follow CCP

Recent blog entries
« "Public comprehension of science--believe it or not!": the public and decision-relevant science, part 1 | Main | The impact of "science consensus" surveys -- a graphic presentation »
Thursday
May302013

Polarization on policy-relevant science is not the norm (the "silent denominator" problem)

Ever hear of the Formaldehyde Emissions from Composite Wood Products Act of 2010?

Didn't think so. 

As the Environmental Proection Agency explains, the Act (signed into law by President Obama on July 7, 2010, after being passed, obviously, by both Houses of Congress)

establishes limits for formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products: hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard, and particleboard. The national emission standards in the Act mirror standards previously established by the California Air Resources Board for products sold, offered for sale, supplied, used or manufactured for sale in California.

The legislation directs the EPA to promulgate implementing regulations relating to "labeling," "chain of custody requirements," "ultra low-emitting formaldehyde resins," "exceptions ... for products ... containing de minimis amounts of composite wood," etc.  The agency just issued proposed rules for notice & comment yesterday!

Why am I telling you about this?  Well, first of all, because I know you've never heard of this regulatory scheme (if you have, you are a freak and are proud of it, so the point I'm going to make still applies).

Because you haven't, the issue of formaldehyde regulation is absent from your mental inventory of risks managed through the application of scientific knowledge.

Because this law -- along with billions and billions (or at least 10^3's) of others informed by science -- is missing from your risk regulation inventory, there's a serious risk that you are overestimating the frequency with which risk issues provoke cultural polarization.

I'm sure some segment of the population somewhere is really freaked out by formaldehyde and another drinks a glass of it for breakfast everyday just to prove a point. But these citizens are really outliers; whatever group-based conflict there might be about formaldehyde is nothing like the ones over climate change, nuclear power, HPV, guns, etc.

Very very very few risk and other policy issues that turn on science provoke meaningful cultural conflict. The ratio of polarizing to nonpolarizing issues of that sort is miniscule.

That doesn't mean that those issues get regulated in an optimal manner.  But it means that one of the largest obstacles to rational engagement with science in policymaking is absent -- and that's an undeniably good thing for enlightened self-government.

The science-informed policy issues that don't provoke controversy are, of course, boring.  That's why most people don't know about them.

But if you do notice and give some thought to them, a couple of interesting and important things will occur to you.

First, insofar as the number of science-informed policy issues that could provoke cultural polarization is very small relative to the number that actually do, there must be something, and something strange, going on with the ones that actually do end up generating that sort of division.

It's critical to figure out how to fix a broken debate like the one over climate change.

But we should also be figuring out why this sort of weird pathology happens and how we can avoid it.

That's one of the objectives of the science of science communication. Indeed, it's probably the most important contribution this science can make to the welfare of democratic societies.

Second, if you notice all these boring, nonpolarized forms of science-informed risk regulation, you'll realize that the thing that makes some issues become polarized can't be lack of public knowledge about the science surrounding them.

It's true that members of the public don't know sicence much about climate change, nuclear power, the HPV vaccine, etc. But the public doesn't know anything more about the science relating to the vast range of issues that fail to generate polarization.  

Members of the public wouldn't score higher on a "formaldehyde science literacy" test than a climate science literacy test.

Formaldehyde scientists aren't better "science communicators" than climate scientists. 

That doesn't mean, either, that members of the public are necessarily uniformed.  

Obviously, members of the public couldn't possibly be expected to know and understand all the science that is relevant to protecting their health and wellbeing--whether that science informs regulations that protect them from exposure to toxic substances or medical procedures that protect them from diseases. 

But just as a reflective individual doesn't have to have an MD to participate in an informed and meaningful way in his or her receipt of high-quality medical care, so a  reflective citizen doesn't have to have a degree in toxicology or biology to know whether his or her government is making sensible decisions about how to protect the public generally from exposure to environmental toxins.  

In both cases, such a person only has to be able to make an informed judgment that the professionals he or she is relying on to use scientific knowledge know what they are doing and are using what they know to benefit him or her and others whose interests those agents are supposed to be promoting.

Reflective citizens do that all the time.  And one of the aims of science communication is to create and protect the conditions in which democratic citizens can reliably exercise this rational recognition capacity.

Those conditions are missing for climate change and other issues that culturally polarize the public.  In connection with those issues, citizens' rational recognition faculty is being impaired by toxins -- not ones emitted from "composite wood products" but ones being transmitted, either deliberately or by misadventure, by partisan discourse.

One goal of the science of science communication, then, is to protect the quality of the science communication environment from contamination by antagonistic cultural meanings that convert boring, mundane issues of fact that admit of scientific inquiry into divisive symbols of tribal loyalty.

To acquire and use the knowledge necessary to do that, researchers must avoid fixating only on pathological cases like climate change and ignoring the "silent denominator" (or silent members of the denominator) comprising all the science-informed policy issues that don't generate cultural polarization.

We can't expect to be able to accurately prevent and, failing that, diagnose and treat science-communication pathologies unless we start with an informed and psychologically realistic of what citizens know and how in a healthy body politic.

Hey--did you hear about the Chemical Safety Improvement Act that is garnering bipartisan support in the Senate?!  

I didn't think so.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (71)

What depresses me a bit about this that it seems such debates can be culturally polarized unilaterally--that is, it only takes one "side" to do so. My guess is that there's a pretty direct relationship between which issues get polarized and how much money is at stake through regulation, though that might not hold up to sustained reflection. Your other theory seems to be accident or misadventure, which also seems a bit depressing.

Finally, it might just be the degree to which someone convinces members of a cultural type that proposed solutions to problem X is a threat to their own way of life. It probably wouldn't be hard to locate arguments that fear the solutions to global warming would require radical restructuring of market relations, consumption, etc., and thus threaten how individualists see the world and live in it. I doubt FECWP can create a similar narrative.

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRob Robinson

@Rob:

Hey-- enough negativity, mate!

Do you really think there's no way to anticipate and reduce the likelihood that even one side will be able to make cultural polarization happen? No way to Mfight back when one side -- or both -- try to pollute?

If you do, I disagree! W/ science we can solve all our problems, including our science of science communication problems.

May 30, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Oh, I didn't mean to imply there's no way--and obviously, this is the sort of thing that needs to be studied, and that you are studying, and that I would like to examine myself. It just strikes me as something that is easier to destabilize than remedy. But that's true of many things in life.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRob Robinson

This post seems to me to be making a case for something nobody doubts -- kind of an inverted "straw man" argument if you like. Yes, the vast majority of science-based policy making is non-controversial, at least as regards the science itself, but that's simply because the vast majority of the science itself is free of significant cultural or political implications. If we shrink the denominator to just those issues that do have such implications, then I think the fraction of controversial issues goes up sharply. This rather obvious explanation for "polarization" would then rule out "accident" as a cause. It would leave deliberateness, it's true, but shorn of any suggestions of malevolent conspiracy -- rather, it would be the deliberate efforts of each side to further and/or defend their particular cultural/political values. Rob makes something like this point, but just from one side -- it needs only a slight adjustment to show the other side:

It probably wouldn't be hard to locate arguments that welcome the solutions to global warming that require radical restructuring of market relations, consumption, etc., and thus enhance how communitarians see the world and live in it.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

@Larry:

This seems like a very unhelpful way to frame things:


Yes, the vast majority of science-based policy making is non-controversial, at least as regards the science itself, but that's simply because the vast majority of the science itself is free of significant cultural or political implications.

Surely you don't mean to say that the quality of being culturally polarizing is not analyzable.

Or imagine this in a comparative context: why is nuclear so controversial in US but not in France? "Because the science has cultural implications in US but not in France, of coruse!"

Something causes risks & like facts that admit of scientific inquiry to become culturally polarized -- right?

That being so, don't you agree that someone who looks only at polarized issues -- or who generally fails to investigate the entire class of risk issues that could become polarized -- is unlikely to figure out what causes cultural polarization?

