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Science literacy & cultural polarization: it doesn't happen *just* with global warming, but it also doesn't happen for *all* risks. Why?

In one CCP study, we found that cultural polarization over climate change is magnified by science literacy (numeracy, too). That is, as culturally diverse members (but perfectly ordinary, and not particularly partisan) members of the public become more science literate, they don't converge on the dangers that global warming poses but rather grow even more divided.

Not what you'd expect if you thought that the source of the climate change controversy was a deficit in the public's ability to comprehend science.

But the culturally polarizing effect of science literacy isn't actually that unusual.  It's definitely not the case that all risk issues generate cultural polarization. But among those that do, division is often most intense among members of the public who are the most knowledgeable about science in general.

Actually, in the paper in which we reported the culturally polarizing effect of science literacy with respect to perceptions of climate change risks, we also reported data that showed the same phenomenon occurring with respect to perceptions of nuclear power risks.

Well, here are some more data that help to illustrate the relationship between science literacy and cultural polarization.  They come from a survey of a nationally representative sample of 2000 persons conducted in May and June of this year (that's right--even more fresh data! Mmmmmm mmmm!)

These figures illustrate how public perceptions of different risks vary in relation to science literacy. Risk perceptions were measured with the "industrial strength measure." Science literacy was assessed with the National Science Foundation's "Science Indicators," a battery of questions commonly used to measure general factual and conceptual knowledge about science. 

For each risk, I plotted (using a locally weighted regression smoother, a great device for conveying the profile of the raw data) the relationship between risk perception and science literacy for the sample as a whole (the dashed grey line) and the relationships between them for the cultural groups (whose members are identified based on their scores in relations to the means on the hierarchy-egalitarian and individualist-communitarian worldview scales) that are most polarized on the indicated risk

The upper-left panel essentially reproduces the pattern we observed and reported on in our Nature Climate Change study. Overall, science literacy has essentially impact on climate-change risk perceptions. But among egalitarian communitarians and hierarch individualists--the cultural groups who tend to agree most strongly on environmental and technological risks--science literacy has off-setting effects with respect to climate change and fracking: it makes egalitarian communitarians credit assertions of risk more, and hierarchical individualists less.

The same basic story applies to the bottom two panels. Those ones look at legalization of marijuana and legalization of prostitution, "social deviancy risks" of the sort that tend to divide hierarchical communitarians and egalitarian individualists.

Neither the level of concern nor the degree of cultural polarization is as intense as those associated with global warming and fracking. But the intensity of cultural disagreement does intensify with increasing science literacy (it seems to abate for legalization of prostitution among those highest in science litercy, although the appearance of convergence would have to be statistically interrogated before one could conclude that it is genuine).

What to make of this? Well, again, one interpretation --one supported by the study of cultural cognition generally--is that the source of cultural polarization over risk isn't plausibly attributed to a deficit in the public's knowledge or ability to comprehend science. 

Instead, it's caused by antagonistic cultural meanings that become attached to particular risks (and related facts), converting them into badges of membership in and loyalty to important affinity groups.

When that happens, the stake individuals have in maintaining their standing in their group will tend to dominate the stake they have in forming "accurate" understandings of the scientific evidence: mistakes on the latter won't increase their or anyone else's level of risk (ordinary individual's opinions are not of sufficient consequence to incrase or diminish the effects of climate change, etc); whereas being out of line with one's group can have huge, and hugely negative, consequences for people socially.

Ordinary individuals will thus attend to information about the risks in question (including, e.g., the position of "expert" scientists) in patterns that enable them to persist in the holding beliefs congruent with their cultural identities.  Individuals who enjoy a higher than average capacity to understand such information won't be immune to this effect; on the contrary, they will use their higher levels of knowledge and analytic skills to ferret out identity-supportive bits of information and defend them from attack, and thus form perceptions of risk that are even more reliably aligned with those that are characteristic of their groups.

That was the argument we made about climate change and science comprehension in our Nature Nanotechnology study.  And I think it generalizes to other culturally contested risks.

But not all socieal risks are contested. The number that are characterized by culturally antagonistic meaning is, as I've stressed before, quite small in relation to the number that generate intense cleavages of the sort that characterize climate change, nuclear power, gun control, the HPV vaccine, and (apparently now) fracking.

With respect to those issues, we shouldn't expect to see polarization generally. Nor should we expect to see it among those culturally diverse individuals who are highest in science literacy or in other qualities that reflect a higher capacity to comprehend quantitative information.

On the contrary, we should expect such individuals to be even more likely to be converging on the best scientific evidence.  They might be better able to understand such evidence themselves than people whose comprehension of science is more modest. 

But more realistically, I'd say, the reason to expect more convergence among the most science literate, most numerate, and most cognitively reflective citizens is that they are more reliably able to discern who knows what about what. 

The amount of decision-relevant science that it is valuable for citizens to make use of in their lives far exceeds the amount that they could hope to form a meaningful understanding of. Their ability to make use of such information, then, depends on the ability of people to recognize who knows what about what (even scientists need to be able to employ this form of perception and recognition for them to engage in collaborative production of knowledge within their fields).

Ordinary individuals--ones without advanced degrees in science etc. -- are ordinarily able to recognize who knows what about what without difficulty, but one would expect that those who have a refined capacity to comprehend scientific information would likely do even better.

It's the degrading or disrupting effect on this recognition capacity on citizens of ordinary and extraordinary science comprehension capacities that makes risks suffused with antagonistic meanings a source of persistent cultural dispute.

Okay, all of that is a matter of surmise and conjecture.  How about some data on the impact of science literacy on less polarizing issues.

I have to admit that I'm not as systematic as I should be -- as I think it is important for all who are studying the "science communication problem" to be -- in studying "ordinary," "boring," nonpolarizing risks.  

But consider this:

Here we see the impact of science literacy, generally and with respect to the cutural groiups (this time egalitarian communitarians and hierarch individualists) who are most "divided," on GM foods and childhood vaccination.

In fact, the division is exceedingly modest.  I think, in fact, to characterize the levels of disagreement seen here as reflecting "cultural polarization" would be extravagant.  As I've emphasized before, I see little evidence -- as opposed to casual assertions by commentators who I think should be more careful not to confuse agitation among subsegments of the population who are disposed to dramatic, noisy gestures but who are actually very small and quite remote from the attention of the ordinary, nonpolitical member of the public--that these are culturally polarizing issues in the U.S., at least for the time being.

Moreover,with respect to both issues, science literacy tends in general and among the cultural groups whose members are modestly divided to reduce concern about risk (again, a little "blip" like the one at the extreme science-literacy end of "egalitarian communitarians" in the fracking graph is almost certainly just noise-- statistically speaking; if we could find the one or two responsible survey respondents, they might in fact be unrepresentatively noisy on this issue).

That's not "smoking gun" evidence that science literacy tends to improve the public's use of decision-relevant science on societal risks for nonpolarizing issues.

For that, it would be useful to have more evidence of public opinion, on risks that provoke even less division and on which the evidence is very very clear (it is on vaccines; I am inclined, too, to believe that the evidence on GM foods suggests they pose exceedingly little risk and in fact offset myriad others, from ones associated with malnutrition to crop failure induced by climate-- but I feel I know less here than I do about vaccines and am less confident).

But the "picture" of how science literacy influences public opinion vaccines and GM foods-- two risk issues that aren't genuinely culturally polarizing -- is strikingly different from the one we see when we look at issues like climate change, or nuclear power, or fracking, where the toxic fog of antagonistic meanings clearly does impede ordinary citizens' ability to see who knows what about what.

Science comprehension -- knowledge of important scientific information but even more important the habits of mind that make it possible to know things in the way science knows them -- is intrinsically valuable. Even if this capacity in citizens didn't make them better consumers of decision-relevant science, a good society would dedicate itself to propagating it as widely as possible in its citizens because in fact the ability to think is a primary human good.

