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Who distrusts whom about what in the climate science debate?

I had the privilege of being part of a panel discussion last Fri. at the great “Scienceonline Climate” conference in Wash. D.C. The other panel members were Tom Armstrong,  Director of National Coordination for the U.S. Global Change Research  in the  Office of Science and Technology Policy; and Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology & Director, Earth System Science Center at Penn State Universitly; Author on the Observed Climate Variability and Change chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Scientific Assessment Report in 2001; organizing committee chair for the National Academy of Sciences Frontiers of Science in 2003; and contributing scientist to the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the IPCC. Pretty cool!

Topic was “Credibility, Trust, Goodwill, and Persuasion.”  Moderator Liz Neely (who expended most of her energy skillfully moderating the length of my answers to questions) framed the discussion around the recent blogosphere conflagration ignited by Tamsin Edwards’ column in Guardian.

Edwards seemed to pin the blame for persistent public controversy over what’s known about climate change on climate scientist’s themselves, arguing that “advocacy by climate scientists has damaged trust in the science.”

Naturally, her comments provoked a barrage of counterarguments from climate scientists and others, many of whom argued that climate scientists are uniquely situated to guide public deliberations into alignment with the best available scientific evidence.

All very interesting!

But I have a different take from those on both sides. 

Indeed, the take is sufficiently removed from what both seem to assume about how scientists' position-taking influences public beliefs about climate change and other issues that I really just want to put that whole debate aside.

Instead I'll rehearse the points I tried to inject into the panel discussion (slides here).

If I can manage to get those points across, I think it won’t really be necessary, even, for me to say what I think about the contending claims about the role of “scientist advocacy” in the climate debate.  That’ll be clear enough.

Those points reduce to three:

1. Members of the public do trust scientists.

2. Members of culturally opposing groups distrust each other when they perceive their status is at risk in debates over public policy.

3. When facts become entangled in cultural status conflicts, members of opposing groups (all of whom do trust scientists) will form divergent perceptions of what scientists believe.

To make out these three points, I focused on two CCP studies, and an indisputable but tremendously important and easily ignored fact.

hi! click me!! Please?!The first study examined “who believes what and why” about the HPV vaccine. In it we found that members of the cultural groups who are most polarized on the risks and benefits of the HPV vaccine both treat the positions of public health experts as the most decisive factor.

Members of both groups have predispositions—ones that both shape their existing beliefs and motivate them to credit and discredit evidence in selectively in patterns that amplify polarization when they are exposed to information.

But members of both groups trust public health experts to identify what sorts of treatments are best for their children. They will thus completely change their positions if a trusted public health expert is identified as the source of evidence contrary to their cultural predispositions.

Of course, members of the public tend to trust experts whose cultural values they share. Accordingly, if they are presented with multiple putative experts of opposing cultural values, then they will identify the one whom they (tacitly!) perceive has values closest to their own as the real experts—the one who really knows what he’s talking about and can be trusted—and do what he (we used only white males in the study to avoid any confounds relating to race and gender) says.

me! me! click me!!!There is only one circumstance in which these dynamics produce polarization: when members of the public form the perception that the position they are culturally predisposed to accept is being uniformly advanced by experts whose values they share and positions they are culturally predisposed to reject are being uniformly advanced by experts whose values they reject.

That was the one we got in the real world...

The second study examined “cultural cognition of scientific consensus.” In that one, we examined how individuals identify expert scientists on culturally charged issues—viz., climate change, gun control, and nuclear waste disposal.

We found that when shown a single scientist with credentials that conventionally denote expertise —a PhD from a recognized major university, a position on the faculty of such a university, and membership in the National Academy of Sciences—individuals readily identified that scientist as an “expert” on the issue in question.

resistance is futile ... click ...But only if that scientist was depicted as endorsing the position that predominates among members of the subjects’ own cultural group. Otherwise, subjects dismissed the scientists’ views on the ground that he was not a genuine “expert” on the topic in question.

We offered the experiment as a model of how people process information about what “expert consensus” is in the real world.  When presented with information that is probative of what experts believe, people have to decide what significance to give it.  If, like the vast majority of our subjects, they credit evidence that is genuinely probative of expert opinion only when that evidence (including the position of a scientist with relevant credentials) matches the position that predominates in their cultural group, they will end up culturally polarized on what expert consensus is.

DO NOT CLICK ME!!Our study found that to be the case too. On all three of the risk issues in question—climate change, nuclear waste disposal, and laws allowing citizens to carry concealed hand guns—the members of our nationally representative sample all believed that “scientific consensus” was consistent with the position that predominates in their cultural group. They were all correct, too—1/3 of the time, at least if we use National Academy of Science expert consensus reports as our benchmark of what “expert consensus” is.


These studies, I submit, support points (1)-(3). 

No group's members understand themselves to be taking positions contrary to what expert scientists advocate.  They all believe that the position that predominates in their group is consistent with the views of expert scientists on the risks in question.

In other words, they recognize that science is a source of valid knowledge that they otherwise couldn’t obtain by their own devices, and that in fact one would have to be a real idiot to say, “Screw the scientists—I know what the truth is on climate, nuclear power, gun control, HPV vaccine etc & they don’t!”

That’s the way members of the public are.  Some people aren’t like that in our society—they don’t trust what scientists say on these kinds of issues. But they are really a teeny tiny minority (ordinary members of the public on both sides of these issues would regard them as oddballs, whack jobs, wing nuts, etc).