A great many explanations for cultural polarization on climate change can easily be shown to be if not false then at least highly implausible once one defines the relevant class in a way that doesn't exclude from analysis the issues that could have become polarized but didn't.

The most obvious bad explanation is any having to do w/ deficits in scientific comprehension.

I suspect that this is actually just an instance of the general point that one is unlikely to draw valid inferences if one "selects on the dependent variable" -- or examines only cases that fit some account of why things are as they are & that excludes from the sample of observations things that don't. In my experience, this simple error of inference -- one that scientific thinking is meant to correct! -- is a large barrier to reasoned assessment on the part of those who are eager to free scientific knowledge of its propensity to culturally polarize!

May 31, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Larry:

BTW, am I not right that you are a recovered Marxist? Did you not relate this once?

Of course, I don't ask b/c I think this makes anything you say either more or less likely to be true. I just find bits of intellectual genealogy & biography interesting.

It's intersting, in fact, to think about how many intersting thinkers who are non- or anti-marxist once were marxists. We could make a game of this, I think. I would go first & say ..

Popper!

of course

May 31, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Dan"

"Surely you don't mean to say that the quality of being culturally polarizing is not analyzable." No, I don't, and in fact I thought I was analyzing that quality -- what's culturally polarizing is what has cultural/political implications. It seems to me it's your position that makes the polarization un-analyzable apart from a mere herd instinct that takes its direction from random accident or some mysterious, possibly sinister "deliberateness". Behind that seems to be a notion that cultural values can't really be affected by science, and hence any cultural conflict over the implications of science can only be the result of "toxic" miscommunication. In a sense, that's maybe simply the flip side of the notion that science or scientists are immune to the influence of cultural cognition, and I think both are idealizations of a much more mixed-together reality.

Re: the "recovered Marxist" -- can you ever really be recovered? You take one drop of class struggle, and the next thing you know you wake up in the middle of an Occupy tent city....

Actually, I think I just said I used to be a lefty, with Marxist flirtations. Haven't been for some time now, but I am left with an interest in looking social/cultural processes from a more general point of view than current partisan debates.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

P.S. I'm not sure enough about who was ever a Marxist to be able to play the game very well, but of course the whole category of so-called neo-conservatism is supposed to have a number of recovered Marxists (more or less). Otherwise, Hitchens? Orwell?

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

@Larry:

I am missing something still.

You say


... what's culturally polarizing is what has cultural/political implications ...

That seems circular to me.

I'm trying to make the point that the class of things that could be culturally polarizing is broader than the things that are culturally polarizing. It's important to see that; important to try to specify the class of "amenable to polarization" independently of what happens to be culturally polarizing in fact, so that we can then investigate the causes of cultural polarization. What I'm identifying as the circularity in your position -- what made me say you seem to be treating "cultural/political" as unanalyzable, essential, exogenous -- seems to block exactly what I'm saying it is important to do. And I can't believe you want to do that, so help me to understand what I'm not getting here.

I want to put aside the issue of how science affects cultural values, etc. Not b/c unimportant but b/c I think analytically separate from the point I'm making here.

My move?

I don't know much about Hitchens. Is this a serious hole in my knowlege? Should I fill it?

I don't think Orwell was ever a Marxist. I think, in fact, he was wary of the British Communists and they of him, no? (He thought the working class stunk-- literally.) He was a socialist, of course, and did fight against Franco (and hence in allegiance w/ the communists) in the Spanish Civil War. ... What a character! Surely Hitchens was not nearly as large a figure as Orwell!

How about ...

Sydney Hook!

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

@Dan:

The phrase you quoted doesn't seem circular to me, but just general. That is, within a society there are at any one time a great variety of issues -- some quite practical and immediate, some more abstract and remote; some local, some national, some global; some purely political, some more philosophical or moral or cultural, etc. Any issue, of course, almost by definition, has the potential to be polarizing, but the more it's practical, immediate, local, or narrowly political, the less chance it has of having cultural or broadly political implications -- and vice versa. So, for example, the issue of formaldehyde emissions is immediate and specific, and without cultural implications that I or anyone else can see -- this is an example of a class of issues not amenable to polarization, or at least not very (i.e., there's a spectrum here, not two distinct classes). On the other hand, as Rob has pointed out above, the issue of climate change quickly became one involving such things as a "radical restructuring of market relations, consumption, etc." -- things that one cultural quadrant values, another devalues -- and so this is an issue very amenable to polarization.

Now, it's certainly true that a particular issue can be seized upon by one or another cultural group and woven into a narrative that's at least partly fictional or made up in order to further their broader cultural agendas -- in fact, I think just that is what's happened re: global warming. But the only way that's even possible is if the issue itself has at least the potential to further those agendas because of its own inherent (i.e., endogenous) implications of, in this case, global harm supposedly requiring unprecedented levels of state control and economic restructuring. You say that you want to "put aside the issue of how science affects cultural values, etc.", but that's really the whole of my point. I see you saying that science and cultural values are wholly distinct or without mutual effect, or would be but for these toxic, pathological communications -- whereas I'm saying science sometimes (but not always) impinges on cultural values (and vice versa), and when it does, to the degree it does, the resultant polarization, though lamentable, is both predictable and normal.

Re: the game -- I'll defer to you on Orwell, but I'll just note, first, that Marxists and communists are not co-extensive, and second, that he would by no means be the only Marxist or socialist to think the working class stunk. I may have to resign, though, since I can't come up with another move of my own at the moment.

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Orwell fought for the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) in Spain, and as such you could say he was at least on the same side as Marxists, but did afterwards deny being Marxist. The left have sometimes tried to argue that Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four were not criticising Marxism/communism but only the totalitarian corruption of them by Lenin/Stalin and the intellectual/bureaucrat class.

Socialism is an intermediate stage in the development of a communist economy. Socialism is ownership/control of the means of production by the state, which was seen in Marxist theory as a necessary prelude to ownership/control of the means of production by the workers. I suspect Orwell probably trusted the workers more than he did the state, so if you're going to make a distinction I suspect it would be the other way round.

But it's very hard to tell, since 'Marxism' has undergone so many schisms and splinters that it's quite hard to tell exactly what it does stand for, and where to draw the lines. The so-called reform-Marxism and Fabianism popular in early 20th century Europe is hard to distinguish from the sort of European Socialism that gave rise to the welfare state and the rise of the unions. Is it still 'Marxism', or has it evolved into a new species?

But to continue your game - and see how much trouble I can cause - I'll offer... Barack Obama.

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Rob stated: " My guess is that there's a pretty direct relationship between which issues get polarized and how much money is at stake through regulation, though that might not hold up to sustained reflection."

And Dan stated: "The most and how much money is at stake through regulation."

Although I have some weak agreement with Rob, I think "The most obvious bad explanation is any having to do w/ money causing polarization in scientific comprehension."

Using formaldehyde as an example, money was spent and industry did lobby against the rules. I have personal knowledge of it since I work in a food related business and the new ruling was vehemently opposed.

I will be using some marketing terms in my explanation, but they are to help in conceptualization. They are not adamant absolutes in intent, nor morals or moralizing.

Where I agree with Rob is if the statement was "and how much an individual's money is at stake through regulation..."

My hypothesis is that it is not Exxon's money that matters for AGW/CC, but yours and mine. The key is cultural outlook. An example is vaccines. Their money, their belief system. In modern business language, it is a matter of ownership. Persons want to own their bodies and their children's; they want to own what food they eat, and own the ability to decide (labeling issue in GMO food). Contrast this with non issues where money was spent by the industry.

In a case like SO2 or formaldehyde, think formica, there are economical alternatives readily available. For these two, money was spent opposing, advertising the negatives of the proposal, and lobbying occurred. The money spent was largely ineffective, and no disabling polarization occurred. This is not true for fossil fuels, or vaccines. I think this economic unavailability wrt ownership is the seed, and there may be others similarly, that starts the polarization.