But who could possibly doubt that science comprehension -- the greatest amount of it, dispersed as widely as possible among the populace -- wouldn't make it more likely that the value of decision-relevant science would be realized by ordinary people in their lives as individuals and as citizens of a democracy?  I certainly wouldn't question that!

The polarizing effect of science literacy on culturally contested issues like climate change is not evidence that popular science comprehension lacks value.

On the contrary, it is merely additional evidence of how damaging a polluted science-communication environment is for the welfare of the diverse citizenry of the Liberal Republic of Science.

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Reader Comments (46)

Dan -

Looking at this:

"That is, as culturally diverse members (but perfectly ordinary, and not particularly partisan) members of the public become more science literate, they don't converge on the dangers that global warming poses but rather grow even more divided."

and this:

"Well one interpretation --one supported by the study of cultural cognition generally--is that the source of cultural polarization over risk isn't plausibly attributed to a deficit the public's knowledge or ability to comprehend science. "

I wonder about direction of causality and conflating two phenomena when looking at the association between scientific literacy and/or numeracy and attitudes towards global warming or other risks.

(1) When you say "...members of the public become more science literate...." it could (but not necessarily) suggest that you are describing a trend among individuals longitudinally. But as far as I know, you don't have those data.

My feeling is that people who are more inclined to be polarized on these issues are more inclined to pursue scientific knowledge - perhaps dispositionally, but more likely (not to imply mutual exclusivity) because they are more "motivated" to pursue knowledge that will strengthen their identifications. So that would mean that an individual inclined to be polarized becomes more scientifically literate/numerate - more so than the other way around (I'm not suggesting mutual exclusivity).

As I recall, you do have data that measure attitudes as people are given more information on climate change - but that wouldn't be exactly the same as measuring change as people become more scientifically literate (or numerate).

(2) Knowledge level and ability to comprehend information are two different attributes. When you say "..":the source of cultural polarization over risk isn't plausibly attributed to a deficit the public's knowledge or ability to comprehend science. ..." how are you distinguishing between those two attributes?

June 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"Here we see the impact of science literacy, generally and with respect to the cutural groiups (this time egalitarian communitarians and hierarch individualists) who are most "divided," on GM foods and childhood vaccination."

For your consideration: Go over to Keith Kloor's blog. In the comments you will see the thoughts of quite a number of readers who are highly educated about GMOs. You will also see that the comments reflect a very high level of polarization.

I would argue that like with climate change, the degree of polarization among folks inclined (dispositionally or because of "abilities") to be knowledgeable about the subject are also more likely to have a highly "tribal" viewpoint. What is the direction of causality?

June 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Really interesting post. It will take a while to understand it enough to have well formulated thoughts.
A few questions.
Are the risk perception axes and the scientific literacy axes correlated so that people with higher scientific literacy rate the same quantitative risk higher and lower than do those who are less literate? If so, some of the results may be an expression of the correlation of the axes and the fact that people have different attachments to different issues.
Also, what are the positive and negative controls for these data and graphs?

June 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield


1. The "main effect" of science literacy for each issue --the sample wide effect -- is the dashed grey line in each graph. So the correlation between science literacy & risk perception is reflected by the slope of that line (although if we calcluarted a correlation, we'd necessarily be treatintg the relationship between the two characteristics as linear-- which might or might not be a sensible way to model things). For climate change, it is more or less flat. But that's misleading b/c as you can see, for one part of the population, science literacy increases perception of risk & for other it decreases it. So correlations would be positive for one group & negative for other.

2. The lowess line is sort of the profile of a scatterplot. I thought of posting scatterplots but w/ 2,000 observations, you mainly just see blobs. If you had a scatterplot from which you'd be able to *see* whether the dots become more concentrated vertically -- w/ respect to the risk-perception y-axis -- as you move horizontally along the science literacy y-axis. The lowess line basically tells you what you'd be seeing -- the direction & slope of the changes in concentration.

3. From what I've said, it is pretty easy to infer the answers to your questions. W/ respect to most of the risks here, the "overall" influence of science literacy is negligible, largely b/c it has off-setting effects on different groups. W/ respect to legailzation of marijuana & ;legiazation of prositutiton, however, there is definitely an effect toward perception of less risk that is independent of culture (actually, I'd have to show you a regresson to demonstrate that since the 2 cultural groups I've plotted are only 50% of the population-- but it is the case that independently of culture, science literacy has negative effect on those particular risks).

4. I haven't said here, & it wouldn't affect the graphs or interpretation of them, but care to guess whehtehr science literacy is correlated with cultural outlooks? Do you have a hunch one group is "more" science literate than the others? Forget about "controlling" for other things -- like education, wealth, gender, etc. People come in packages; "egalitarian communitarians" & "hierarch individualistis" & "hierarch communitarians" & "egalitarian individualists" just are who they are -- and if they are more of one gender or race or income bracket than the other, that's that. And am not asking or implying anything about what *causes* science literacy -- culture, other things, combinations (obviously many things, of course). Just asking: do you hypothesize one group is more scidence literate or another less than others? Whcih? & why do you think so? :)

June 13, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

OK, I did not state my question clearly enough.
Do the numbers on the perceived risk axis have different meaning as a function of scientific literacy so that there should be different risk axes for each level of scientific literacy. For example, I may state climate change as high risk while someone with less scientific literacy than I have will call climate change medium risk, but, if asked carefully, we both mean the same thing.
It is not clear to me whether the risk axis should actually change as a function of scientific literacy.

R=f(SL) ; for instance R=2*SL

If the axes are connected in this way, then some of the results are expected by incorrect renormalization of the risk as a function of SL.

If you want my comment on positive and negative controls expanded, let me know.

June 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield


Damn. I thought the question as I read it was just fine. But this one is really really really hard.

The easy answer would be: "well, if people of high scientific literacy do understand items like this to mean something different from what low science literacy ones do -- or mean to convey something systmatically different from what low-science literacy ones mean to convey when selecting particular responses to such items -- than it remains the case that those high in science literacy are polarizing, not converging, on issues like climate change & fracking etc."

But that is way way way way too easy a way to answer a question as hard as yours.

Your questions go to the core validity questions that have to be addressed in formulating & construing opinion & like attitudinal measures.

No sorts of inferences can be drawn from any response to a survey question unless we can be confident about what it means to the rspts and what particular responses signify. Among the problems then:

1. Items might mean something different from what the resercher intends.

I ask: "Do yo approve of the the NSA's policy of monitoring the metadata of digital communications to fight terrorism?"

I think the question means what it says (which is obviously not helpful! obviously naive, in fact!) & am hoping to make an inference about what the "public" thinks of the policy the details of which have now been leaked.

Most rspts have never heard of the NSA, know what "meta-" anyting is, or any details relating to the leaked policy (including that it was leaked). The question means lots of inconsinstent things to those who answer it but is correlated, very weakly, with whether they are Republicans and whether they think it was a good idea to invad Iraq.

Still, I report the poll findings as if people were answering the question in the way I understood it -- and many people who hear about the poll (most; b/c those who hear about the poll are part of the small minority who know about the leak) mistakenly think that the poll suggests 1 in 2 people they encounter is likely to think the NSA's policy is a good one.

2. Items might mean different things to different samples (your point).

I ask, "Did OJ kill his wife, do you think?" I think it means -- and what I want to know if people believe is -- did OJ kill kill his wife or did someone else possibly or likely do it?

Whites (or most of them) answer the question understanding it to mean what I said.

Many African Americans answer it meaning the same thing, but a reasonably good proportion if them understand it to mean, "Do you think the U.S. criminal justice system is legitimate? That an African American accused of murder is as likely to get a fair trial as a white person accused of murder? & that all the people who are so consumed with the OJ case and eager to see him convicted give a shit about the unfairness of the justiice system?"