The tiny fraction of the population who “don’t trust scientists” aren’t playing any significant role in generating public conflict on climate or any of these other issues.

The reason we have these conflicts is because positions on these issues have become symbols of membership in, and loyalty to, the groups in question

Citizens have become convinced that people with values different from theirs are using claims about danger and risk to advance policies that intended to denigrate their way of life and make them the objects of contempt and ridicule.  As a result, these debates are pervaded by the distrust that citizens of opposing values have for one another when they perceive that a policy issue is a contest over the status of contending cultural groups.

When that happens, individuals don’t stop trusting scientists.  Rather, as a result of cultural cognition and like forms of motivated reasoning, they (all of them!) unconsciously conform the evidence of “what expert scientists believe” to their stake in protecting the status of their group and their own standing within it.

That pressure, moreover, doesn’t reliably lead them to the truth.  Indeed, it makes it inevitable that individuals of diverse outlooks will all suffer because of the barrier it creates betweeen democratic deliberations and the best available scientific evidence.

As I indicated, I also relied on a very obvious but tremendously important and easily ignored fact: that this sort of entanglement of “what scientists believe” and cultural status conflict is not normal.

It is pathological, both in the sense of being bad and being rare.

The number of consequential insights from decision-relevant science that generate cultural conflict is tiny—miniscule—relative to the number that don’t. There’s no meaningful cultural conflict over pasteurization of milk, high-power transmission lines, flouridation of water, cancer from cell phones (yes, some people in little enclaves are arguing about this—they get news coverage precisely because the media knows viewers in most parts of the country will find the protestors exotic, like strange species in zoo) or even the regulation of emissions from formaldehyde, etc etc etc etc. 

Moreover, there’s nothing about any particular  issue that makes cultural conflict about “necessary” or “inevitable.”  Indeed, some of the ones I listed are sources of real cultural conflict in Europe; all they have to do is look over here to see that things could have been otherwise.

And all we have to do is look around to see that things could have been otherwise for some of the issues that we are culturally divided on.

The HBV vaccine—the one that immunizes children against Hepatitis b—is no different in any material respect from the HPV vaccine.  Like the HPV vaccine, the HBV vaccine protects people from a sexually transmitted disease. Like the HPV vaccine, it has been identified by the CDC as appropriate for inclusion in the schedule of universal childhood vaccinations.  But unlike the HPV vaccine there is no controversy—cultural or otherwise—surrounding the HBV vaccine. It is on the list of “mandatory” vaccinations that are a condition of school enrollment in the vast majority of states; vaccinate rates are consistently above 90% (they are less than 30% in the target population for HPV) – and were so every year (2007-2011) in which proposals to make the HPV vaccine mandatory was a matter of intense controversy throughout the U.S.

The introduction of subsequent career of the HBV vaccine has been, thankfully, free of the distrust that culturally diverse groups experience toward each other when they are trying to make sense of what the scientific evidence is on the HPV vaccine.  Accordingly, members of those groups, all of whom trust scientists, are able reliably to see what the weight of scientific opinion is on that question.

So want to fix the science communication problem?

Then for sure deal with the trust issue!

But not the nonexistent one that supposedly exists between scientists and the public. 

The real one--between opposing cultural groups locked in needless, mindless, illiberal forms of status conflict that disable the rational faculties that ordinary citizens of all cultural outlooks ordinarily and reliably use to recognize what is known to science.

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Reader Comments (36)

So how did the others react to your presentation? Did you get any good comments?

"...and joint recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Pretty cool!"

Is he still telling people that? Tut! Tut!

August 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

I would agree with your 3 points- in fact they don't seem very contentious.
The more interesting question is how the distrust and polarization can be reduced.
One obvious way to do this would be for the two sides to meet.
But this never happens, because the activists like the scioclimate people who organised the meeting you went to only invite people from their own tribe, where they get together, preach to the echo chamber and denounce the "deniers".
Meanwhile the sceptics make snide comments on the #scioclimate twitter tag and ROTFL at the idea of Mann speaking on credibility and trust. The net effect of the conference is that polarization and distrust is increased.

August 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Matthews


I'm afraid I awarded the prize here. I've modified the language appropriately to reflect that IPCC was the recipient for which to which Mann contributed. Thanks.

Reaction... Well, I think the discussion was animated. There wasn't anything close to 97% consensus on anything.

August 19, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

As I indicated, I also relied on a very obvious but tremendously important and easily ignored fact: that this sort of entanglement of “what scientists believe” and cultural status conflict is not normal.

It is pathological, both in the sense of being bad and being rare.

The number of consequential insights from decision-relevant science that generate cultural conflict is tiny—miniscule—relative to the number that don’t.

Do views about evolution or creation of the universe not match the dynamic you're describing? And what about a whole host of environment-related questions - such as the status of polar bears or the dangers of 2nd hand smoke or the benefits of recycling.

And it seems that even if it is rare for decision-relevant science, it is still reflective of a very similar phenomenon that is not rare at all. Take views about the costs/benefits of taxes, for example: we can easily predict how people are going to view analysis from "experts' on that issue based on cultural/political orientation. Just as with the issues you discuss, people will value input from their "experts" and denigrate input from "experts" who have a different cultural/political orientation. And further, is it really just flat out wrong to consider economics a "science?"