In such cases, the science of science communication needs to recognize the cultural ownership of the issue, and how the owners will respond to policy. For example, instead of telling the public what had to be done, asking would have been preferable. In the business model, this is getting, or determining buy-in.

Using this as our hypothesis, and assuming it is true, it indicates why AGW/CC became polarized.

First, there is not an economic alternative. What was proposed was that we invest a significant amount of the world's economic growth over a period of about 50 years in order it not bankrupt the economy. This alone puts the policy makers in the "ask" paradigm.

Secondly, if one wants to avoid enflaming polarization one does not use "tell" if "ask" is the proper approach. What did they do, and are doing, is they use the "Tell" paradigm. Dan's example of ""The most obvious bad explanation is any having to do w/ deficits in scientific comprehension"" is persons, organizations telling people louder, more often, and more vehemently "You don't own it." This is what the public hears. What the public has told us in the US is that if it costs more than a couple of hundred dollars a year, they don't want it. This was in a survey a year or two ago, and I am assuming it is true. The point whether this survey is that good or not, is the measurement of but-in.

Buy-in is what I think with the cultural ownership(s) need to be determined before the conversation takes place. This way, the proper communication strategy can be developed that minimizes polarization that will occur when there is not a good economic alternative; and you are asking persons not only to sacrifice, but may be asking them to believe in a counterfactual such as what would be the effect of mitigating AGW/CC.

In fact, one of my beliefs wrt vaccines, and GMO's is that people do employ the reasoning, good or bad, that the opposing position is one of counterfactuals. They express these as risks to avoid, or fears to be placated. So, one of the items to put on the list for SoSC is can cultural cognitions of a group lend itself to placing the opposition in a counterfactual, real or not. Likewise, are there elements of the science in terms of uncertainty that lend themselves to this counterfactual position being seen as true.

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

Yes, Obama! After all, he has championed that healthcare insurance reform that was developed by those Republican Socialists.

Now while maybe they didn't know it, you'd also have to wonder about George Bush (bank buyout/TARP, expansion of government including), or Ronald Reagan (earned income tax credit, providing healthcare to the poor, all that federal spending - absolute as well as relative to revenue and GDP - etc.),

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

JFP -

I agree with you on principle about buy-in being the key, but I don't think that in this case a lack of buy-in is the result of some objective economic analysis - but a cultural overlay on top of an objective economic analysis.

But then the point you raise is interesting, and one I need to reconcile or re-evaluate my perspective. If the question "How much would you be willing to pay" significantly affects views on climate change, then there is a very real question about the balance between the influence of economic analysis and that of cultural cognition.

Then again, cultural cognition directly influences the reasoning behind economic analysis...

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Joshua,

Good examples. Isn't George Bush a bit predictable, though? And did he ever recant? I thought we were talking about ex-Marxists?

My go... Adolf Hitler. :-)

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@NiV & @Joshua:

Hold on. The game is to identify "interesting thinkers" who were once Marxists.

I'm not sure Obama was ever a Marxist; I seriously doubt that, since growing up in Hawaii (or Kenya, for those who believe that; doesn't matter here) the opportunity to be a Marxist in any intersting sense was essentialy 0%. But as wonderful or awful as you might think he is -- and as undeniably cerebral -- I don't really think he counts as an "interesting thinker." He is a man of action, only, and notwithstanding his use of words.

Ronald Reagan & George Bush didn't think period & certainly were never Marxists (except in a version of the game that is becoming silly; are we supposed to be doing shots after each round?) Reagan was a Democrat & a union man -- but he actually was anti-communist even in that incarnation, turning in suspected "Reds" during the McCarthy era (I would think this would embarrass even those who think of Reagan as an admirable figure). Hitler? ... pls.

I don't think it is my move but just to help keep the game on track -- & w/o really even preempting others, since I don't think either of these examples really count --

Hayek

Robert Bork

These are interesting thinkers, certainly. They don't count, strictly, since Hayek was merely a "socialist" & "never" a Marxist (I think @NiV comes close to denying the significance, which I'd oppose him on-- as Orwell certainly woudl have -- & not violently in my case, although the fact that socialists have violently opposed Marxists in many places is proof of the point), and Bork only a "radical socialist," whatever that means.

In any case, let's keep it "former Marxist," since Marxism is such a distinctive & fasciniating, deep system of thought-- one that one would adopt only for reasons or as a result of influences that are so interesting to think of. One can be a "socialist" -- particularly a "Democratic Socialist" of the European variety (or think of Bernie Sanders if you want an American) -- w/o being very exotic or deep in thinking.

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

@all

& speaking of games.

What a shame that no one has played WSMD, JA! in so long.

Maybe the problem is the lack of new bits of data on my part. I'm working hard to remedy this...

June 1, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

The Reagan an Bush suggestions were fully tongue-in-cheek, Dan. A bad joke, and given how early it is, I don't even have the excuse of trying to justify a round of shots (although I'd guess maybe NiV could be getting started about now).

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@JP:

These are fascinating reflections as is the bkrd information you have on Formaldehyde. Are you able to direct us to places where we can learn more about the politics, including in particular the $ spent, argumnents made, politics engaged in to oppose? As you know, those can continue now -- in the course of trying to influence the EPA rulemaking & then opposing in judicial review proceedings whatever the agency comes up w/...

I find myself inclined to agree w/ some of your conjecutres but not w/ others.

You note that $ is not decisive; the cultural landscape is -- or can become -- a larger determinant of exactly what the political economy advantages of intensity of interest, manageable szie, greater organizational coherence & the like can achieve. Many people (frustrate climate activists) blame those influences for nonresponsiveness to the dangers they see (& I think w/ reason) climate change risks as posiing. But the explanation is unsatisfying -- there are so many issue sin which those same influences don't block things & either alter the trajectory of regulation only a slight bit or not at all. Nuclear power is a great example; if political economy were all that mattered, we'd have many of 10^2 instead of just 10^2 plants in the US; the cutural pushback routed the political economy advantages of pro-nuclear (and by no means to the benefit of the nation, I'd say)....

The part that I'm not sure about is the account of why some issues become culturally activated & others not. Here you offer a mix of economic/practical factors & rhetorical/political/historical accounts. Formaldehyde avoided cultural polarization b/c there are alternatives; not so for fossil fuels & vaccines... I'm not sure about the predicates or the mechanisms that make "alternatives" so important. For one thing, formaldehyde is not being banned -- only regulated! (Am I right that part of the impetus was the incidence of apparent toxic exposures to formaldehyded in the FEMA-provided trailer homes for post-Katrina victims?) But more improtant - the variance across place makes this account seem odd. climate change doesn't polarize in Sweden; the socity is generally pro-carbon emission limits even though they would be no less adversely affected, really, by the impact of such poicies if implemented globally (indeed, they likely will do better than most in a warmer world). Likewise, the US doesn't really have genuine public controversy over vaccines (that we do is a strange myth); but the UK really does (or did!).

I think the "ownership of body" point is very compelling. But what's myterious to me is why that framing or meaning attaches in such selective ways across place, time, issue....

But I definitely agree w/ your prescriptive points: the assessment of the nature of things in presenting scientific information that can have the effect of propelling issues down the culturla polarization track needlessly.

I think actually that point helps to make sense of the first; there are things people do, say, -- often not b/c they are self-interested but b/c they are just clumbsy and unreflective -- that launch issues into a state of likely polarization....

BTW, a great book on these matters -- one that tries to knit together the combination of interacting political economic, historical/accidental, and cross-cultural factors that generated dramatic variance across countries in reesponse to mad cow diseease:

Ferrari, M. Risk perception, culture, and legal change : a comparative study on food safety in the wake of the mad cow crisis. (Ashgate Pub., Farnham, Surrey, England ; Burlington, VT; 2009).