I report that 75% of whites but only 20% of African Americans think OJ is guilty. Whites, who think everyone understood the question they way they did, think a substantial proportion of African Americans are very stupid.

If you like, substitute for "Did OJ kill his wife, do you think?" the question "Was Obama born in the US, do you think?" Democrats think it means "was Obama delivered from the womb of his mother in Hawaii" or some other place in the US. Some Republicans think that's what it means -- or answer that question when asked. But a good pct of them think it means (or answer it as if it meant) "Do you think Obama is a good president, as good as those who really like him think, and are you planning to vote to re-elect him?"

Democrats think the 30% of Republicans who say "no" are answering the same question they did & therefore are real idiots.

3. Items might mean to rspts what the researcher intends but the rsponses might not signify what the research thinks.

A Democratic pollster asks southern voters if they support various forms of gun control and finds that a majority do. They really do support such things -- if they were voting on them in a referendum, they'd vote "yes."

So he tells a Democratic Presidential candidate that he should make gun control part of his platform -- it won't hurt him at all in the South.

The Presidential candidate campaigns in southern states, emphasizing that he is for gun control. By a decisive margin, voters decide on that basis to vote for the Republican -- who is against gun control. Why? Because those voters (a majority of whom support various forms of gun control) see advocacy of gun control as a sign that a politician holds a constellation of values hostile to theirs. Hell, they'd have told the (genuinely obtuse) pollster that if only he'd asked! (What should we think of the Presidential candidate's own grasp of what positions on issues mean, btw?...)

So you ask me-- how do I know the question *means* the same thing for subjects of varying levels of scientific literacy?

I say, hell, how do I know they mean *anything* to *anyone*? Or that they don't meant systematically different things to people of all sorts --not just ones who differ in science literacy? And besides, even if they mean the "same" thing to "everyone" (or enough people to make the responses to whom they mean something else just ignorable noise), why do I think they signify what I think they do -- people's perceptions of risk?

These questions all go the validity of survey questions as a form of opinion research (including research that invovles experiments that focus on people's believes, attitudes, etc.).

All of this is just the introduction to the answer to your question!

Which I will answer. But not now.

I'm not going to answer now b/c I want to make you --and everyone else who consumes work of the sort I'm trying to do & who might be reading this-- feel anxious for a spell.

Look at these hard hard questoins! If you've been relying on studies of the sort I do w/o thinking about these questions and w/o reason to believe that those who do such work have good answers, then right now you should be feeling quite worried! Have I been taking in a load of complete nonsense?

I want you to feel that. I want you to feel it b/c if you don't, then lots of people w/o good answers but w/ lots of data on public opinion will confuse the shit out of you.

I think many reasearchers have good answers -- ones that have been worked out by scholars who have themselves been consumed w/ worry about the validity quesiton. Obviously, I think I have good answers to these questions -- ones that reflect my effort to exploit the knowledge of those who have thought long & hard about validity in psychometrtics, and that reflect too my own effort to try to assess what sorts of observations genuinely support inferences about what relating to people's beliefs, attitudes & the like.

But unless you get the validity issue, and are made sick w/ worry about it, then the likelihod that you'll get the benefits of being informed by researchers whose methods are valid is small. It's small b/c there are way way too many people (scholarly researchers as well as opinion pollsters) collecting and reporting data on people's attitudes and opinions whose work reflects invalid understandings of what survey items *mean*. If you don't worry about validity, the likelihood you'll credit their information rather than that of someone whose methods *are* valid is too high.

So worry for a while about the validity of my items! The risk that my leaving in you suspense means you'll decide not to give an once of weight to anyting I've said, or even decide to stop listening to me forever, in interval before I get around to writing a blog about the validity of these items -- about what I think they mean, what evidence I have that they mean that to the study subjects, and what sorts of signficance the responses have (all keys to what sorts of inferences can be drawn from observations of this sort)-- is an unpleasent prospct for me, sure. But that risk is smaller in significance to me than the risk that a curious and reflective person like you would fail to acquire the persitent anxiety about validity you should have in order to reliably figure out what kinds of research will actually make you smarter rather than just plain confused!

June 13, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38


On 2d post (am workign backwards here), the commentators on Kloor's site -- you agree, don't you, that they are a "biased" sample -- not in any cogntive sense (necessarily) but in an observational one. By finding his blog & bing moved to comment in response to what he says, they are revealing themselves to be much more interested in this topic than ordinary members of the public. Not surprising they are well informed -- or at least well armed w/ arguments, etc. -- as well as opinionated. But we can't draw inferences from them to the public. We would have to grab members of the public & make them talk to us in order to figure out whether GM foods are culturally polarizing etc

June 13, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


On 1st post (I am moving quickly in my backwards direction):

Point 1: Yes, you are right. I have no basis for saying that as individuals "become more science literate" over tiime, those particular individuals become more polarized. I meant "become more" as in "as we focus our obsevation on progressively more science literate members of the public." It would be interesting to do a study that not only assesses whether the disposition to form tighter-fit between perceptions of risk and cultural identity increases at individual level as individuals become more science literate over time. Such a study would be even better if there were an element of random assignment: one could teach statistics or methods of causal inferne etc to subjects & then see whether, 6 mos later, then had become more partisan.

Point 2: W/ 'science comprhension" I am reaching -- maybe fumbling -- for a termm broader than mere "scientific literacy." To me, scientific literacy to me conveys inventories of random bits of factual knowledge, which I think is less intersting, less valuable, than a variety of other dispositions, apptitudes & abilities relating to good reasoning, including scientific reasoning (assuming the two should be distinguished at all; "on good "authority," I'd say they shouldn't be).

In the Nature Climate Change study, we formed a "science comprehension" scale by aggregating science literacy (from the NSF indicators) and numeracy. Numeracy is nice b/c it not only taps into mathetmatical proficiency but also apptitudes related to valid inference & even affective dispositions that are involved in making sense of quantitative information. So on that study, we were showing more than that inventories of random bits of knowledge are associated with polarization.

There is also the Cognitive Reflection Test. It is supposed to measure the dispositin to use conscious, deliberative thought ("system 2" in Kahneman's frameowkr) as opposed to unconscious, heuristic modes of information processing ("system 1"). Indeed, it is a very powerful predictor of the tendency to avoid falling prey to the various cognitive biases associated with "system 1." I've done one experiment that shows that higher CRT is also associated with greater vulnerability to ideologically motivated reasoning.

But none of these measures is perfect either. We need something better -- something that measures in as valid and reliable a way as possible something like Baron's construct of Actively Open-minded Thinking. I think Baron himself & others are making progress toward that.

For now, I am trying to make do by using various forms of measures, all of which I'm confident are getting a piece of what I am interested in. If they all are giving the same answer -- and they seem to be -- I feel I'm on solid ground, even if it woudl be better to have an even better map of what it is I'm standing on.

June 13, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


No "controls."

Just talking people "as they are." Over-controlling regression models risk telling us about phantoms. I intend to explain this in more detail at some point too (but have ranted a bit already about it.)

June 13, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Very enlightening responses. Thanks.
1. On validity I expect some of what you are said to be valid but in ways that I do not know yet and other parts to be less valid than either of us realized. I expect the less valid sections to be fixed. No worries.
2. On controls, in the part of science that I work in, experimental molecular biology, every experiment has a negative control, the result that the experiment would get if nothing is going on, and a positive control, a result that shows an effect and lets the researcher know that the experimental system is working correctly. The reason for these controls is to invalidate results in which something appeared to happen when, in actuality, the system was not working correctly (hence my question about connections between risk and scientific literacy scales) and the results do not mean what they appear to mean. A friend of mine, long ago, dubbed experiments without the proper positive and negative controls DEX experiments. DEX stands for Doesn't Explain Shit. I don't know what the proper controls might be for your surveys so it is hard to interpret the results.
3. As to proof from rational first principles, I am working on molecularly and genetically correct models of the brain. The models can be proven from first principles, but most people do not like the proof because it is millions of lines long. I am working to extend the model toward the kinds of phenomena that you observe. There seems to be a strong extension but rigorously proving that extension is about 30th on our to do list at the moment. So far the informal proofs, using the information from the people on this blog, suggest that we have not done anything obviously wrong. What we predict fits what you find to within experimental error.
Please keep up the great discussions.

