sides of the debate. If you want to get into the "skeptical" arguments often made about the differences they see in the degree of a fallacious "appeal to authority" on either side of the debate, I'm game - but suffice it to say, for now, that the vast majority of times I see that argument being made, it is being made weakly. (I will note one case in particular when Judith Curry "appealed" to Freeman Dyson's "authority" and complained about the lack of directly relevant experience in researchers she disagreed with, in practically the very next couple of posts after she characterized those she disagreed with as "appealing to authority.") Appeals to Hayak's authority, or Feynman's authority are ubiquitous in the "skept-o-sphere."

Of course that's going to differ from one person to another, and from one cultural cognition group to another, but it remains an important factor in how people assess risk that is distinct, in varying degrees of consciousness, from the sort of pressures of group loyalty that Dan has described elsewhere.

I don't doubt those factors are relevant in varying degrees, but I don't see why you think that somehow their presence is in any way mutually exclusive with the strong associations we see that are predicted by the theory of cultural cognition. In other words, I can find "appeal to authority" on both sides of this debate, and, IMO, it doesn't predict perspectives on climate change (completely unscientific speculation there).

Further, and more importantly, even if there were some large difference in the prevalence of "appeal to authority" on the two sides of the debate (a claim you seem to me to be making without offering validated evidence), it would not in any way necessarily weaken the predictive nature of cultural cognition. I can use an "appeal to authority" to confirm my biases, just as someone can use other methods to confirm their biases. The underlying phenomenon of bias confirmation remains.

April 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Joshua, a couple of points/questions. You state "their opinions on CC can be predicted by a variety of cultural, political, and ideological identifications." Do you consider "risk management" cultural in this context? I am one who was definitely with the consensus until I started to learn of the policy recommendations that were being claimed for the risk factors. As someone trained in risk management, extraordinary claims of unusually large necessary expense means extraordinary proof of large harm. So is professional training part of the cultural as well? And perhaps this elevator conversation just would have been too unwieldy for this nuance.

You state "Only a tiny % of people can fully grasp or have full knowledge of the science so as to be able to make a credible claim about "relying on reason and evidence" without giving strong consideration to the weight of "expertise."" This is an incorrect statement. The evidence of problems with proxy reconstructions, the problems with models outlined in AR4, the lack of proof of harm or that models can actually be used for local and regional harm means that one does not have to fully grasp the science to have a credible claim about relying on reason and evidence to be in opposition. The lack of evidence of harm or the accounting of risk, such as non standard discount rates means that one can have little expertise in science, but still be relying on reason and evidence, or lack thereof, in their opposition. They are realists as much as your group of realists, though their expertise is different when it comes to just the science of attribution of CC. But once again, this may be off track a bit and also too unwieldy to include.

If I read you correctly, I, too, see little difference on the sides of the debate especially at certain web blogs. However, at almost any of the good sites one can find good information sometimes. It is the wading that is a bit tiresome. That is why I like to read the literature. Just wish I had the time to read more.

April 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

@JFP, @Joshua & @Larry: I started to weigh in & decided just to post my response. My comments are framed as responses to points @Larry made & that @Joshua then responded to, provoking more responses from @Larry & @JFP. But I do intend my points to engage the multiple positions here -- or at least a good number of them -- including ones relating to the "objectivity" issues & the "culture's opposition/contribution to" knowing what is true.

April 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

The only thing I'd add here is that there's a tendency to become overly fixated on the climate debate, not just here but in general. My points and questions were intended in a more general sense to apply to both sides of any debate in which "cultural cognition" is involved.

April 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

@Larry:
Agree w/ you on the fixation. Climate change is for many the occasion for entering the conversation; but the conversation suffers for not noticing that the phenomenon is so much more general. \
Also, climate change can become boring! So we can keep discussing the same thing -- b/c it never becomes boring, & is well worth being fixated on, at least in the eyes of those people strange enough to be reading this blog, apparently-- while attending some other aspect.

April 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

JFP -

Joshua, a couple of points/questions. You state "their opinions on CC can be predicted by a variety of cultural, political, and ideological identifications." Do you consider "risk management" cultural in this context? I am one who was definitely with the consensus until I started to learn of the policy recommendations that were being claimed for the risk factors. As someone trained in risk management, extraordinary claims of unusually large necessary expense means extraordinary proof of large harm. So is professional training part of the cultural as well? And perhaps this elevator conversation just would have been too unwieldy for this nuance.

Sure - there are different elements to "culture." As I've mentioned to you before, I think that your analysis of what is or isn't "expense" is culturally influenced - as is mine, of course. I am not as convinced as you about how expense is defined in this context. And absolutely, professional training would be part of cultural influence.