We need more accounts of that sort!

June 1, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

... Marxism is such a distinctive & fasciniating, deep system of thought-- one that one would adopt only for reasons or as a result of influences that are so interesting to think of.

Now there's an intriguing fragment. The influences that convert Marxisim into its antithesis seem maybe a bit banal -- ordinary disillusionment would do, and usually has. But what exactly was the illusion in the first place? It brings up that whole "God That Failed" group and theme -- Marxism as the opiate of the intellectuals?

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

@Larry:


the phrase you quoted doesn't seem circular to me, but just general. That is, within a society there are at any one time a great variety of issues -- some quite practical and immediate, some more abstract and remote; some local, some national, some global; some purely political, some more philosophical or moral or cultural, etc. Any issue, of course, almost by definition, has the potential to be polarizing, but the more it's practical, immediate, local, or narrowly political, the less chance it has of having cultural or broadly political implications -- and vice versa.

Yes but the question is why? I keep reading you to say "some issues are polarizing & some not b/c some are & some not."

I'm not making a very serious mistake, am I?, if I say, any risk issue could become polarizing & none must become that way.

If that's so, then the question of causes presents itself. It is being batted aside, I feel, by the stance you are taking in your responses.

I am surprised, b/c I do have the sense that you habor a "big theory" that sees "culture" as an autonomous, shaping force. "Culture" in a sense much richer & more theorized than anything I mean by it -- which is a persistent source of agitation for you!

So tell me something about how "culture" selects the issues to become the focus of contention in any particular society at any particular time. Why is it so selective?

June 1, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"I seriously doubt that, since growing up in Hawaii (or Kenya, for those who believe that; doesn't matter here) the opportunity to be a Marxist in any intersting sense was essentialy 0%."

This is one of those topics with heavily toxic cultural/partisan meanings, in which people disagree on the facts. I thought it would be quite interesting to see if we could stir some of that up - Joshua got into the spirit of things by citing George Bush. My tongue was firmly in cheek when I said it - I was thinking more about the cultural conflict element than the "interesting thinkers" aspect.

I think it's a somewhat dubious contention, too. But I don't see why you would think an upbringing in Hawaii would preclude it. The story goes that Obama's father was a communist, his mother left-wing, and a lot of their family friends were communist/socialist - e.g. the communist poet Frank Marshall Davis was reputedly a close friend. There are various stories circulating about his time at college of varying credibility - it appears he was a part of that left-wing radical set, although that may have simply been to fit in socially. Then he went to work as a 'community organiser' for ACORN, which is widely regarded as an organisation promoting Alinskyite socialist activism. After acquiring a fair amount of experience in this activist world, he enters politics - launched at a fundraiser at the home of his friends Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn. Obama had previously been appointed first chairman of Bill Ayer's educational foundation the Annenberg Challenge. Bill Ayers - English professor and ex-terrorist - is also thought to have ghost-written large parts of Obama's autobiography. And then of course there's the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama's pastor of choice, who preached a variety of black liberation theology, which is a repackaging of Marxist revolutionary principles based on race instead of class. And so on. There's lots more.

All of this is, of course, hotly disputed.

But anyway, that's what I was alluding to. The joke falls a bit flat if people don't know the background.

"Ronald Reagan & George Bush didn't think period & certainly were never Marxists"

It depends where you stand. I've known people on the right to point to the same policies Joshua does and argue that they were more inclined that way than they should have been. But I took it as a joke.

"Hitler? ... pls."

Heh!
Yep. Hitler only called it the National Socialist German Workers' Party because he enjoyed the irony!

"Hayek Robert Bork"

Good choices! Particularly Hayek.

"I think @NiV comes close to denying the significance, which I'd oppose him on-- as Orwell certainly woudl have -- & not violently in my case, although the fact that socialists have violently opposed Marxists in many places is proof of the point"

Trotsky violently opposed Stalin. Was Trotsky therefore not a socialist? :-)

Marxists squabble constantly, and it is quite difficult to pin down the current meaning of their terminology, so I'm not going to argue. Originally, socialism was the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' where the workers had seized power in a revolution, while communism was the state after the class war had ended where there was no class, no money, no private ownership, no states or government, and economic activity was organised in the interests of all. Socialism and communism were the final two stages in Marx's materialist view of historical development. Socialism could at that time mean both state socialism or other more anarchist models. The anarchist models got dropped, and socialism became state ownership/control of industry. And full communism - the post-totalitarian utopia - became a somewhat impractical and very theoretical ideal.

Some people seem to be using the terms nowadays to distinguish the reformist and revolutionary forms of Marxism. Those who call for Marxist ideal to be implemented gradually, by legal reforms and changes operating within the capitalist market system, seem to be in the ascendant, and associated with the European socialist parties, which is where I suspect the usage comes from.

Language evolves.

Sticking to my theme for the moment, I'll play Mussolini next. And I'll have another shot, thanks!

Cheers!

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

All of this is, of course, hotly disputed.

It is also "hotly disputed" that he's a Kenyan Muslim Manchurian candidate.

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I do not think that US handling of formaldehyde regulation is a high point for effective science communication on policy issues.

It needs to be noted that the above proposed guidelines have just been announced for review and comment. Nothing has happened yet to stop the use of formaldehyde in products.

As pointed out by ProPublica in 2011:

"As we've previously reported, the Environmental Protection Agency has been trying to update its chemical risk assessment for formaldehyde since 1998, but has been stalled repeatedly by the chemical manufacturing industry. "
http://www.propublica.org/article/hhs-declares-formaldehyde-a-carcinogen-impact-on-regulations-remains-unknow

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/formaldehyde#r3

Formaldehyde regulations are among those that are frequently viewed in industry (the building industry in this case) as inhibiting commerce. The industries involved are also likely to be among those which currently are aiding in efforts to block confirmation of a new EPA chief: http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i21/EPA-Chief-Still-Unconfirmed.html

Formaldehyde made it into the headlines in the aftermath to hurricane Katrina when FEMA supplied house trailers where found to contain high levels of formaldehyde. From initial concerns(2005-2006) http://www.nbcnews.com/id/14011193/ns/us_news-katrina_the_long_road_back/t/are-fema-trailers-toxic-tin-cans/#.UaoCS5yQ3IU, it took another 6 years before a lawsuit was settled: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/29/fema-trailers-lawsuit-settlement_n_1551467.html . Even the Sierra Club was involved in trailer testing; http://www.sierraclub.org/toxics/downloads/formaldehyde_test.pdf

The FEMA trailers were a unique example of concentrated and focused formaldehyde use. That is what made a lawsuit more readily possible. Formaldehyde use in general is more widespread and ubiquitous but also thus hard to sort out from other causes for a health or cancer study and potential lawsuit. In the marketplace alternative products have been introduced that are slowly replacing the formaldehyde ones.

In my personal opinion, the formaldehyde industry has long known that they held a losing hand. And they have played that hand exceedingly well from the point of view of dragging out any real changes for as long as possible. When it seemed obvious that resistance to proposed regulation would have galvanized the opposition into further action, they have acquiesced on passage of regulation. But they continue to foot drag on imposition of any actual restrictions. They continue to slowly phase the material out in ways that probably minimize possibilities that they will incur any liabilities for past installations. Or be forced to remove them.

This may be, from an industry standpoint a case study in how effective use of behind the scenes lobbying and an avoidance of direct head-bashing with one's opponents is an effective strategy for dragging things out.

But I don't think that it exemplifies great science policy communication at all.

Our avoidance of real action to remove or restrict use of formaldehyde since 1998 has, in my opinion, been quite toxic.

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

NiV -

Just to add - in lieu of offering any direct evidence that Obama was a Marxist, you offer a narrative that strings together circumstantial evidence and explain that it the evidence is hotly disputed. Where is your skepticism?