June 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Dan -

"you agree, don't you, that they are a "biased" sample -- not in any cogntive sense (necessarily) but in an observational one. "

Yes, I agree - that sampling is, no doubt, influenced by selection bias.

"But we can't draw inferences from them to the public. "

Well, yes - but they may serve as a (selection-biased) sample of people who are particularly interested in the topic. Using that imperfect sample, I am trying to contrast two possibilities:

1) People who have a predisposition to be partisan (either because that is a personality trait or because they are heavily invested in a particular issue because they project it to be important to their identity formation) are more inclined to investigate an issue more in-depth. This would result in an association between "literacy" and polarization when tested.


2) There is something about people who are " literate" on an issue (looking beyond the definitional difficulties of the terminology of "literacy" - as you discussed in your other comment) that inclines them to be more polarized in their views. This, also, would result in an association between "literacy" and polarization when tested.

So, then, is there a causation behind the association and if so, what is the direction? Is it:

Literacy ==>> polarization, or
Polarization ==>> literacy.

After all, isn't the basic goal here to determine causality?

If I interpret your graphs correctly, they seem to suggest to me that (not surprisingly), there's probably some combination of both. In other words, there is a general pattern across the issues that the area between the "HI" and "CE" lines increases along with "literacy" -- suggesting that more literacy "causes" more polarization, but the rate that the area increases is not constant across issues - suggesting that issue-specific "motivation" causes people who are more literate to leverage their literacy to reinforce their polarization.

"Skeptics" and "realists" alike want to argue that their own high level of partisanship is a function of a greater familiarity with the science combined with an un-biased take on the science. Both groups want to argue that the disagreement from people on the other "side" with a high level of "literacy" is due to the fact that those on the other side are biased in their analysis.

My position is that both groups are ignoring what we know about how humans reason: there is a proclivity for biasing influences related to self-identity.

Motivated Reasoning (i.e., how humans reason when an issue becomes identify-relevant) ==>> polarization.

I think that in balance, it is a mistake to think that there is a causal relationship between literacy and polarization - but that the association we see is the result of an underlying causal mechanism whereby greater polarization is primarily a function of greater "motivation" (although literacy may have a mediating or moderating effect on the basic underlying mechanism of motivated reasoning).

June 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

It seems to me that attitudes towards subjects can't be evaluated without looking at the poiltical and economic forces that are driving certain policy positions and how those forces use their understanding of cultural cognative processes. Are political and economic operators reading copies of Dan Kahan's research papers in secret windowless back rooms? Did Dan Kahan steal his concepts from ALEC and the tobacco lobby?

I think that in the case of global climate change, we had significant blocks of voters who are intrinsically linked to the economic need for continued hydrocarbon use as fuel. A corn farmer driving back and forth in his air conditioned tractor with his ears locked into a talk radio show is an obvious target. These people were resistant to environmental concerns, particualarly as they impact their own operations, but happy to adopt ethanol standards which support corn prices. Meterologists served as effective science spokespersons to farmers regarding climate change skepticism. Farmers, of course, have great interest in the weather. This gave certain meteorologists who are denialists access to a national platform. I am most familiar wtih Colorado State University's Dr. William Gray, who has received a platform with the Heartland Institute. But there are other skeptics such as Geology Professor emeritus, Don Easterbrook, also a human global who was called upon to testify before the Washington State legislature by a right wing member of that body. When such scientists are given prominent positions in media outlets upon which certain groups rely, I don't think it is unreasonable for those members of the public to think that anthropogenic climate change is much less accepted by science than is actually the case. In an effort to refute Easterbrook's efforts, (and perhaps to save the reputation of their own department) the entire current membership of WWU's geology department signed a letter that was printed in the local newspaper:

But denial doesn' t last forever in the face of scientific evidence. I note with great interest the news that the National Center for Science Education conveyed to my e-mail in box this morning. The Kansas State School board, by a 8-2 vote, voted to support the Next Generation Science Standards, being only the second state to do so. Kansas, once nearly exclusively a dryland wheat state, is now one where corn growing with circle irrigation is quite prevalant. Debates on these standards have centered on the role that teaching about anthropogenic global climate change (and evolution) plays within them. It isn't just the state school board. Just last week, efforts to block the state school board from taking this voter was narrowly defeated in the state legislature:

June 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

BTW - Dan,

I am just now getting around to reading your discussion with Eric in this thread.

I love that you brought up the O.J. Simpson trial, because that trial was one of the main curricular components of a course I taught that focused on cultural/ethnic/national influence on views of criminality and justice - in other words, a course that attempted to get students to look at "motivated reasoning" from a meta-cognitive perspective. What a rich topic for addressing that subject (especially since I was teaching that course to classes comprised mostly of minority students attending an overwhelmingly white college)! The disparity in how whites and blacks viewed that trial is so striking.

Anyway, I have perhaps a slightly different take than you:

Many African Americans answer it meaning the same thing, but a reasonably good proportion if them understand it to mean, "Do you think the U.S. criminal justice system is legitimate? That an African American accused of murder is as likely to get a fair trial as a white person accused of murder? & that all the people who are so consumed with the OJ case and eager to see him convicted give a shit about the unfairness of the justiice system?"

Maybe my view is only differently nuanced, but my take is that there is also a component where whites look at the evidence against O.J. and find it unimpeachable, and that it is beyond their comprehension that the trial could be translated into O.J. being framed for the murder by a racist cop (Furman) or a racist judicial system. Blacks, on the other hand, find such a concept entirely plausible.

A related, and also fascinating issue was to examine perspectives on jury nullification as they related to the O.J. Simpson trial - which is maybe just another way of framing what you were getting at. Many whites think that the O.J. case represented a kind of jury nullification exercised by the black members of the jury - where they were manipulated by the defense to look at the case as a vehicle for rectifying past injustice - and where the black jurors intimated the white jurors to go along. And whites think that such a kind of jury nullification is invalid (and "racist") and thus when asked "Was O.J. guilty?" they may be kind of hearing the question "Isn't jury nullification fundamentally antithetical to our system of justice?" Blacks, on the other hand, may be hearing "If a group of people have systematically been restricted in their power to correct injustice against them, is there something wrong with them utilizing what power they do have help right past wrongs?"

The issue of jury nullification is a fascinating one for exploring the workings of motivated reasoning. Consider whether whites would be so outraged about jury nullification when it was used to release slaves who were "guilty" of the crime of running away from their slavery. If you're interested, you might read some of what Paul Butler has written on the topic of jury nullification in the black community.

June 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


There are lots of possible causlal explanations (including ones relating to "meaning" of risk items, the point Eric raises) between science literacy or other measures of systematic information processing, on 1 hand, and cultural polarization, on other. I think the one I propose - that the capacity for performing more complicated computatinal tasks is used opportunistically to fit perceptions of risk & like facts to group identity -- is the most plausible.

But the only way to figure out whether I'm right is to do experiments (or maybe some sort of observational test more clever than the one I am reporting here) that help to expose the causal influence.

The cognitive reflection, ideology & motivated reasoning experiment that I performed was aimed at getting at that, and supports the conjecture I offer.

And there's more where that came from. Stay tuned.

June 15, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38


It seems very plausible that interest groups representing blocks of actors with economic interests on one side or another will seek to shape opinion.