People support diametrically opposed viewpoints, based on the input of "experts," on all manner of issues. What is the reason for distinguishing issues related to decision-relevant science?

August 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Paul Mathews

I actually find -- & was alluding a bit to this in response to @NiV-- that the idea that "distrust of scientists" isn't a good explanation for climate skepticism is pretty contentious among most climate-science communicators & advoactes. I'm sure you are familiar with the claim that climate conflict reflects conservative hostility to science? E.g., , here, & here ...

I think this view is not only false but pernicious. It (a) distracts & disables honest science communicators (by getting them into long discussions about a problem that doesn't genuinely exist & (b) palpably insults 50% of the US population, since being call anti-science in America is pretty much like being called a "communist" in the 1960s etc or a child molestor today.

But here is somethign that I've been meaning to raise for a while: the people who get exercised about climate change in discussion fora (blogs, social media etc) -- on either side -- they are not a valid sample if you are trying to gauge what ordinary people think. They are really really really unusual; the spend more time in a day thinking about climate change than the avg person spends thinking about it in a yr.

The avg person is likely to have a strong view. And view w/ intense distrust someone who holds an alternative one. That's one of the amazing things about climate change -- how deeply the polarization has settled into the ranks of ordinary nonpartisan folks.

But those folks who are really really really interested in climate & who believe that climate policy can have a huge impact on public welfare -- whether they think that the risk is that too little action will be taken to abate climate change harms or the think the risk is that needless, wealth-enervating steps might be taken to deal w/ nonsignificant risks -- are all vullnerable to real distortions in thinking about how the public forms its views based on their immersion in the bubble of all-climate-all-the-time internet & related discussion forums.

There's about as much chance that Mann's participation in the panel diminished public trust in climate science (or influenced in any particular way) as there is that my mowing my lawn today w/ a 2-stroke engine affected climate change (under *anybody's model*). (NOTE: I DON'T REALLY MOW MY LAWN! I DON'T EVEN HAVE ONE!)

Did it piss off skeptics who *are* inside the all-climate-al-the-time bubble? I'll take your word for it; sounds possible (although presumably the marginal increment of distrust has to be small!)

But is that who Mann should be worried about?

Why should *anyone* who is trying to communicate climate science be focusing on them, given (a) how intensely those individuals already feel and (b) how remote they are from the mass of the general public?

Just askin'.

August 19, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


Evolution isn't decisoin-relevant science. Is that important?

But yes, the idea of "belief" in evolution is the focus of a cultural status conflict too. And it's really a pathetic one, since it has zero (as in r = 0) to do with understanding of evolution or the ability & disposition to comprhend science.

But go ahead & add a few more to the numerator. That missing denominator in your arugment is close to infinite in size.

Or maybe I'm being over confident.

HOw should we specify the class of relevant class of issues -- avoid selecting on dependent variable -- so that we can figure out how "normal" it is for "what's known to science" to polarize ordinary members of US public?

August 19, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I think the public have it correct for what is actually under consideration.

The science supports a range from encouraging fossil fuel development for many decades as a path to wealth, all the way to that in 2020 we need to start draconian reductions in CO2 emissions.

The real source of contention is not the scientific range. It encompasses almost everybody except the Skydragons and the Venusians. For the public who probably only have a vague sense of a climate sensitivity number except it is supposed to get warm enough that harm is possible have it right as well. If they actually pay attention.

The issue that I have been able to determine, if at all, is policy related. That is why using cultural definition is a better predictor than education. And in this respect the public is also correct. The policy range indicated by the scientific range includes everybody except the absolutists on either side.

So Dan, you asked how a skeptic would improve communication. My opinion is that it has already been done, and the public has reached a conclusion that accurately reflects the science. The reason there is argument is from the warriors on each side. As you pointed out, I probably spent more time thinking and reading the last 3 posts than the average public will invest in climate science, or as I would believe, policy as well.

I differ with you because I do not see the public position as pathological. I see it as a correct assessment of the science especially at the science policy interface.

August 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

@John Pittman:

That's an interesting & challenging way to look at it.

One thing we wouldn't want to do is treat "the public" as having the "view" that in effect is some sort of average or aggregation or vectoring of all the view*s* that individual members of the public have.

But you aren't saying that; you are recognizing there are view*s* -- contestation. But you are suggesting, as I understand it, that we can recast the contestation as over "what to do" -- a perfectly predictable, normal, healthy thing in a democracy (people w/ free reason will always form different views of what's valuable) -- & not over "what is the state of what's known about the situation we face."

That could be. It has seemed to me that was so at times.

But why do people talk about facts rather than values here? Do you think the people are being coy? Polite? If you got them in a room & asked them, "be honest: when you say the world is/isn't heating up at such & such a rate" you really mean "I like/dislike a collectivist mode of organzing social life" etc. I think ordinary people would resist that!

I also see, in studies, evidence of people reasoning in ways that I'm sure they wouldn't own if it were presented to them; that would disturb them.

I don't think parents who behave the way that we got subjects to evaluate inforation in our HPV vaccine study would be pleased to learn that they were "seeing" the risks & benefits of vaccinatoin they way Yankees & Red Sox fans "saw" whether Bucky Dent's '78 playoff gam "homerun" was fair or foul (clearly foul, we all know that).

Same I think for the subjects in a study like They Saw a Protest; I thik they would be disturbed to learn that they were seeing "coercion" or "speech" -- and hence respecting or not respecting other citizens' rights-- based on their tacit agreemeing with the protestors' message.