George Bush implemented redistributionist and government expanding policies and employed the policy advice of a series of advisers with established histories of Marxist identification. Should we say, lacking any direct evidence that Bush identified as a Marxist, that whether or not he was a Marxist is hotly disputed?

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Joshua,

Did you think I was being serious? What I was talking about was that whether or not Obama really was a Marxist, there are a lot of people around who think he was.

This is arguably a question of history rather than science, but illustrates the same sort of partisan polarisation we've been talking about in scientific issues, and also illustrates Larry's point about that polarisation appearing where the theories and claims impinge directly on political interests and values. One side finds the idea plausible because of their political values, and are therefore lax about checking. The other side find it threatening to their group-image and therefore seek out arguments to debunk it.

Of course, I expected that by raising it I'd get all the usual left-right partisan counter-arguments. But I was interested to see if anyone else would notice and comment on the debate's parallels with our more usual fare. It's hotly disputed like climate science is hotly disputed. The evidence is circumstantial like the evidence of oil/green industry conspiracies is circumstantial.

On the other hand, sometimes people are so deeply submerged in their culture war that they don't see it - and see only an attack on their values. They cannot rise to the meta-debate level, and see it as if from the outside. It can be tricky.

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@Dan:

I'm not making a very serious mistake, am I?, if I say, any risk issue could become polarizing & none must become that way.

Yes, I think you're at least making a mistake, and it's central if not serious. But let's try to clarify terms a little first. If "polarizing" just means disagreement, then, as I said, all issues are polarizing by definition -- the only difference is the depth and breadth of said "polarization", and then the only question becomes why some issues are polarized to a greater extent than others. If, on the other hand, you want to define "polarization" as some kind of particularly "toxic" or "pathological" form of disagreement -- and I suppose, now that I look at it, that that's what you're doing -- then you may have defined away my objection, but at the cost of defining yourself into the problem (like painting yourself into a corner). So now you're just left with mysterious or, as I've said, vaguely sinister, conspiratorial forces (money! greed!) as the only explanation for society-wide issues that invoke central cultural values. (And these aren't values, by the way, that require any ""big theory" that sees "culture" as an autonomous, shaping force" -- they're just the ones you yourself rely on every time your refer to the axes of the cultural cognition grid.) Were we just lucky, do you think, that Big Formaldehyde didn't generate a polarizing campaign that would convulse bloggers, op-ed pages, and governments around the globe for decades over formaldehyde emissions?

As you say, you keep reading me as saying "some issues are polarizing & some not b/c some are & some not.", whereas what I actually keep saying is "some issues are polarizing & some not b/c some impinge on cultural values and some don't". It's fair to wonder or ask why some impinge in this way and others don't, but I tried to answer that in terms of features of the issue that were inherent in it -- the reach, scope, or just symbolism of its potential effects -- and I used your own example of formaldehyde emissions as one with a very limited such potential, and climate change as one with a very great such potential. Do you not agree?

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

@Dan:

P.S. I went away, came back, looked again at my last comment, and realized I may be missing at least a piece of the problem as seen through your eyes -- if you interpret "polarizing" and "impinging on cultural/political values" as meaning essentially the same thing, then my short form explanation of what's polarizing is indeed circular. I think, however, even given that interpretation, that you're still left with a severe explanatory problem: how does an issue merely impinging on cultural/political values make its debate toxic or pathological? The dastardly efforts of some industry lobby or another? Just accidentally? Another possible answer -- and a way out of the corner -- is that it doesn't; it just makes the debate more intense and widespread than a purely technical issue would normally be.

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

@Larry:

1. I do mean "culturally poilarizing' in sense of having property of becoming identified with membership in strong affinity group, loyalty to which will generate defenstive bias against group-dominant beliefs.

2. I do have reaction when you say "some issues are culturally polarizing & some not b/c some impinge on values & some do not" that this just redescribes the phenomenon I would like to explain.

3. I thnk "any issue could & no issue must" become polarizing is not true but actually a useful way to define the class of cases from which we should be collecting evidence about causes of issues taking on character that makes them "impinge" in this peculiar way. You say this is "severe explanatory" problem for me. Well, yes! That's my motivation for itnroducting this topic. I'd like some help figuring out what causes this weird phenomeon?

4. I suspect any theory of causes that tries to identify "features of the issue ... inherent in it" will either have the same problem I adverted to in 2 -- circularity -- or be false. On falsity: there was nothing "inherent," I'd say about HPV vaccine that made it become that way in US; the evidence for my saying this is that the same thing didn't happen to the HBV vaccine, which had all the same potentiality. There was nothign "inherent" in nuclear becomeing this way in US; proof -- didn't happen in France. Or look at Ferrari's book; if you want to say he was discussing "inherent" dfficerences in madcow disease that varied acrtoss time & place, then leave out "inherent" & just focus on the things that account for time & place variance -- those are more informative in my view.

5. I think the "causes" can include money, greed etc. But I think they needin't involve that. Misadventure, historical accident, etc. can all contribute too. But I think we can likely form some more general account of what the thing is that money, greed, accident etc. are making occur, even if they are not certain to cause it to occur or uniquely repsonsible for it. Then we might be able to figure out how to situate ourselves w/ respect to anything that might make such a thing happen -- although that doesn't follow as a matter of logic or anything.

June 1, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@NiV:

I don't really care that much about whether Obama or Bush or Reagan -- even Hitler, although clearly National Socialism wasn't a form of Marxism; it was a form of Totalitarianism, but that's a different matter - was a Marxist.

They can't count (& yes I do know you were joking w/ Obama) b/c they weren't/aren't "interesting thinkers."

I'll give you that Reagan was an interesting man of actoin -- and Margaret Thatcher an even more interesting woman of one -- and for reasons having to do w/ ideas. But Reagan didn't thinking in interesting ways; nor did Thatcher, although she was obviously 10^4 more thoughtful than Reagan.

Hitler was a psychopath, not a thinker.

Thinkers, pls!

Trotsky could almost count (Lenin is closer but still an "almost" in my view) but he certainly never renounced Marxism. He thought Stalin did.

June 1, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Gaythia:

I don't think the use of the formaldehyde regulations as an example depends on their being good regulations. It isn't defeated either by political opposition from interest groups.

The point is that the issue of how to deal w/ formaldehyde doesn't culturally polarize (as I said in the post-- most people have no thoughts about it one way or the other). That makes it different from all the issues that do polarize, and while it doesn't guarantee that it will be handled rationally, it does increase the odds that it will be.

But I can pick a zillion other issues, including your personal favorite: pasteurized milk!

June 1, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"...wasn't a form of Marxism; it was a form of Totalitarianism"

Do you think the two are mutually exclusive?

"...nor did Thatcher"

Reagan I don't know enough about to argue, but why do you think Thatcher wasn't a thinker? It seems an odd judgement.

"Thinkers, pls!"

Thinkers, eh? How about Andre Gide? Arthur Koestler? Karl Wittfogel?

It's a bit tricky, because it depends what you mean by "thinker". Obviously there must be lots of ex-Marxist intellectuals about, what with the theory being a lot less popular than it once was. But presumably you're after those with some notability, which is a lot harder. How many Marxist intellectuals are really known outside the interested community? How many would want to make a point of their past? Those that do make a big deal of it (like David Horowitz) tend to be notable for being controversial, rather than particularly clever.

Hayek and Orwell are the names I'd think of. But I'd regard them as the exceptions - I'd generally be dubious that great thinkers are likely to have been Marxists in the first place.

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

I think the "causes" can include money, greed etc. But I think they needin't involve that. Misadventure, historical accident, etc. can all contribute too.

Okay, so I guess you do think that it's only accidental or some sort of laziness on the part of Big Formaldehyde that explains why we haven't been passionately debating formaldehyde emissions in media, government, science journals and the like for the last 20 or 30 years.

The thing is, once you make the phenomenon weird, the only way to solve the problem that creates is to find a way to normalize it again.

