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Does communicating research on public polarization polarize the public?

One of the things that makes this blog so astonishingly popular (we recently broke through the 14 billion unique daily readers ceiling!) is its relentless topicality.

Well, just yesterday, world famous  world class USA Today science journalist Dan Vergano published an amazingly informative story on research into the psychology of public conflict over climate change—and today we present a guest post from the same Dan Vergano on what it’s like to write about the psychology of public conflict over climate change!

DV addresses the challenges of communicating information on polarization to a polarized general public.  Is effective communication of scientific research on this topic constrained by the same dynamics that account for polarization? Does trying to explain the phenomeon of cultural polarization itself polarize citizens?

I’m sure there will be consensus among this site's 14+ billion regular readers that these are fascinating and difficult questions, and that DV’s insights are penetrating.

I'veadd my own reflections on the experience of communicating work like mine is to the public. I anticipate the usual dissensus among site commentators on the coherence & value of those -- indeed, I'd be disappointed by anything other than that!


Dan Vergano: Pole-Vaulting a polarized public?

How do you solve a problem like Dan Kahan and his polarization puzzle? I confess it worries me. How, for example, do I write about his finding that conservative-minded men view risks in a way poles apart from other people without  feeding into that very same polarization? And more important, how do I write about it in a way that doesn’t prevent me from doing my job?

I write news for a living. Sadly a rare thing now, I write news stories for the general reader, the average Joe, the man-or-woman on the street, the likely not-you if you are reading this post.

Continue reading Vergano


Dan Kahan: Enabling consensus on the sources & consequences of cultural dissensus

Dan Vergano initially asked me if I had any recommendations about the challenges of communicating the science of science communication -- & what it says about the sources of polarization --  to the polarized public, and in particular how to do this without triggering the sorts of dynamics that polarize culturally diverse citizens.   

I thought initially I’d just draw on my own experience in this regard—and realized that would be utterly unhelpful because the sort of “public” I communicate with is significantly different from the one he writes for. Indeed, I realized that what DV is up to is quite amazing and that I really wanted him to tell me & others how he pulls it off.

Continue reading Kahan

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Reader Comments (7)

One of the most interesting parts of these two posts (to me) is the significance of audience, and how each author imagines his audience. Rule #1 for good writing, as any writer will tell you, is to know your audience. And Vergano makes a point to describe the type of personas he imagines when he writes for Joe Public. He literally pictures them in his mind. This kind of mental picture of an individual, even if a caricature, is something I'd wager most good writers use to imagine their audience as people and write accordingly for their needs and understanding, (though for most I also assume those needs are based on presumptions of class and education... and would be far more useful if they included cultural worldview). This is one of the things I worked on last year, and I stand by the belief that finding ways to train the science communicators out there to adjust their sense of persona to include a rich understanding of cultural cognition might be one of the best ways to combat the "science communication problem."

Vergano points out that, with his improved understanding of cultural cognition, it makes sense that one solution would be "looking for speakers in stories who come from polarized communities, for example, or bearing in mind particular sensitivities," and training for this kind of technique needs to be happening in journalism schools (and, I think many would argue, in science programs to some extent as well).

For the most part, I agree, and I begin to ask myself how this would happen. There are groups like PCR at Carnegie Mellon, ( or the (very basic) card set prototype I made as part of a design project that would be a tool for this kind of communicator-training, (, but I wonder now, at what point does this kind of dialogue intersect with education? Does this mean we make a class on the 'science of sci communication' like DK's required for any curriculum? Would that even help? Even if we find ways to help science communicators understand the concept of cultural cognition/motivated reasoning, does that make it easier to write the article about drones in a way that avoids further polarization?

Vergano's imaginary dad in Hardees-- would imagining him as leaning toward hierarchical individualism, and the woman in the airport as more of a communitarian, help people like Vergano "bear in mind particular sensitivities?"

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJen

What bears discussion is that those who most prominently engage in communication on divisive topics have a vested interest in generating division on topics -- NGOs. They incessantly "call for" "public debate" on matters which in turn drive revenues into their coffers. In the US alone, foundations and similar entities provide roughly $3.5 billion annually to communications and 'outreach' efforts on matters which, if they were resolved, would no longer generate revenues.