I recall your 1/2 nodding in recognition & 1/2 shaking your head in disgust/dismay over the resuls in the motivated system 2 reasoning experiment, which showed that indviduals who displayed the highest levels of the disposition to engage in reflective, critical thinking were the ones most likely to fit their asssessments of evidence to support the fit ideologically congenial conclusions. That was a distortion in reason, right?, not a weird way for people to express values.

We have data from a new study. I will put the working paper out soon. No one who finds inspiration in the power of human beings to use reason will fail, I think, to be horrified & then outraged by what it shows about the power of cultuiral conflict to debase & degrade it.

If what is happening in the climate debate is the *same thing* that happens in these experiments -- and certainly the logic of what's common to the designs of all these studies & the ones we've done on climate change risk perceptions supports that inference -- then I don't think what we see is just value deliberations dressed up in some strange Halloween disguise as a dispute over what scientific evidence implies about facts

August 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

I think an axiom to remember is that human thought is not devoid of emotion, nor is human emotion devoid of thought. But in this contest it would be reasoning and biasing (cultural).

The answer is one of balance. On the balance, the actual science supports culturally diametrically opposed policy solutions. What is left but cultural bias? How will a rational person respond to such inputs. I vaguely remember such a study back in the 70's. IIRC, the subjects choose the one they liked the most or disliked the least.

Using this as the assumption, the conclusion is that the reason there is such response from the general public that matches the culture warriors is that is what the public is left to choose from. Along those lines, it also provides evidence as to why both sides engage in deficit knowledge and "poison the well" tactics. The deficit knowledge is to get them more comfortable with a side. The poison the well tactic is along the lines of DREA ZIGARMI's work on leadership. The warriors want the public to be uncomfortable with the opposition's leading lights, and comfortable with theirs. Because if the research is correct, if one can do both at 100%, one has an 89% improvement in the ability to influence positively the subjects motivation along the lines of trust.

Don't know that Zigarmi would see it or express it that way, but as a comment I think it makes a point.

August 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman


Protecting from contamination the well from which reasoning citizens (who not only have emotion but reason w/ it in critical ways) draw their knowledge of what science knows -- & learning how to decontaminate that well when for whatever reason protection fails -- are the two most fundamental things that a science of elightened self-govt needs to learn, I'm convinced. I will take a look at Zigarmi's work, which sounds like it is among the many things I am not familiar with but should be.

August 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

If you'd shown some respect to your fellow panelists and the audience, Liz wouldn't have had to expend so much energy in limiting your answers to less than the hour the session had.

You also write:
since being call anti-science in America is pretty much like being called a "communist" in the 1960s etc or a child molestor today.

Which is absurd on its face. Accused child molesters don't get re-elected umpteen times. (And it was 1950s, Joe McCarthy, that were the high point on the anti-communist paranoia. 60s were rather different.)

Anti-science Inhofe, Barton, Rohrabacher have no such difficulty.

On the other hand, Bob Inglis, who made the mistake of learning something about the science, and saying he was going to implement conservative responses, got obliterated in his primary after having been easily re-elected several times.

August 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterplutarchnet

again I agree with you entirely,
# 'distrust of science' is not a good explanation for scepticism
# People who comment on blogs are NOT a good sample of the general public
# People with strong views get their views reinforced by following like-thinking bloggers
# There's no point preaching to the converted or those entrenched on the other side.

But if you listen to skeptics with a science background, many will say they were set on the road to skepticism by the behaviour of Mann and his team. I think this is very close to what Tamsin Edwards was saying in her article.

plutarchnet, I think you should read Dan's post and his reply to me carefully, and think about what he is saying.

August 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Matthews

I agree my answers were too long & Liz displayed admirable skill & grace in supplying the sense of limits that I lacked. I hope others didn't confuse poorly managed excitement to engage as disrespect, but if it came off that way, than I regret that deeply.

August 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Paul Mathews:

How exchange of views evolved within science community is among the many things I don't know as much about as I should, and I think Judith Curry and Roger Pielke, Jr. have raised troubling questions about these issues. Indeed, Curry has a very interesting post up today called "Scientists & Motivated Reasoning."

I think it makes sense for a thoughtful person to give evidentiary weight to 'scientific consensus' when there is one in trying to figure out what's known. But clearly scientific consensus wouldn't be entitled to any weight in the mind of a thoughtful person if scientists themselves failed to treat seriously the claims of scientists who present evidence that challenges an existing consensus.

August 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Hey Dan - I guess you've seen this?

Looks like you're a full-fledged participant in the climate wars.


August 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan: There were other clues, like what was charitably called your 'lack of poker face'. But most telling was at the end, when the panel were asked what their biggest concerns were, the others spoke to very large scale things -- future of the country and planet. Yours was a concern about your work being appreciated properly.

Dan said quite a few things. What is it particularly you consider him to be saying that I should pay attention to? One thing I observed in the Q+A part of the session was that it seemed almost nobody managed to interpret Dan in the way he meant, so some specificity here would be a plus.

August 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterplutarchnet


Well, I have a different recollection of what I said in response to the question, "What do you 'fear' & what do you 'hope'": that my "fear" was that I would be stuck w/ communicating in addition to studying science communcation -- since I'm not very good at the former; but that my "hope" -- & confident belief based on the efforts of the conference organizers & others-- was that we would see the emergence of an evidence-based form of science communication that would succeed in remedying the problem that was the very occasion for the conference itself: the persistent gap between what we know about to communicate science & the practice of science & science-informed policymaking. If that's not a "large scale thing" in your book, then I advise you aim lower so that you might better hit your target.