But it doesn't seem plausible at all to see the "economic interest" of ordinary individuals as explaining the patterns observed.

What any individual believs aboiut climate change has zero marginal impact on either the climate or climate policy. No ordinary individual matters enough to determine the response to climate change on his or her own. So how would it "hurt" the economic interest of the individual farmer you describe to believe in climate change?

Moreover, it would hurt the economic interets of you -- & of egalitqarian communitarians genreally -- in the U.S. for the U.S. to adopt carbon taxes and other aggressive policies aimed at mitigating carbon. The increased cost of energy & related rippling deadweight losses through the economy would be significant, and the benefit in terms of reduced climate change impacts would be zero in the near to immediate term and noticeable if only after most of those alive now are dead. That wouldn't give any individual any incentive to believe anything, for again, what any believes has zero impact (individuals don't matter enough on their own). But even if individuals formed beliefs "constent" with their "economic interest," we wouldn't see variance along cultural lines.

The "economic interest" story is a weak account of the striking patterns we see in perceptions of risk on climate change & other culturally contested issues.

June 16, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

I agree with your point to Gaythia related to the economic interests of the farmer...but...

Moreover, it would hurt the economic interets of you -- & of egalitqarian communitarians genreally -- in the U.S. for the U.S. to adopt carbon taxes and other aggressive policies aimed at mitigating carbon. The increased cost of energy & related rippling deadweight losses through the economy would be significant, and the benefit in terms of reduced climate change impacts would be zero in the near to immediate term and noticeable if only after most of those alive now are dead.

This strikes me as speculation stated as fact. There's nothing wrong with speculation - and indeed, there are economic analyses that support your speculation there....but where are your validated tests of your speculation?

I don't know that this is the forum for going into that debate fully - but i will just say that the type of counterfactual you lay out there demands a very high level of supporting evidence in the face if myriad, extremely complicated variables...such as the a variety of positive and negative externalities related to fossil fuel energy and the ways that carbon tax revenues might be invested to bring a net positive economic outcome.

June 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"I don't know that this is the forum for going into that debate fully - but i will just say that the type of counterfactual you lay out there demands a very high level of supporting evidence in the face if myriad, extremely complicated variables..."

Well, yes. That's what we say about climate catastrophe claims, as well.

I will therefore answer in the style of the usual suspects by invoking The Precautionary Principle. We don't have to present any evidence - all we have to do is make a plausible claim that decarbonisation might be an economic catastrophe, and thereby conclude that we should not proceed with it until you can prove otherwise.

I'm just joking, of course, but there's a serious underlying point here. There is a symmetry in principle between the two sides. Predictions of climate doom strike many people as "speculation stated as fact". The models are not validated, the uncertainties cannot be fully accounted for. But people argue we should act anyway, just in case. Those who argue against action admit there's no absolute proof that climate doom definitely won't strike, but the economic costs of acting are probably in the trillions of dollars, and therefore we should carry on as normal just in case.

How can two people use the same argument and come to opposite conclusions?

The difference seems to come down to how you see economic development: as the problem, or the solution. If you see technology, industry and capitalism as the root of all our problems (pollution, exploitation, etc.), then stopping it seems like a trivial cost, an advantage even. While the idea that there will be a price to pay for the benefits it gives us is very plausible. If you see technology, industry, and capitalism as the solution to all our problems, then it seems insane to stop it just at the point when we were going to deliver humanity from poverty and drudgery. While the idea that the claims of climate doom are dubious and exaggerated speculation seems all too plausible. We saw it before with the population scare of the 1970s, and (arguably) many others.

But you can't change somebody's mind about the benefits of industrial capitalism by talking about climate science, so the argument remains unresolved.

That's not to say that people are only talking up climate doom because of their political views (or vice versa). They mostly do believe it's true for logical, rational reasons. But the reasons they find depend on when and where they look. Things that seem 'obvious' - because it fits with what they already believe - they'll pass by without checking, or accept provisionally. Things that conflict with what they believe they'll check, and build a list of counter-arguments to. They believe for rational scientific reasons, but the selection of reasons they know or have easy access to is biased, and their judgements about their sufficiency depend on where they think the burden of proof lies. Is industrial capitalism guilty unless proven innocent, or innocent unless proven guilty?

I'm speculating, of course. But who isn't?

June 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

"The difference seems to come down to how you see economic development: as the problem, or the solution. "

Why do you suggest such a limited choice of viewpoints - two extreme viewpoints? Combine all the folks who hold either of those two viewpoints and you still have a small group.

...If you see technology, industry and capitalism as the root of all our problems... If you see technology, industry, and capitalism as the solution to all our problems,

My belief is that the root or the solution - to the extent that there is a the root or a the solution to at least many of our problems - it isn't economic development (or lack thereof) but political empowerment of a citizenry (or lack thereof).

But certainly even that isn't the solution to "all of our problems," and a lack thereof isn't the root of "all of our problems." Perhaps if we extend the language to the roots of many of the problems or solutions to many of the problems they would be (to borrow from Amartya Sen): political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security, (or the lack thereof).

June 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"Why do you suggest such a limited choice of viewpoints - two extreme viewpoints?"

Because that is the nature of "polarization".

But point taken. Please feel free to mentally insert all the necessary caveats, clarifications, and definitive distinctions into all my future statements. :-)

" it isn't economic development (or lack thereof) but political empowerment of a citizenry (or lack thereof)."

Hmm. I'm not quite sure what that means.

But as far as climate change mitigation goes, the citizenry is already fully empowered. They simply have to stop buying or using fossil fuels or anything made or delivered with them (or not). That, at least, is not a problem.

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


there's tons of evidence that that costs of puttting limits on fossil fuel use are large; I think the only serious questin is whether the benefits outweigh costs. I'll assume they do- & by large measure. Even then, it is orthodox, IPCC-approved climate science to point out that benefits would be enjoyed in future -- in terms of avoiding impacts that would be worse then.

I'm pretty sure on basis of *pure* self-interest on part of anyone who expects to live no more than, say, 50 more yrs, no one except those who might expect to have access to the revenue raised (how that will be allocated will be determined by mad vectoring of interest group politics) in carbon tax, say, in US (whether those who will be alive longer should is more open to debate).

My point isn't that US sholdn't adopt such a policy.

It is that it is really implausible that economic interest explains differences in individual beliefs.

and that's on top of indisputable point that what an individual believes has no impact on whether we will adopt a carbon tax or on anything else relating to climate.

So as good as it "sounds," "economic interest" explanations of climate change conflict in general public distintigrate as soon as one starts to take them even the slightest bit seriously.

I propose we not take them seriously-- not only b/c they are wrong but b/c the longer we spend time on them, the less time we have to have serious discussions about what the real source of the conflict is and what might be done to neutralize them.

June 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Two things--a question and a request or two

Does it make sense to think that there are only five or six scientific issues that can be viewed as controversial at a time, that these controversies are chosen pseudorandomly from among the thousands of possible controversies, and that these six persist until the public grows bored with them and articles about these controversies no longer attract viewership or readership or until a new controversy du jour arises? If this view of the role of controversies is correct, then giving more information and the form of giving more information may not decrease the controversy or the polarization because information or lack of it is not the force that keeps the controversy controversial in the first place.

I am attempting to apply the lessons about cultural cognition that I learned here. I am attempting to apply them at a small scale, 20 people in a room. Yesterday's attempted application was with respect to the Shroud of Turin. The Shroud is a 4 by 14 foot piece of linen with many bits of information on it. The most dramatic of these bits is the faint image of a man who has apparently been crucified and then buried in the style of Jewish burials of the early years CE. With these people, I am trying to convey the scientific facts that are known about the object and make a list of facts that could be learned with modern techniques. I decided to start the discussion in an illuminating place. I gave out pieces of paper and had each person pick one or more crayons from a box. I asked them to draw what they considered to be important about the Shroud. The exercise took a few minutes. I told them not to worry about accuracy and that they did not have to share what they drew. I just asked them to draw what was important. Then we talked about what people had drawn and how the known science might impact what they would draw in the future. I was trying to bring into focus the cultural beliefs that we bring to an object or a topic, but bring these beliefs to light before I presented the science so that each person could see what constraints they had before they saw the scientific facts. Does anyone think that this approach is a good one? Since I have to continue the discussion next week, does anyone have suggestions on how to do things better? Thanks.