Providing solid practical and theoretical explanations on communication strategy and how to manage messages in a polarized medium paradoxically exacerbate the problem by giving NGOs the tools to create and perpetuate the cultural schisms which drive their revenues.

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Baumholder

What a dilemma -- telling the truth makes matters worse. I, too, am looking for ways to effectively lead people to change their minds. In 1551, Thomas More wrote the following:

"If I should press these views on men strongly inclined to the contrary, how deaf would they be to it all! Stone deaf, no doubt - and no wonder! To tell the truth, it seems to me that you should not offer advice which you know will not be considered. What good could it do? How could such a bold discourse influence men whose minds are prepossessed and deeply imbued with contrary aims? Such academic philosophy is not unpleasant among friends in free conversation, but in the King's council, where official business is being carried on, there is no room for it." (From Utopia)

"Prepossessed" is the perfect word to describe this situation. Early usage, as described in the OED, suggests the need for an "exorcism" to free some people's minds of the thoughts they possess, or seemingly possess them. Thomas More paid the price for expressing his contrarian views.

On a separate note, I'm struggling to believe that there are "14+ billion regular readers." That would be a number that Facebook would aspire to. Can you explain how you arrived at this incredible number?


July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Bang


On the 14 billion: I simply adapted to the task of estimating readers the same methods that those who study the destructive toll of cats use to determine how many birds cats have killed.

July 2, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

The comment from Steve Bang raises an important point.
The 14 billion is 'obviously' a joke, but he doesn't seem to get it.
Similarly, much of this post is sarcasm, as are several of your other posts.
But where does the sarcasm end and the serious points start?
I don't think this is a wise approach, for someone who is working on communication, in a field that is so polarised and where rather extreme claims are often made, simply because it is often difficult to tell whether someone is being serious or joking.

July 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Matthews


You are pulling my leg, right? You think *Steve* was serious? If so, you insult him by implying he has no idea what the population of the earth is. That seems unlikely to me -- less likely than that you misunderstood his own humor.

Plus, my post isn't sarcastic. 14 billion was facetious & self-deprecating; sarcasm marks out another as the object of contempt. Huge difference.

I'm sure you can find sarcasm in some of the posts. Indeed, you can find instances in which I myself said I thought it was the wrong way to make a point. But also cases where I used sarcasm and I, at least, don't see a problem. And cases wehre I saw a problem when I used some mode of expression other than sarcasm. In other words, I can't put my finger on anything in particular about sarcasm being a good or bad way to make myself understood.

But fill out the argument for me. Tell me what you think the problem is. Give me some examples (besides this one, which is weak, for the reasons I stated). Best too if you made some predictions about the sorts of experiences I should be having if "sarcasm" or some related mode of expression is defeating my aims in communicating -- you suggest it invites misunderstanding, so tell me what that would look like for me & I'll tell you, honestly, whetehr I've ever seen it.

July 5, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I get more time with my much smaller audiences, but I tried something different, four times so far. I spend 20 minutes on all of climate change and nuclear power as part of the solution, then 20 minutes on why the public discussion is a mess. I've done this for audiences that accept climate change but include a number who don't accept nuclear power. Two groups were fairly polarized and two less so. I include only half a tad of CTR as I'm covering all of social science in 20 minutes. Right at the half-way point when people aren't listening, I address why the facts don't matter, why we don't listen. Both types of groups find that this helps make the discussion make much more sense.

I sometimes do this in one on one (or close) discussions: when the facts don't matter, I go to the basic underlying assumptions as I hear them. (So you assume that scientists... and big biz... and government....) That gets us out of the "here's a fact", "here's something I agree may not be a fact, but it COULD be" discussion.

I also work with climate skeptics, not giving presentations but one on one or on a list, but use different methods.

I find the discussion of polarization most useful when we feel ourselves becoming polarized when presented facts clearly better than what we ourselves can draw on. I tried discussing polarization once in isolation, and got a lot of, yep, others sure act strange.

July 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Street

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