Still, you heard it the way you did -- so maybe that just proves the point, which I do not dispute, that I am not an expert communicator.

I hope you learned something from the other great speakers and programs

August 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38


Hadn't seen. But surely worse things must be involved than that for those truly "in" it.

August 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan you asked: But why do people talk about facts rather than values here?

My question: Do they talk about facts or do they use them to bolster their position of values? I believe that they do latter.

I also believe that this should be expected since either side can cherry pick a scientific position and use it to oppose or support policy. I am curious if with the other failures, what part did leadership play? I remember it played a role with HPV. What of the others? Take gun control. Here in the South, most leaders are not only pro-gun, many of them hunted, and not just for photo ops.

You also stated "I also see, in studies, evidence of people reasoning in ways that I'm sure they wouldn't own if it were presented to them; that would disturb them." But isn't this the truth about cultural bias? We don't go out and say to ourself "Hey, I think I'm going to screw the pooch on reasoning today, and let my value system thwart my ability to think." What we do is set up a model of justification. Though I would not claim that for all the public since some people really do react without much thought.

This model of justification is my answer to your "That was a distortion in reason, right?, not a weird way for people to express values." But I think in your methodology, the person being correct or incorrect in their model of justification is secondary for the phenomena. And we all do it to some extent.

But, it appears to be primary for the science of science communication. This is where you and I have not exactly agreed. An example I use is the history of the IPCC, and what Zargami and Roberts have to say about leadership and failure of leadership. I am not sure if their work is that good or not; perhaps just limited to a controlled environment like a workplace. But it gives me if nothing else a just so story to try to reason on improving or answering the question of "How do we get the oxcart unstuck?"

So, in answer to that story of wisdom, I am putting my shoulder to the wheel, and offering a different POV.

August 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman


I diffent POV-- but I do think we are yolked more or less to the same cart

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

No need to wonder about personal memories, the session was recorded. Check it out. Better yet, have someone else watch it with you and see if they can see where the description would come from. I'll note, though, that the description I gave was one that I heard from other people independently, and not my own. And even in your recollection, it starts with you and your work being appreciated properly.

Always hard to tell from blog comment responses, but seeing you in person also showed that beyond not being a good communicator, you were a very poor listener. Most spectacularly when Gavin was asking his question and you quit listening well before he finished stating it, and then responded only to the portion up to the point you'd quit -- which missed the substance of the question. If you'd pay attention to the feedback to be had from listening to how you are interpreted, as opposed to what you intended, you could rapidly become a much less bad communicator.

You talk often about how you're not an expert communicator. Well, few people are, so that's not really a comment. You're not even a decent communicator -- given how seldom you were interpreted as meaning something close to what you say you meant. That, too, would be no issue in general. Plenty of scientists are poor public speakers. But communication is the thing you're supposed to be an expert in. Even though performance of something is different than study of, when the studier makes such elementary mistakes, it raises concern about the ability to study the topic well. A running coach needn't be an elite runner. But one who constantly overstrides, we'd have to be concerned for his athletes.

Digressing a second: I learned from everybody I listened to at the meeting, including you. In your case, it might not be what you wanted me (the audience) to learn, but that's a different matter. One piece of learning you put an exclamation point on was that 'science communication' is not about communicating science content (or method, or philosophy, or ...). Retrospectively obvious, as none of the verification measures in studies you point to are knowledge of science measures.

The problem with your poor communication skills is that it leads you to bad hypotheses -- such as in while a late comment pointed you to a few thousand articles on the topic you said was not being 'promoted'.

Over in, and in your twitter comments, you overinterpret as being broad proof:
Not least from your title. The authors, on the other hand, are much more restrained than you about the scope of their results. Which, given your research topics, rather raises the question of how much cultural cognition or motivated reasoning you engage in yourself.
Finally, let me be clear that Martin and I are not arguing that partisan news shows have no effects. For one, they seem to lead many people to perceive that the country is more polarized, even if it isn’t. For another, they may have indirect effects on politics by energizing viewers (if not changing their minds) to contact their elected officials and vocalize their extreme opinions. Fox and MSNBC may indeed be a polarizing force in politics, but it is unlikely that it is causing masses of people to be more and more extreme.

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterplutarchnet

Dan, a response to your article here Good discussion, but as a conservative, I think Dr. Edwards may be closer to the mark on this one. We conservatives and libertarians are a highly skeptical bunch and don't trust mainstream climate scientists. I think the issue of climate, particularly because of the political baggage of radical environmentalism, is qualitatively different than the HPV vaccine debate. I am one conservatiave who happens to think that humans are affecting climate, but many of my colleagues don't. As my friend Rob Sisson likes to say, the Messenger is as important as the Message. Thanks for all your thoughtful work in this space.

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterB. Fewell

I think the issue of climate, particularly because of the political baggage of radical environmentalism, is qualitatively different than the HPV vaccine debate.

On what basis? Aren't there those in the HPV vaccine debate with "political baggage?" Don't you have "political baggage?" Who, in the climate debate or the HPV vaccine debate do not have "political baggage?"