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

@Larry:

I think there might be a reason that formaldehyde mfrs haven't even tried; but what is harder to get is why environmentalists wojuldn't have "lit the fuse." I suspect they have tried. Deepens the mystery about why sometimes polarization catches on & sometimes doesn't. GMO seems very hard to ignite in US.

Not sure I follow about "making the phenonmenon weird"?

Do you mean that I'm exaggerating how unusual cultural polariation is by use of my "any could .. none must" sample-selection criterion? I agree that specifying the sample is tricky; I could be overstating the number of issues we should be examining.

I think, though, it definitely constricts the sample -- makes it very unlikely we'll figure out causes at all -- if we look only at issues where there is cultural polarizatoin -- for clearly there is a substantial amount of contingency involved, as demonstrated by variance w/r/t particular issues (even climate change, as @Andy has pointed out in a parallel conversational universe that mightg be converging w/ this one..)

June 1, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

The loud presence of a media frenzy is not a measure of the depth of the cultural divide. In the case of the FEMA trailer dwellers the lack of such a frenzy only highlighted their status as a marginalized group (which is a cultural divide). They may not be as willing or able to garner media attention as can say, an actress protesting for animal rights. But I don't think that lack of media coverage defines cultures or is a measure of their actual following.

If regulating formaldehyde had been done based on the best available science, such regulation would have begun back in around 1998. Formaldehyde regulations are a key component of regulations on the building trades. Conversations are more geared to the broader overall issue of whether or not there is too much regulation by agencies such as the EPA. This has been an area of polarizing contention. Even if a battle line is not explicitly drawn as formaldehyde/not formaldehyde.

In my opinion the vote on formaldehyde is not an example of a coming together in a bipartisan fashion in support of good science. It is a tactical move, part of a long history of delaying and obstruction. The delays and blockages aimed at hindering the ability to effectively regulate formaldehyde continue. Part of these is to block effective operation of the EPA. Part of that tactic seems to be to subject any development of standards to endless reviews: http://blogs.edf.org/nanotechnology/2013/03/26/the-chemical-industry-says-formaldehyde-and-styrene-dont-cause-cancer-only-one-of-52-scientists-agree/

We are still a long way from imposing formaldehyde standards on new products and even further from addressing most existing formaldehyde related health concerns of consumers and workers.

The industry has cleverly used tactics that avoid head on collisions with the opposition. But the conversation is still poisoned.

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

@Dan:

the "making the phenomenon weird" just comes from your point 3: "I'd like some help figuring out what causes this weird phenomeon?" (taking "weird phenomenon" to refer to what makes an issue "impinge" on cultural values). I'll confess at this point that you have a notion of "weird" that is entirely beyond me. I think the picture of world-wide cultures in a constant uproar over formaldehyde emissions is comical enough to make an SNL skit, but that you regard as so plausible you're only mystified that enviro groups haven't taken it up. But all of your mysteries could be cleared up easily and obviously once you see that, for example, formaldehyde emissions just don't have the same leverage on global economics and culture that CO2 emissions do -- that, i.e., the way global warming impinges on cultural values is not weird unless someone insists on seeing it that way.

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Control Measures

1. Food for sale in Hong Kong must be fit for human consumption as stipulated in the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance, Cap. 132. The use of formaldehyde in food contravenes the Preservatives in Food Regulation and is liable to a maximum fine of HK$50,000 and imprisonment for 6 months.
2. For foods containing natural formaldehyde, there is no international consensus on their reference levels.
3. The testing of formaldehyde in food is included in our food surveillance programme. Follow-up action will be undertaken when there is suspected abuse of formaldehyde in food.

From Hong Kong.

I know of it due to food issues. Wish the BSE book did not cost so much. We use beef collagen as one of our raw materials, and long before I was interested in AGW/CC I was reading about BSE. Because of its microbiological and anti-fungal effects formaldehyde was in common use. Starting in 1998, it became harder and harder to use it. The push by the FDA was 0. Not a scientific goal, I recognize. What they wanted was a ban. But I guess this did not make the news, but Katrina did. I would agree that risk PERCEPTION is a strong candidate for explaining reactions of different cultures. That is part of the buy-in I spoke of. Buy-in does not just include economic, but risk aversion/support which I think goes toward addressing Dan's and Joshua's comments. I don't know of a good way to determine this a priori. But we do new product tests, so I think that part of SoSC needs similar in order to anticipate potential polarization, and implement a less alienating communication. But this last part is straight out of my Risk Management training based on S&F. So, no surprise there.

I do not know how much was spent. I know that providers of disinfectants kept us up to date on efforts. I was involved at the peripheral, since I run evaporators and such chemicals can concentrate in evaporators leading to non compliance issues. GRAS was a concern for use of polymers that are used in sedimentation processes involving water, wastewater, and recovered streams. I included the Hong Kong to indicate that it is not a concern specific to US.

From FDA:
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES

Food and Drug Administration

21 CFR Part 573

[Docket No. 97F-0522]


Food Additives Permitted in Feed and Drinking Water of Animals;
Formaldehyde

AGENCY: Food and Drug Administration, HHS.

ACTION: Final rule.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

SUMMARY: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is amending the
regulations for food additives permitted in feed and drinking water of
animals to provide for the safe use of formaldehyde (CAS No. 50-00-0;
37 percent aqueous solution), at a rate of 5.4 pounds (2.5 kilograms)
per ton, as an antimicrobial food additive for maintaining animal feeds
and feed ingredients Salmonella negative for up to 21 days. This action
is in response to a food additive petition filed by Anitox Corp. of
Buford, GA.

DATES: Effective October 6, 1998; written objections and request for
hearing should be submitted by November 5, 1998.
ADDRESSES: Submit written objections to the Dockets Management Branch
(HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, rm. 1061,
Rockville, MD 20852

and

The inventory of GRAS notices provides information about GRAS notices filed within each year since 1998, when FDA received its first GRAS notice. Once FDA has responded to a GRAS notice, the text of FDA's response will also be available as part of the record for that notice. We will update this information approximately monthly. More information about this inventory is available on the GRAS Notice Inventory Introduction page5.
Records shown on this page: This page is a partial listing of all records in the database. Additional pages/records are available for selection at the bottom of the page. To view all records in the database select the All button at the bottom of the page. To search for a specific food ingredient, enter the term in the Search Criteria box and select Show Items to display only those records that contain the selected term. To view the text of the agency's response to the GRAS notice, select the text in the FDA's Letter column describing the response. Select the specific GRN number in the GRN No. column to view additional detail about any GRAS notice, including in some cases the submission itself. The agency has removed nondisclosable information from these submissions. All copyrighted information has also been removed and the bibliographic information listed in a reference table at the end of the submission.

June 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

@Larry:


all of your mysteries could be cleared up easily and obviously once you see that, for example, formaldehyde emissions just don't have the same leverage on global economics and culture that CO2 emissions do --

Among "all of [my] mysteries":

a. Why HPV vaccine culturally polarizes in US & HBV vaccine doesnt.

b. Why guns culturally polarize in the US but not UK; & why GM foods polarize UK but not US.

c. Why nuclear power culturally polarized US in late 1970s but doesn't so much anymore -- & why it never culturally polarized France.

d. Whether synthetic biology is likely to culturally polarize US, UK, Australia, Germany, France, the Netherlands -- either all or some or none.

e. Whether there is anything we might do to remove cultural polarization where it exists and reduce its incidence w/r/t emerging technologies like synthetic biology.

These are things that would be explained if I were to "simply see that ..."? Oh -- also why food additives (e.g., artificial sweeteners) culturally polarize in US (or at least have historically; why is this less of a controversy now?) & formaldehyde regulation doesn't. That too is "easily and obviously cleared up" once ...?

Am I right that you don't mean to suggest this?