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

"It is that it is really implausible that economic interest explains differences in individual beliefs."

Agreed. Is it plausible that beliefs about economic interest could explain differences?

A lot of people don't understand economics, (including some people who arguably should, being in charge of major world economies and so forth). If people believe that climate change will result in a personal economic (or more physical) impact for them, would they not then be personally concerned? If someone told them that within the next 50 years that the seas could rise 6 metres ( or 100 metres), or that the US could become a desert of rolling sand dunes, that there would be millions of climate refugees, or that the world will be hit by non-stop hurricanes and tornadoes and floods and droughts, or that all the crops would stop growing and we'd have to resort to cannibalism, and they trusted them because they were famous as a climate change expert, would it not be perfectly reasonable and rational to see it as in their personal economic interest?

After all, I presume that's why the climate pundits tell people such things.

Of course, then the problem becomes trying to explain why some people believe and some don't. But my point is that the actual facts of the matter about whether they have any personal stake don't necessarily have any bearing on whether people are doing it for economic reasons. Perceptions about economics are culturally differentiated, too.

It's also possible that people believe they have an indirect positive economic stake in some of the changes that society would have to make to tackle climate change, whether it happens or not. There's a lot of talk of "green jobs", for instance. And there are subsidies, wealth transfers, technology transfers, exporting of emissions, "climate justice", ... While one would hope that these aren't the only reason for climate concern, as the cynics would have it, they are, perhaps, factors that people would weigh in the balance. And again, some cultural predispositions take a different view to redistributive regulation to others.

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

The experimentally determined discount rate for bad events occurring more than about 5 years in the future is approximately 100%. So people do not pay attention.

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Dan -
IMO - it is extremely difficult to quantify the positive and negative externalities that play into a short-term cost/benefit analysis.

I am skeptical about strong assertions where such externalities are not carefully quantified. As examples:

What is the economic benefit of making carbon emissions more expensive relative to other energy sources and thereby reducing the enormous costs associated with the health impact of particulates released from burning fossil fuels? What are the economic benefits from using funds derived from carbon taxation to create built environment strategies that target energy conservation and reduced emissions, or to build public transportation infrastructure that reduces urban sprawl, reduces time spent commuting, reduces traffic fatalities and their associated costs? What would be the economic benefits realized by not needing to account for the massive geopolitical costs associated with keeping oil flowing? How do we know what economic benefits might be derived from spending on energy-related innovation?

And on the other hand, how do we quantify the benefits of access to cheap energy (or in other words, the potential costs in terms of accessibility if fossil fuel energy is made more expensive)?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but it seems to me that without answers to those questions, assertions about the economic impact of policies focused on mitigation should be using the syntax of speculation, and viewed within a framework of probabilities and “precaution,” and not statements of fact. In fact, I think that when such conflation of speculation and fact occur, it is a tell for motivated reasoning.

Many of those engaged in this debate frame their arguments in terms of economic benefit. And there are various levels of benefit that are discussed: at the individual level, at the national level, and at the global level.

Where (I think) I agree with you is that outside of a relatively small number of people who are in line to directly benefit one way or the other (say, executives for fossil fuel companies or solar energy companies), few people will see a clear, direct-line economic benefit from policies aimed at mitigation within, say, a 50-year window. Many people on both sides argue that individual economic benefit/loss a significant driver behind climate change conflict (for example, all “skepticism” is because of big oil self-interest, or all “realism” is because of academics trying to line their pockets with funding for their research), and indeed, I do think that a lot of people do frame their perspective based on their impression about their own, individual economic self-interest. But what lies behind those determinations of economic self-interest is, IMO, most often a rationale built on a foundation of cultural cognition. So while a farmer may have an opinion about mitigation policies one way or other based on a belief about his/her individual economic benefit/loss, I will condescendingly say that his/her cost/benefit analysis is not likely a thorough one, or at least one that is biased by cultural, political, psychological, personal, ideological, or other similar identifications. (To borrow from another frame, when people act out of a perception of self-interest, we can argue about the veracity of their perceptions, ala “What’s the Matter with Kanasas” or the economic studies that show that often people do not act in ways that “maximize utility”.) So maybe we are in agreement when looking at the individual level?

Where I think I disagree with you is whether there is a clear conclusion to be drawn with respect to economic benefit/loss - even in as short a time frame as a 50-year time frame - on a national level, and even more so at a global level – because I have not seen economic analysis that really does a thorough job of accounting for positive/negative externalities such as those I described above. For example, given the % of our GDP that is spent on health care, what would the economic cost/benefit be of immediately making drastic reduction in emissions of particulate matter? (And, actually, I think it is questionable as to how might any such national-level benefits translate down at the individual level by virtue of reducing our healthcare costs to our society - even if relatively few people are basing their views on climate change on such an indirect path to determioning individual economic cost/benefit)

Let me be clear that I am not saying that I think is likely clear evidence of economic benefit within a 50-year window from the impact on climate, per se, of mitigation policies aimed at ACO2 emissions. Although even their I see far more confidence, on both sides of the fence, than what is justified by the science, IMO.

Even at the level of adaptation – where perspectives are likely to be more validly based on a clear and more proximate perspective on relatively short-term economic self-interest, I think that many people’s perspectives are influenced by biases rooted in cultural cognition. Conflict over resilience-based infrastructure initiatives, funded by taxation, are certainly not free from biases rooted in cultural, political, personal, etc. identifications.

I was trying to squeeze a coherent perspective on a very complex discussion into a not completely unreasonably long post. I fear I may have failed in both respects (coherency and concision).. but what else is new?

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I see that at I was typing my last comment, NiV made some similar points w/r/t beliefs about economic self interest.

Now given my motivations if I had known he was going to write something like that, I would have re-framed my arguments to lead to a different conclusion. But it's too late now! :-)

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Thanks for the long post. You stated nicely many of the concerns that I have.
I am a numbers guy. Every day, I hear people talking about the economic benefits of this and that. The people never have any numbers to support their view. Often they do not know what an externality is much less how to value one.
I ask these people for pro formas, with error bars, in support of their argument. I have never gotten a pro forma back.
I wish that there were spreadsheets, that we could trade back and forth and play with, so that we could talk more coherently in quantitative terms and less often in emotion and value laden poorly defined terms. My hope is that, once the numbers started to appear and be agreed upon, we could have more productive conversations, especially if we realize that one person's 'really big change' and another's decrease actually take us to the same physical dollar value.
Just my $0.02.

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Dan, with regards to "But it doesn't seem plausible at all to see the "economic interest" of ordinary individuals as explaining the patterns observed. "

I think that denialism has a strong psychological component. Certainly the "merchants of doubt" tobacco lobbyists plugged into this. It was easy for a smoker to reject the science, particularly when the "merchants" were supplying them with easy rationales for doing so. Far harder to accept that they may have already significantly increased the likelihood that they were going to die of lung cancer. Even though it is in the smokers best interest both economically and health-wise to accept the science and change as rapidly as they can.

I think that the same is true of farmers. They are not only financially invested in their current agriculture, they have a high emotional investment in their farm. Generally, the farm came from their parents and is something they plan or hope to pass on to their children. So, even if they are in an area where science is predicting a negative future for the crops they have chosen, it is hard to change. It is much easier to rationalize that this is a cycle and the good times will return. Again, this is especially true where economic interests are driving more investment in these same crops.