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Thanks for the reference. It makes its case very cogently-- & is educational for me.

I actually don't doubt that there are many "conservatives" and associated "skeptics" who "don’t trust mainstream climate scientists" on grounds that are connected to the history of how the science has been presented.

But going back to the theme I raised when I replied to @PaulMathews initial comment, the segment of the population invested enough to even know who Michael Mann is, or to be able to name any climate scientist much less point to something that any one of them said, is exceedingly small-- on both sides, of the debate. There is deep division in the pubic -- deep enough to reach the largely nonpartisan, not partuclarly interested n politics segment. But my sense is that those in that group don't "distrust" climate scientists; they just think that most scientists who understand thigns hold a view consistent with the one that dominates in their group.

Of course, *how* people like that got the memo -- how they came to understand positions on climate change as so filled with significance that they ended up treating it as more important than their congressman's position on, say, abortoin-- is another matter. Obviously, the significance of the issue radiated out form a much more intensely intersted core, making their experiences an important part of the explanation of what happened.

But it doesn't follow, does it?, that the average "red" voter's views on climate science are now tied to the those of the conservatives or skeptics who are most intersted; that the most intersted and aggrieved (rightly or wrongly) are the ones who should be the focus of attention if someone is convinced that the avererage "red" voter gives less weight to what is the "mainstream" climate science position than the communicator thinks he or she should. There are probably lots of settings -- e.g., in a discussion of adaptation in Arizona or Florida--, where a climate scientist who has "mainstream" climate views will be "trusted" -- b/c he or she is talking *about* how to do someting that average red person is very interested in, in a language that is very familiar to that person, and with a whole bunch of other people that that average red citizen is used to talking about that issue with -- many of whom are average "blue" citizens but for this purpose are just other people trying to make sure that their ongoing "climate" issue (the one they have been dealing w/ for 100s of yrs) continues to get resolved in a way that permits everyone in town to continue on w/ their way of life.

What do you think of Pielke's essay in the Guardian on ? I am thnking of his argument. I think it amounts to saying to "mainstream climate science" communicators: stop arguing w/ skeptics in blogs etc; go find another conversation where you can actually help people who have a need for more info.

You should write a blog post about his argument too!

Oh-- one more thing... Don't you imagine the # of issues involving decision-relevant science on which Gore & Limbaugh agree is 10^9 as big as the number on which they disagree?! People listen to Gore & Limbaugh -- actually, not to Gore & Limbaugh but to people who they trust b/c they are people w/ Gore & Limbaugh's cultural identities -- & almost always get told the same thing about what science knows. Another example of how focusing on climate debate can really skew the sample of observations!

August 21, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


Yes, let's watch a movie. Afterall, like the facts on climate, digital images speak for themselves.

August 21, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I think the issue of climate, particularly because of the political baggage of radical environmentalism, is qualitatively different than the HPV vaccine debate.

Conservatives have been trending towards what is sometimes reported as less "trust in science," in general, for some 40 years. Yet, as Dan likes to point out, is there some trend of "conservatives" deciding to not go to doctors - because they don't trust scientists? Of course not.

It has been a long-term decline - not something that is associated in particular with the debate about climate change. The trend is related to multiple phenomena - such as the influence of the Christian right, debates about stem cell research, Intelligent Design, the creation of the universe, and abortion (you know, like the "scientific" view expressed by prominent and influential conservatives that a woman who is raped is less likely to become pregnant). But also importantly, the trend is related to questions of trust in civil society and the institutions of government:

[W]hen examining a series of public attitudes toward science, conservatives’ unfavorable attitudes are most acute in relation to government funding of science and the use of scientific knowledge to influence social policy Conservatives thus appear especially averse to regulatory science, defined here as the mutual dependence of organized science and government policy.

Liberals and moderates are not trending in the same direction. Why? Can anyone argue, with a straight face, that it is only because of different views on objective scientific analysis that just happen to fall out along political distinctions? Clearly, the differences, in a general sense, are related to political ideology.

Of course, that doesn't mean that we can determine what is causal for any given individual based on general trends.

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan/Joshua, great questions and a few additional thoughts. I grew up in an Evangelical Christian home - one of two sons of an ordained minister. I was raised believing that evolution was theologically wrong and that radical environmentalism was the road to socialism/collectivism. That's slowly changing within some corners of conservative Christianity, but there is still a strong cultural mistrust and disdain for "environmentalists" and scientists who are seen as advocating the same positions. Apart from the "Religous Right" wing of the GOP, I also am affiliated with the more academic conservative circles, such as the Federalist Society, which represents a an influential faction of the GOP. So my perspective on these issues is as a social conservative, straddling both the religous and non-religious strains of conservatism.

If you talk to many conservatives behind closed doors, they agree that environmental stewardship and protection is good and appropriate, but it's not their number one concern. Their biggest concern about "environmentalism" is the means by which protection and conservation are achieved. Environmentalism is synonymous with more big government. Conservatives simply do not have many "role models" or prominent figures who are strong advocates for environmental protection. While NYT and others made a big deal last week about four fromer GOP EPA administrators advocating for climate response, within conservative circles those voices were like the proverbial tree silently falling in the forest. Those voices do not resonate, or they resonate very little. The wonkish voices that are most heard within the conservative movement are the voices of the likes of Hannity and Limbaugh who continue to believe climate change is a hoax and an effort by radical environmentalists for political leveling. And consider the lawsuit by Mann against National Review Online for alleged defamation - this doesn't help the cause of science. And for Al Gore to liken deniers to racists - please stop the insanity. Language and tone matter in any meaningful discourse.