If so, then what I see is that my post was not a good way to conjure the nature of the problem in your mind & entice you to address it.

Maybe it is not useful in that respect for anyone else either. I will consider this.

June 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

Dan -

I think that one problem here is associated with singling out issues as being either science-related or non-science related issues and then using only that selected sample to tease out the causal mechanisms behind the controversy. In other words, I think it may often be that very few of the intrinsic attributes of a controversy explain why it is polarizing.

Again, I find the Affordable Care Act instructive. It was promoted by conservative leaders as being a favorable policy not long ago. Now it is promoted by those very same leaders as being an example of Obama's tyrannical wish to destroy capitalism. It is not the intrinsic attributes of the policies in themselves that causes the way the policy becomes polarizing, but a matter of how the issue can be used to leverage cultural/ideological/social/personal/psychological identifications to strengthen group solidarity (via the mechanism of defining the "other").

We have the interesting phenomenon of the individual components of the ACA being significantly more popular than the aggregated policy. Now some might say that is because people don't know what the individual components are - perhaps a parallel to those who say that controversy over climate change policy is largely explained by ignorance of the science.

But I think that such explanations based on a rational cause-and-effect mechanism only reflect the motivated reasoning of those promoting the explanations (we see this on both sides in the climate debate - the two "sides" are equally convinced that their "rational," and completely contradictory, explanations are correct).

Is the ACA an issue of "science?" I suppose that argument could be made - but lets roll right here that it isn't. Then why do you single out science-based issues as a way to explain controversy over science-based issues?

The climate change polarization is like the polarization over GMOs and vaccines and HPV and stem cell research in that they are directly science-related, but it is like other polarizing debates as well: BHENGAZI!!!!!, or the IRS, or drones, or trying terrorists on our soil, etc.-- in that they all show that the thinking related to controversial issues is replete with the selective (often self-contradictory) reasoning that points to cultural cognition.

Why is climate change controversial but formaldehyde isn't? Why is the ACA mandate "tyranny" now when it is "responsibility" a few years ago? Why is BHENGAZI!!!! Obama's tyranny and Clinton's incompetence when previous attacks on U.S. embassy were a tragic outgrowth of American foreign policy? Why did the members of SCOTUS view the states' rights questions related to Bush v. Gore so differently than how they viewes states' rights questions related to other issues? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the winds of motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is an intrinsic attribute of human reasoning that roams the planet looking to feast in issues and turn them into controversy -- it isn't a picky eater..

June 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua:

It is likely a simplification too, but I would have thought that the proposition that the Affordable Care Act polarizes b/c citizens w/ different values are using their values to assess whether universal health care (or health insurance coverage) is an appropriate aim of govt policymaking. I know I am doing that; I know that Obama & Ron Paul are (or so it appears to me).

But why do US citizens w/ "egalitarian communitarian" values (supporters of ACA) believe that human CO2 emissions are causing the temperature of earth to increase -- wheres US citizens w/ "hierarchical individualist" values (ACA opponents)do not? And why do they disagree about whether there is scientific consensus on whether deep geologic isolation safely contains nuclear wastes -- a proposition that not only is analytically unconnected to anyone's values but that also turns on evidence wholly unrelated to whatever evidence those who disagree about climate change dispute?

You'll say "motivated reasoning." Yes, of course. Then tell me: why only some empirical matters of policy consequence & not others?

If you genuinely think cultural cogniton isn't "picky," then you are exactly the person for whom I wrote this blog. You are excluding all the culturally "silent" risk issues that admit of scientific inquiry from the denominator.

June 2, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Gaythia:

The measure of a cultural divide is -- some measure of it.

I can show you, e.g., an empirical measure that very powerfully identifies who is divided over issues like climate change, guns, nuclear power, etc.

The same measure shows that those people, in the US at least, are not polarzied over GM foods. Or childhood vaccines. These are issues that some journalists & many casual observers assert generate polarization -- but I think they are actually confusing their own interest in these issues for that of the public.

I am conjecturing that formaldehyde risks would not culturally polarize the general public by this measure.

What measure are you relying on when you conclude otherwise? What evidence -- and of a sort that comes not just the collection of confirming observations but from the application of a test that reasonable people might agree would be expected to disconfirm the hypothesis if it is false?

June 2, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan, it appears a comment of mine disappeared.

June 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

@JFP:

I think my spam filter is conspiring w/ @Larry.

Does that make me a conspiracy theorist? I guess not, since I still think human CO2 emissions have caused temperatures to rise over last century & will over course of the next.

In any case, I've liberated your commment, which is very much on point!

June 2, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@NiV:

It's my move.

But to to help us converge on the rules:

We are identifying (a) interesting thinkers who were (I suppose "are" is also acceptable; we can include living people) (b) former Marxists.

To define (a), let's try: "Someone whose written reflections on the workings of human behavior, society, politics, or ideas are worthy of serious attention independently of anything else that individual did or said.

That should exclude Reagans, Thatchers, Obamas, Hitlers, Mussolinis, Trotskys etc.

For (b), let's try: "Someone who by his or her own admission was a 'Marxist' at one point but who had self-consciously renounced Marxism before composing the written reflections that satisfy (a)."

This actually excludes Orwell & Hayek. They both identified themselves as "socialists" or "social democrats" and not as "communists" or "Marxists." (I'm pretty sure, too, that Orwell didn't renounce socialism; he opposed totalitarianism of all varieties -- including Marxism -- but it is not convincing to treat "socialism" as "just baby Marxism" precisely b/c see that not all social democratic states are even remotely totalitarian, much less committed to the deeply anti-liberal metaphysics, as it were, of Marxism)

The point of the game, as I see it, is to see how attraction to Marxism as a comprehensive, intricate system of thought is connected to the thinking of non-Marxists who produced genuine insight.

I have played "Popper" and "Sydney Hook."

You say "Andre Gide ... Arthur Koestler ... Karl Wittfogel."

Those all seem like valid moves! I am familiar but not as much as I should be w/ Koestler; am completelty unfamiliar w/ Gide & Wittfogel -- but this is part of the value of the game, learning about some thinkers who it seems worthy to become familar with. It looks to me as if that will be difficult in my case for Gide; I take very little of his work is translted into English...

I play ...

Jon Elster.

Maybe it is interesting to say why one sees a move as worth playing?

In Elster's case, he reasoned himself out of Marxism by trying and failing to identify plausible "micro mechanisms" for Marx's account of "ideology" as a dynamic by which a particular form of social organization maintains itself (or, in his account of history, dissolves & is overtaken by a subsequent "stage" of social development) through its shaping influence on the minds of individuals. But in the course of doing that, Elster identified many psychologically realistic mechanisms that involved a reciprocal interaction between modes of social organization and modes of cognition. The result is an enriched account of social theory that avoids rational choice theory's dogmatic resistance to social influence as an important account of human benavior but that avoids the dreamy, undisciplined, pseudoscience quality of many alternatives, of which Marxism is only one....

And of course, the role of Marxism in Popper's famous explication of the distinction between science & pseudoscience is part of what makes his status as a recovered Marxist interesting.

June 2, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

It is likely a simplification too, but I would have thought that the proposition that the Affordable Care Act polarizes b/c citizens w/ different values are using their values to assess whether universal health care (or health insurance coverage) is an appropriate aim of govt policymaking. I know I am doing that; I know that Obama & Ron Paul are (or so it appears to me).

As you may or may not recall, I have difficulty with the “world view" and values causality explanation. The same ACA policy (the mandate) that some groups embraced earlier are now seen by the same groups as tyranny. You can’t be saying that Republicans en masse switched world views over the course of a decade. And even more so, it wouldn’t make sense to say that they shifted values en masse. IMO, the cause of the polarization isn’t the attributes of the mandate (that they oppose or support) so much as it is the associated cultural affinities. I think that I oppose government overreach or unjust regulation just as much as Ron Paul does. I don’t think his values are substantively different than mine in that regard - but because of our identifications we define government over-reach differently. We use a filter of “world views” (which has a circular loop back to pre-existing identifications) to translate like values into polarized views on a variety of issues. We do that to strengthen our sense of self and to differentiate ourselves from "the other."