As with Dan's studies in which presenting those questioning global science change with ideaa about geoengineering helped with climate change acceptance, providing a path forward helps. I think that agricultural extension agents and others working directly with farmers are using messaging focusing more on: "Here are steps you can take to make things better" rather than one that raises tribal battle emotions "Those that deny global climate change are stupid". Once that sort of message is established, I think global climate change can be discussed.
See for example:

The following is a study of Pacific Northwest family forests, not farms but the abstract here indicates what I think could be a useful model for figuring out appropriate climate change education methods:
Twenty-four focus groups were held throughout the Pacific Northwest to assess family forest owners' perceptions, understanding, and educational needs related to climate change and its potential impacts on family-owned forests. Participants cited many information sources and often referenced personal observations and connections. Perceptions of climate science were mixed, but skepticism was common, particularly regarding the extent to which research is driven by politics, money, or ideology. Participants were uncertain about possible climate change impacts but expressed concern about both biophysical and sociopolitical dimensions. Most participants did not expect to make significant changes to their management in anticipation of climate change. However, many participants wanted to learn more about climate change and how it might affect their forests. Results of these focus groups should provide insights for integrating climate science into extension programming in a variety of contexts, and suggestions for future extension programming are presented. "

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Thanks Eric - Spreadsheets would certainly be nice.

About your class (is it a class?) exercise... FWIW, I think your exercise looks like a very good approach to looking at the influence of cultural cognition on scientific analysis. In educational terms, it strikes me that you were "stimulating schemata" prior to analysis, which is always a sound methodological practice, so as to help students create organizational structures for linking prior knowledge or perspectives to new information. Trying to create a non-judgmental context for eliciting perspectives, as you tried to do (by not requiring accuracy or that people divulge what they drew), also seems like an important step to me as it frees people to present ideas without needing to feel wedded to protecting their perspective (as an extension of needing to protect their identity).

As a consideration for a follow-up, I wonder if you might think it useful to ask some of the participants to actively take on articulating (and perhaps defending) an argument that stands in contrast to their own perspective. In doing so, sometimes people can see clearly how pre-existing biases affect how they reason. It's fun to watch people become fully invested in trying to prove perspectives that they aren't in agreement with. I have found that sometimes it gets people to see issues more deeply - and on a few lucky occasions, it helped people to see how they, like us all, were susceptible to having cultural cognition-related biases influence their reasoning.

I would also suggest providing a specific vocabulary for participants to use along with providing an explicit meta-cognitive framework for exploring the process of cultural cognition, so they can reference the process with an agreed upon commonly understood language.

What is the age range of the participants? What is their range of experiential background? I think that often, those factors would make a big difference in adapting what you're doing to be developmentally appropriate and/or able to "stimulate schemata" (activate prior knowledge).

BTW - Riffing on what you wrote, I like the idea of using spreadsheets as an instructional tool. I think of creating a spreadsheet to model a particular cause-and-effect paradigm, and then changing some of the parameters based on reasonable differences of perspective on uncertain variables, and then watching the alterations that occur to the bottom line, and then having discussions about varying perspectives on the cost/benefits of the changes in input relative to the changes in outcome.

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Gaythia -

I think that the same is true of farmers. They are not only financially invested in their current agriculture, they have a high emotional investment in their farm. Generally, the farm came from their parents and is something they plan or hope to pass on to their children.

I don't see how that would necessarily translate to definitive tendency towards one perspective as opposed to the other about climate change.

I'm thinking of a vacation I took recently in a very rural part of PA. There was a gentleman farmer down the road from the house where we were staying, and he had a beautiful old Airstream for sale (one of my lasting fantasies is to buy an Airstream) . Anyway, as we were talking it became apparent to me that he was a pretty conservative guy, but that he was very focused on recent climactic changes he had experienced (very heavy rains and unprecedented flooding in his experience). How would his perceptions of economic self-interest translate into perspectives on climate change mitigation policy? I would imagine that is a complicated calculus, but I would suggest that his political orientation would be very likely to moderate his perspective on the relationship between his economic self-interest and policy implementation. I would suggest that it is impossible to tease out his political orientation from his views on his economic self-interest.

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I like the idea of agreed upon terms. This will be hard but is worth attempting. I also like the idea of getting people to try to defend positions that are in opposition to their own. I will try to get both things to work next week.
You can think of the Shroud discussion as a class unbound. We do not have a binding syllabus, grades, or required attendance. I no longer lecture. We have a guided discussion where I keep us going in what I consider to be a useful direction but we get to the goal through how the discussion evolves not by me appearing to force the direction or pace. We tend to get to the goal by the time that the discussion is over, usually an hour a week for six to eight weeks.
Each time I do the discussion where we go between the first meeting and the last meeting varies wildly, often by 50% from one discussion series to the next. This style of discussing emotionally charged topics is hard on me but seems to go over well with the participants.
The participants have ranged in age from 15 to 90 with an approximately equal balance of men and women. They are tied together by interest and by the feeling that education is important. The range of backgrounds and skills is immense. The average participant is 55 years old, is devoted to their church, has a Ph.D., and is a world leader in their field.
Blending the strongly scientific and the strongly non-scientific to get a good discussion is an ongoing challenge. Using crayons was part of my bridging attempts. Framing the discussion not as the science of this object but as the object being a message from G-d that we were supposed to uncover was another bridging attempt. The message approach was an hypothesis that we might find to be true or might not.
More thoughts please. They are really useful.

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Joshoa, maybe I'm wrong to just say "farmers". I'm most familiar with the western US where farming is often only possible with the input of great quantities of both water and energy. The future of farming under climate change is very dependent on where an individual farmer is located. Some may dry up and blow away, others might actually rejoice in longer frost free growing periods. (But less predictability would probably be an overall negative).

But what people say, or who they vote for, can be different than what they actually do. So in eastern Colorado for example, farmers this year are planting more drought tolerant wheat, less of water intensive crops such as corn or sugar beets. At the same time they have largely supported a Republican US house Representative, Cory Gardner, who has repeatedly made statements indicating that he does not believe that climate change has a human cause. Garnder comes from a family selling farm implements in the small eastern Colorado town of Yuma. With a drying climate, much of this area is likely to become much more depopulated than it already is. Not a happy prospect to be forced to think about for most people there.

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Some of these apparent inconsistencies may be resolved if we consider timing. A congressman tends to serve for about 3 terms, six years, then moves to K street to lobby the next generations of congressmen. On this time scale climate change is irrelevant to decision making processes as a Congressman. For the farmers, the relevant time scale, I think, is a decade or so. On this time scale, starting to switch to more drought tolerant crops may make sense even if each crop matures in a few months. For neither of these people who it make much sense to mount futile efforts to avert climate change that may be inevitable for their grandchildren or great grand children. So, as a guess, each group, actually each person, is doing cost benefit analyses for themselves and behaving appropriately. The calculations vary from person to person.

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Unexpectedly effective communication.

In talking about my town, Los Alamos, I used a quote from "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer." Three people read the post. Three people responded to it and liked it. Highest success rate ever. Who knew? ;-)

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

For context, hundreds of people will see the post over the next few days. The three that were mentioned were just the first three who saw it and came at random.

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

@Gaythis, et al.

"Denial" can't explain variance. You have as much reason to "deny" as the climate change skep;tic -- yet you disagree.

"Denial" is a nonexplanation for polarization, b/c it begs question: why do some deny & not others?

Culture strongly predicts that. And it explains it in manner havning nothing to do w/ economic interest of people in believing things (which in fact are zero b/c their beliefs have no impact).

June 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@NiV & @Joshua

You posit "beliefs about ecnomic intersts" can matter.


But then we just have to explain why people' whose economic interests are the same have different beliefs about what's in their economic interests.