I've talked about Pielke's perspective here on my blog (and reference your work) so I won't repeat them in this space. But Pielke's point about focusing too much on skeptics as harmful I think is correct, particularly given the messenger. As my friend Rob Sisson likes to say, the Messenger is as important as the Message. Knowing many Rush-minded people, the best way to reach these folks is to to begin more honest dialogues like this (among conservatives and liberals) who will candidly discuss the science, what we know and what we don't know, why models may or may not be correct, and why the debate is relevant. But the "sky is falling" doomsday message is simply tuned out and reinforces the perception of "wacko environmentalits." We need more people to tune in - and many within my conservative camp are starting to listen to the likes of Pielke and Spencer. And I think they would listen to more scientists like Dr. Edwards who is attempting to present the facts more objectively, without the repelling effects of advocacy.

Look forward to continuing the dialogue.

August 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterB. Fewell

B. Fewell - nice post.

I do find it interesting that evangelical folks like Jim Wallis consider their religious beliefs as an imperative to be more "liberal" in in political orientation and perspective on environmental issues.

Knowing many Rush-minded people, the best way to reach these folks is to to begin more honest dialogues like this (among conservatives and liberals) who will candidly discuss the science, what we know and what we don't know, why models may or may not be correct,

While I agree with much of what you wrote, with that I disagree. I don't see a direct line of causation between some lack of "honest dialog" and the positioning the Rush-minded (or their counterparts on the other sides of these debates). Some folks are tribalistic, and that drives how they interpret the dialog of those they disagree with. I think that essentially, you have the causality reversed. I see this happening in these debates all the time (on both sides). For example, people impute designs on my part (say, the destruction of capitalism, the creation of a "one world government," etc.), with absolute certainty, because they want to fit me into a preconceived pattern that shapes how they see someone simply because that someone voices disagreement.

I respect your manner of approach to these questions, but I can't help but feel that focusing on some needed change from the non-Rush-minded is rationalizing away the real problem - which is the tribalistic mindset and the "motivated reasoning" that follows. Please note, that is not a justification of tribalistic behavior on the either side of the fence.

Dan, also, seems to think that with a more sophisticated approach to communication, the Rush-minded might be better engaged. I disagree. I think that the only way to promote better dialog will be to create a communicative environment that embodies a different communicative paradigm. People have to be invested in constructive communication as an explicit goal. If someone has vindication of victimhood, or defeat of an opponent, as their goal, constructive communication seems highly unlikely to me.

Where do you differ from the Rush-minded? From reading your posts, I would say, clearly, one significant way is through your goal of meaningful communication with those who disagree with you politically. That is, IMO, a foundational difference.

August 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua & @B.Fewell:

See the NYT op-ed on "science denial" today?

Author is wrong to infer deficits in public science comprehension or hostility to science from either climate skepticism or "disbelief" in evolution.

Right to denounce "denial of science" -- but wrong to ignore evidence on what public really knows about science & how to measure it.

Also bad idea to equate particular answer in polls that ask "what side are you on" & not "how much science do you know" w/ being being anti-science. That's a mixing of science & cultural partisanship; not a good way to promote enjoyment of & intrest in science for 50% of America, especially their children.

Try this instead.

August 22, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


I don't disagree with much, if any, of what you said. And agree wholeheartedly on the influence of tribalism. And apologize if I'm not responding directly to your questions, but let me try it this way. First, Rush-minded folks are not monolithic, but there is a strong resistance to openly considering or admitting the possibility of climate change. There are some who will never be open to the arguments - we know who they are - the ones who can't and won't be bothered with the facts. Yet there are others, who I propose are a silent majority, and who I'd argue are open to considering the scientific arguments, but (1) there is such a strong tribal effect discouraging them from going against the tribe and (2) they see the pro climate side as simply perpetuating yet another scary but non-credible story. This silent majority group is the one that can be reached, but needs to be presented with non-emotional facts from a credible messenger.

Climate change is such a complicated matter and folks either don't or won't take the time to understand the science on their own - so they need to look to surrogates who they trust. And as I indicated above, the problem as I see it is there aren't many scientists qualified to speak on this matter who my tribe accepts as credible, accept the small handful of skeptics such as Pielke, Spencer, Lindzen, Michaels, and Adler (although Adler's a non-scientist) et al. I am part of that skeptical tribe and am trying to bring a voice of reason and help bring facts and non-emotion to the conversation. If there were more mainsteram climate scientists, like Dr. Edwards, who I could point to as objective, that in my view will help facilitate the dialogue. I believe that climate sensitivity is where the real debate exists, and am highly skeptical of the scaremongering and apocalyptic claims of some scientists and environmentalists who have made this a war on coal. Those tactics, and the campaign against coal and projects like the Keystone Pipeline, IMO do more harm than good by driving a wedge between my tribe and yours. As with any major conflict, if the tribes don't like or trust each other, they're never going to talk with each other, let alone try to forge a solution on a very contentious political issue. As with any peace accord, we need to find tribal elders who like and trust each other to help mend tribal differences.