But why do US citizens w/ "egalitarian communitarian" values (supporters of ACA) believe that human CO2 emissions are causing the temperature of earth to increase -- wheres US citizens w/ "hierarchical individualist" values (ACA opponents)do not? And why do they disagree about whether there is scientific consensus on whether deep geologic isolation safely contains nuclear wastes -- a proposition that not only is analytically unconnected to anyone's values but that also turns on evidence wholly unrelated to whatever evidence those who disagree about climate change dispute?

Because they are seeking to differentiate themselves from others and to strengthen their sense of identity. Look at the folks who come here to debate climate change and related issues. Most of us have overtly strong political and/or other ideological or philosophical identifications. Those identifications pre-dated, for the most part, our orientation in the climate debate or our views on nuclear waste. We have come to those issues with identities, and we are motivated to protect those identities as a fundamental attribute in how we approach the world. In fact, the very mechanisms of our reasoning (e.g., making sense of the world via a process of pattern recognition) have evolved in a way that reinforces confirmation bias.

You'll say "motivated reasoning." Yes, of course. Then tell me: why only some empirical matters of policy consequence & not others?

I think that in some ways, it is fairly random. But beyond that, people look at issues to find ways they can strengthen their sense of self-identity, and group identity. They twist issues towards that goal. They use feedback from their group identifications and recognizable signposts as they do that, but it isn’t the attributes of the issues themselves that predicts the polarization – it is the nature of human reasoning that does so. That is why we can so often find such overtly contradictory reasoning on any particular issue. One year the mandate = responsible behavior and the next year the mandate = tyranny. They might find signals in a particular issue that drive them in one direction or the other, but they are superficial signals - not signals that really speak to the intrinsic attributes of the issue. That is why we have such strong views on the science of climate change from so many people who don't understand the science.


If you genuinely think cultural cogniton isn't "picky," then you are exactly the person for whom I wrote this blog.

Well, maybe I should revisit my comment. It isn't that UI think there aren't taste preferences, but that I think there isn’t a particularly rational explanation behind the taste preferences – and I certainly question whether “world view” and values are causal.

You are excluding all the culturally "silent" risk issues that admit of scientific inquiry from the denominator.

I don’t think so. I think that what I’m questioning is whether those issues are causal. I am pondering questions related to direction of causality, and pondering questions related to moderation and mediation effects on casual mechanisms.

June 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua:

Good. Ponder on exactly those things. No one knows the answer, I'm convinced. But the answer is very likely among the large class of plausible conjectures that informed people have or are in a position to offer. We should collect all the candidates and set out to collect evidence that would help us to assess their relative probability of being true.

June 2, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Another related point, Dan. I think that the casual mechanism behind "Why issue A and not issue B" isn't one based on logic. The reasoning isn't "rational"-- in the sense that it doesn't stack up to objective logic.

It is only "rational" in the sense that people reason in ways that protect identity. The explanations (I think) are tribalism and emotion and group/cultural affinity and personal psychology. These human attributes and qualities cause us (some more than others) to project polarization onto issues that are not inherently polarizing Thus, looking to find a logical causal mechanism is important and useful, but maybe insufficient to explain causality.


Borrowing from what little I know about the world of psycho-analysis, I think of self-destructive behaviors that defy "rational" explanation. For example, why do I spend so much time writing comments on a blog when I have many pressing issues that I need to attend to? At the end of the day, I will feel more content later tonight if I address those other matters than if I write yet another blog comment. In one sense, my behavior is irrational. In another sense, their is some deep underlying mechanism at play that probably has it's own "rationality" whereby some need - probably a vestige from formative experiences - is being met. I cannot find a "rational" explanation for my blogging behavior unless I explore the primal forces at play. And with that - time to attend to those other matters.

June 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Richard Tol is continuing to help with communicating science ! Thanks to Dana and Cook for bringing their paper out to be reviewed ! It is a great help in communicating science.

JUN 2 Draft comment on 97% consensus paper ( 13 pages )
https://docs.google.com/file/d/0Bz17rNCpfuDNVnRMRE9nTnhXbXc/preview?pli=1

"The results thus depend on the quality of the volunteers. Are they neutral observers, or are they predisposed to endorsing or rejecting anthropogenic climate change? Did they suffer from fatigue after rating a certain number of abstracts? 12 volunteers rated on average 50 abstracts each, and another 12 volunteers rated an average of 1922 abstracts each. Fatigue may well have a problem. This level of effort by a volunteer could indicate a strong interest in the issue at hand."

"In fact, 34.6% of papers that should have been rated as neutral were in fact rated as non-neutral. Of those misrated papers, 99.4% were rated as endorsements. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the volunteers were not neutral, but tended to find endorsements where there were none. Because rater IDs were not reported, it is not possible to say whether all volunteers are somewhat biased or a few were very biased."

a post from WUWT is also on point. While not proof of bias, some things are Just naturally suspicious, "like a trout in the milk."

"How’s this for a measure of the bias. 12 were given 50 abstracts each and 12 were given 1922 abstracts each to evaluate. The point that anyone who happily accepts 1922 tasks has to be biased zealot is supported by the arithmetic: (1922-50)/1922 = 0.974, or 97%!!! The zealots were given the abstracts that could possibly be interpreted as pro AGW and instructed to do so, and the others were given abstracts that didn’t mention “global warming” per se."

June 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

"but it is not convincing to treat "socialism" as "just baby Marxism" precisely b/c see that not all social democratic states are even remotely totalitarian, much less committed to the deeply anti-liberal metaphysics, as it were, of Marxism"

On the contrary. I think socialists are about as totalitarian as they are allowed to get away with. And socialism - while it is certainly not the intention of most of those who follow it - is necessarily anti-liberal as a practical matter. It doesn't work otherwise. You've read Hayek's 'Road to Serfdom' I assume?

The revolutionary Marxists thought the only way to bring it about was by force. The reformist Marxists thought the only way to bring it about was gradually, by a war of ideas and values, and within the existing democratic political systems. The revolutionary form worked faster, but both have the same end in mind.

"The point of the game, as I see it, is to see how attraction to Marxism as a comprehensive, intricate system of thought is connected to the thinking of non-Marxists who produced genuine insight."

I tend to regard Marxism as akin to post-modernism. It's simply wrong, but is wrapped up in so much insider jargon and pseudointellectual drivel that it's hard for outsiders to tell - which is how Marxist academics keep their jobs.

I think Orwell explained the intellectual's attraction to Marxism quite well, as he wrote in his review of James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution:

"It was only after the Soviet régime became unmistakably totalitarian that English intellectuals, in large numbers, began to show an interest in it. Burnham, although the English russophile intelligentsia would repudiate him, is really voicing their secret wish: the wish to destroy the old, equalitarian version of Socialism and usher in a hierarchical society where the intellectual can at last get his hands on the whip."

It's a rather uncompromisingly partisan view on my part, I admit. But considering what communism did during the 20th century, I don't think I'm going too far over the top.

A lot of people just bought the advertising, of course. Or had no choice, living where they did. Those are the ones who tend to convert.

"...but that avoids the dreamy, undisciplined, pseudoscience quality of many alternatives, of which Marxism is only one"

Indeed. But one could argue that using one of the other pseudosciences might have been less culturally toxic. A lot of people still like socialism. :-)

June 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@Larry, @Joshua, @JPS @Rob & @Gaythia:

Thanks for the feedback on the post. I used it to adjust various parameters in the model I use to forecast likely audience reactions to talks -- & now am better prepared for on at the NAS tomorrow in DC. Will send you a blog "postcard" when done.

June 2, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>