You state "Only a tiny % of people can fully grasp or have full knowledge of the science so as to be able to make a credible claim about "relying on reason and evidence" without giving strong consideration to the weight of "expertise."" This is an incorrect statement. The evidence of problems with proxy reconstructions, the problems with models outlined in AR4, the lack of proof of harm or that models can actually be used for local and regional harm means that one does not have to fully grasp the science to have a credible claim about relying on reason and evidence to be in opposition.

Well, first of all, even assuming that many people "can" grasp the metrics you are describing they certainly are not, in fact, grasped by the vast majority of people who nonetheless have strong opinions. Ask10 people who have strong opinions about climate change their opinions on the metrics you described, and my guess is that at least 8 of them would say, "huh?"

Second, again, there are knowledgeable people, with great technical expertise, who disagree with your measure of the problems with the proxy construction. And you fault the models for a "lack of proof of harm" - where from what I read they don't make such a claim but only discuss the range of probabilities. Disagree as you will with their assessment of probabilities, but to fault them for a "lack of proof" is, IMO, a problematic construction.

The lack of evidence of harm or the accounting of risk, such as non standard discount rates means that one can have little expertise in science, but still be relying on reason and evidence, or lack thereof, in their opposition. They are realists as much as your group of realists, though their expertise is different when it comes to just the science of attribution of CC. But once again, this may be off track a bit and also too unwieldy to include.

Again - your objection to the "non-standard discount rates" is subjective. There are those with extensive capacity and extensive knowledge who have different views than yours on the validity of discount rates. Should I just accept that in contrast to you, who relies on reason and evidence, they merely dismiss reason and evidence as they evaluate discount rates? Perhaps. But I don't have the capacity or knowledge to evaluate the validity of different discount rates, and instead I have to make my assessment on the basis of probabilities. IMO, it is more probable that the differences between your analysis and their analysis is more likely attributable to biasing influences on both sides than it is that some smart and knowledgeable people are using reason and evidence and the folks on the other side are merely dismissing reason and evidence.

Further, to go back to something from that excerpt:

...one can have little expertise in science, but still be relying on reason and evidence, or lack thereof, in their opposition.

Of course that is true. I would never categorically rule that possibility out. I am not saying - in fact have never said, that I think you can conclude from someone's position in these debates (on either side) that they are disregarding reason and evidence in their analysis. In fact, it is that argument on which I focus most of my disagreement: my point is usually that when people make those kinds of categorical statements they are being partisan, because they are inevitably merely saying that a disregard for reason and evidence is what characterizes the analysis of their opponents.

My point is not to assert that a disregard for reason and evidence is characteristic of any individual's reasoning process, but to say that when we look a groups of people who align with certain perspectives on climate change - or indeed, as Larry references in this read on virtually any ideologically/culturally/politically charged debate - the strong associations we see with certain identifications suggests an influence of motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning does not preclude the use of evidence and reason. It speaks to influences in how we view evidence and how we reason.

They are realists as much as your group of realists,

Which is why I put "realist" and "skeptic" in quotes. My point is that those terms work, in a sense, as a taxonomy, but they fail as accurate descriptors. The traits of being realistic and skeptical do not divide the body of climate combatants into two distinct groups. Realists and skeptics exist on both sides of the debate, just as do those who are un-realistic and un-skeptical.

April 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Joshua, again I find that you and I agree on most. One of the few differences is that I have done biological modeling and mass/heat transfer modeling professionally, and this does cause some difference of approach at least.

There are real problems. For the models one needs only read AR4 of some or Tebalbi and Knutti's works to get a grasp of the problems I stated. It was a synopsis of what is in the literature. It was not meant to be extensive.

For proxy reconstructions, it is in the literature. However, it is not in AR4 to the degree that the problems with models are. The scientific reasons to disagree with the reconstructions, the confirmation bias, and the at least attempted subordination of the scientific process can be found in CG1. One has to do a good bit more digging for the proxy problems, especially if it is about the math.

The reason I oppose not considering the cultural bias of those wanting or demanding certain policies, when I know of the assumptions and methods which I think are not up to the task for policy implementation, can be found in Dan's words "Its animating principle is the mutually supportive relationship of liberal democracy and science. The mode of knowing distinctive of science is possible only in a state that denies any institution the power to resolve by authority questions that admit of engagement by reason. Not only is such a state the only one in which the path of empirical knowledge is likely to remain unobstructed by interest and error; it is the only one in which individuals can be expected to develop the individual habits of mind and the collective practices of intellectual exchange that fuel the permanent cycle of conjecture and refutation that is the engine of science."

As I have stated before, the institutional bias of the IPCC I found unacceptable. This does not mean they are not working to understand the science or that what is included is not science. They are not implementing and are opposing what Dan has proposed.

I also agree with you about people. My saying is "You can't even get 10 people to sing the Star Spangled Banner the same way, why would you expect ...."

April 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

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