That's the whole point of cultural cognition: to test the hypothesis that peopole's cultural outlooks shape their *beliefs* about their economic interests

June 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Sounds like an exciting group to be working with, Eric - in fact it sounds like a model educational environment.

I very much like idea of using the Shroud of Turin as a subject for exploring cultural cognition - I would imagine it would generate a high level of engagement with the subject, and very easily lend itself to an exploration of how cultural cognition overlaps with scientific analysis. I think of Dan's discussion of Intelligent Design in much the same light - subjects where the "deficit"model fails to explain varying perspectives on scientific "facts", and subjects that can serve as a fertile ground for exploring the influence of presumed truth,(or faith), on interpretations of scientific evidence.

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan -

"But then we just have to explain why people' whose economic interests are the same have different beliefs about what's in their economic interests"

Heh. "Just" Should be easy, right?

Anyway, I absolutely agree.

One response I have to that is that sometimes people confuse positions with interests. We all have basically the same interest - to prosper economically and to have as many others prosper economically as we could reasonably expect. But people get locked into oppositional "positions" with a mistaken perception that they have oppositional interests. We create an "other" who not only has a different position, but who has different interests. For example, the cold-hearted conservative who doesn't care about the poor (and whose "interest" is to exploit the poor for his/own gain) or the statist leftist who idolizes government and centralized power (whose interest is to deny freedom and keep the naturally advantaged down in order to impose uniformity).

It seems there that you almost agree with me that it isn't differences in values that creates these conflicts. Wouldn't shared interests be similar to shared values?

"That's the whole point of cultural cognition: to test the hypothesis that peopole's cultural outlooks shape their *beliefs* about their economic interests "

Again - agreed. (Although I am, I have to say, pretty much beyond the need for testing; it is pretty much an article of faith for me at this point). So then the question is what lies behind cultural outlooks? Let me check my understanding.

I say it is psychological or tribal identifications in and of themselves, that shape cultural outlooks, and that the way those identifications get projected onto any particular issue is more or less arbitrary - not (at least necessarily) based on differing values.

As I understand your perspective, you think that there are underlying attributes of the (some) issues (but not others) that create conflict by virtue of differentially triggering different value systems.

Is that right?

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Thanks for the compliment.
I agree with you.
Also it seems that my data relevant to cultural cognition is much deeper and more complex than I have been willing to type out here. Averaging over each of the groups of people that have been in this Shroud of Turin discussion would give stable averages across a number of dimensions, but the reasons for those stable averages vary wildly. In one group we spent 1 and 1/2 sessions delving into the details of radioactive decay, in another we talked for a long time about Jewish burial customs around the time of Christ, in a third we talked a lot about how you could possibly create the image seen or forge it.
If anyone wants more details contact me directly. The real story is much too long to type here.

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Gaythia -

Don't know if you've hear this, but the first segment on a This American Life show about climate change has a lot to do with beliefs among rangers and farmers in Colorado on climate change:

June 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

A better link:

Reporter Julia Kumari Drapkin tells the story of Colorado’s State Climatologist, Nolan Doesken. Doesken has long believed that humans are driving climate change, but never connected it to his own life. Even after several years of some of the most devastating weather his state has ever seen, Nolan considered climate change a worry for the future. Then, last year, he watched as his state experienced some of the most extreme weather it ever has. For the first time, Nolan felt like he was looking at what the future would be like where he lives. He felt scared. Julia tells the story of how this has all changed Nolan, and changed what he’s saying to the people of his home state. Julia is the lead producer of iSeeChange at station KVNF, funded by Localore, AIR and CPB. (18 minutes)Environment

June 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

A better link:

Reporter Julia Kumari Drapkin tells the story of Colorado’s State Climatologist, Nolan Doesken. Doesken has long believed that humans are driving climate change, but never connected it to his own life. Even after several years of some of the most devastating weather his state has ever seen, Nolan considered climate change a worry for the future. Then, last year, he watched as his state experienced some of the most extreme weather it ever has. For the first time, Nolan felt like he was looking at what the future would be like where he lives. He felt scared. Julia tells the story of how this has all changed Nolan, and changed what he’s saying to the people of his home state. Julia is the lead producer of iSeeChange at station KVNF, funded by Localore, AIR and CPB. (18 minutes)Environment

June 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I know Nolan Doeskin. He is a great science communicator. In addition to being the State Climatologist for Colorado at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, he runs an organization called CoCoRaHS, the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow network . This gets people to volunteer all over the country to monitor precipitation: This gives Nolan a great platform from which to discuss in a natural and low key way the scientific data that people are seeing every day with what they may be likely to encounter in the future. All while highlighting those individuals own contributions to furthering science by participating in CoCoRaHS.

This is similar to the approach highlighted in an UK article Dan Kahan brought to my attention in a different venue:

Altogether better than those whose approach is to jump up and down on peoples heads and tell them that they are anti-science and besides that, just plain stupid.

June 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Thinking of Nolan Doesken reminds me that I should be getting into CoCoRaHS from my new location. Those of you out there who have yards, should do so too! Or nearby schools where you could volunteer. Science in action is a great way to start science conversations.

June 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

'Deniers' seem to deny climate change for a set of reasons not just one. One of those reasons seems to have to do with multiplication, addition, and subtraction. Another has to do with valuing humanity or not. Does anyone have suggestions about how to bridge these communication divides?
On mathematics, if climate change is real, anthropogenic and caused by CO2 emissions, then we may have to drop human caused emissions of CO2 substantially. The savings in yearly CO2 emissions have to total gigatons for the effort to have a chance to work. To save gigatons, the proponents of stopping CO2 emissions propose a world government based on the proponents' particular political belief system without considering that others may not want to live in that world and that developing nations are unwilling to be consigned in perpetuity to poverty. The second proposed savings is the switch from plastic bags at the supermarket to paper. This idea feels good because it is local, but it takes a lot of plastic bags to total a gigaton much less many gigatons. So, switching from plastic to paper would appear to have very little effect in solving the global problem. So, someone who is skeptical of solutions to climate change would only have to do a little mathematics to show that the proposed solution is not a solution at all but a moralistic way to kick the can down the road. How should communication work so that the proponents of measures to slow climate change realize that they have to get the basic math right?
On valuing humanity, 'solutions' of 'let's close all the bad coal plants, stop artificial fertilizers, and go back to nature' have a major drawback in that under those conditions the carrying capacity of the planet is about 100,000,000 people who live, on average, 25 years and die of infectious diseases. The rest of the planet's eight billion people are expected to just kill themselves so that they do not inconvenience the 100,000,000 survivors. How do you get the people proposing let's shut down the coal plants to realize that their 'solution' would be the equivalent of unprecedented genocide and have them address this issue transparently?
There are more than enough communications and basic math issues getting in the way of dealing with climate change. How do we have more honest and productive communication? Thanks.

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Dear All,
I find very interesting the role that cultural cognition can play in scientific debates.

Few months ago I wrote an opinion piece in my blog about the perception of the role played by scientists in society by non scientists. Based on some comments that I have received I believe that some of my points are related with the topic discussed in this blog entry and I would like to have your thoughts about it.

Recently I have been told in an internet group discussion by a retired employee from NOAA: "It is a waste of time to read from people exactly like yourself unless you have something new and different to say."

At the same time, a University Professor from Portugal told me: "Thank you for your article, precious and timely. In my opinion, the symptoms described in the article are more discernible in the Southern Europe (speaking only in terms of Europe), rather than in the Anglo-Saxon culture - a weakness that affects, e.g., our two countries (Spain and Portugal)".

So I would like to gather more points of view to understand if the perception of the role played by scientists in society depends upon culture heritage, or if my own perception is biased by my own limitations.


Science, scientists, researchers, policy-makers, and the rest of society.

February 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDiego Fdez-Sevilla

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