Personally, I think one strategy to help the GOP and its constituents engage proactively on this is to help them back into an acceptable solution. If you watch the religous anti-climate propaganda, they are deeply concerned that climate change solution will destroy jobs, hurt the economy, hurt the poor, and institute even larger government programs. If they understand that there are regulatory and/or market solutions that will lessen the chance of all these scary things from happening, then many more will be open to listening. An example of this is Bob Inglis and Art Laffer's video here that discusses substituting a carbon tax for income tax. Not sure whether that's workable, but at least it presents a less threatening option for action.

Just some additional thoughts.

August 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterB. Fewell

B. Fewell -

Thanks for the thoughts. As I was reading your post, I was thinking "But Inglis, and the harsh reaction he has received from may quarters of conservative-land."

Interesting that by the time I got to the end of your comment, I saw the mention of his name.

Two sources that have helped shape my take on what you're talking about:

The second of which talks of Inglis, specifically.

My sense is that while strong climate-related advocacy among "realists" does not help to push the debate in a positive direction, neither does it hurt to a significant degree. As for Tamsin - I have been a fan of her approach to the debate more generally. I am not sure as to whether if more followed her lead it would alter the shape of the debate significantly, however, and while I have seen some interesting discussions related to her anti-advocacy op-ed, I think it is founded on some premises that lack solid evidence - primarily, that advocacy has "damaged the trust in the science" on any meaningful scale. As I discussed in my comment above in this thread, while I see the intuitive logic in such an assumption, I haven't seen that the assertions are evidence-based. From a comment I wrote over at Judith's:

I’d say that the evidence is that most of those who don’t have “trust in the science” didn’t all along, or are predisposed to not trusting in the science because of their own orientation. They would not be somehow won over by less advocacy on the part of climate scientists. The advocacy has caused some to have less trust, perhaps, but perhaps it has given others more trust. I’s say that in the end, the outcomes you describe are insignificant. Or perhaps you have some concrete evidence otherwise?

As to her argument that:

I find much climate scepticism is driven by a belief that environmental activism has influenced how scientists gather and interpret evidence.

I said the following:

Climate “skeptics” are (for the most part) advocates in their own right. Of course they are negatively influenced by what they see as advocacy for policies they oppose. Should climate scientists not advocate for what they feel in important because they should be intimidated by advocates that disagree with them?

If “skeptics” are driven by their own advocacy and political ideology, why should that be the responsibility of climate scientists? And further, nothing that climate scientists do or don’t do will change the advocacy nature of “skeptics.”

IMO, the important issue is not the advocacy itself, but when advocacy results in a poor approach to science. And that would include speculating about cause-and-effect without having quantified and/or validated data to support your speculation.

Please excuse the poor form of copy--and-pasting my own comments from a different always strikes me as somewhat narcissistic when someone does that...but contrary to many of your "skeptical" brethren, you seem interested in a good-faith exchange of views with me.... so I figured it would be worth a shot.

I left other, related comments there as well.

August 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Joshua, thanks for the links and additional thoughts. Welcome staying in touch on these issues - really good discussion. You can send me your non-Kahan blog contact at or feel free to drop by my blog and leave some thoughts - I would welcome your thoughtful and articulate engagement where skeptics commonly frequent.

August 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterB. Fewell

I'll stop in over at your blog from time to time. It will be interesting to see if respectful dialog can continue! Not much of that around these days.

August 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Indeed, Dan. Why would we want to inject observation into discussion of what actually happened? Ok, if one were a scientist, efforts towards impartial observation might be relevant. I notice neither of your links was to the video. And general articles really aren't terribly relevant in specific cases -- like whether you can listen to yourself and render an accurate transcript.

Still holding with your evidence-free claim that being called 'antiscience' is as bad as 'child molester'?

Re. Gore v. Limbaugh agreeing on 10^9 times as many parts of science as they disagree on --- neither knows enough science for that to be true. There's at least one largish chunk of science they disagree on, and they don't know another 10^9 comparable chunks. But it's crucial to you to believe, for whatever reason, that everybody is in almost complete agreement about science, so you say such things and protect your belief. Far more accurate to say that most people _ignore_ most science. But that would require that you pose your hypotheses and tests differently -- so as to allow for that result to be found.

It occurs to me, once freed of thinking you were looking at science communication (in any sense involving communicating science), that the Heartland Institute, among others, has been carrying out your program. As you observed, certain groups are not going to listen to 'that Fidel Castro-looking guy'. So Heartland tries to make believing in climate change equal to the Unabomber. (Bin-Laden would have followed). And, though the billboard was taken down, they explicitly (see end of the note) do _not_ apologize for it. Congratulations! This is just what you're looking for. Just more of it, from all directions.

August 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterplutarchnet

One thing to remember about the NYT Op-Ed piece is that Dr. Frank is engaging in scientific and political misinformation in pursuit of policy. In other words he is another "pot calling the kettle black." The law in NC was to enforce the previously accepted methodology and against a methodology that was based on speculative methods. Using past sea level increases to project future sea level increases has been effective. The problem with the new methodology was that it used few years at a time of apparent accelerating sea level increases to predict accelerating acceleration without using statistical tools to determine if such could be supported. It was about a purported hot spot, and ignored times when the rise was de-accelerating. Since that time, others' research showed that the assumptions were essentially cherry picking, basing the relationship on gauges where subsidence was a problem, and a questionable statistical model. Frank does this while lamenting "And all of this is happening in a culture that is less engaged with science and technology as intellectual pursuits than at any point I can remember." It appears the NC legislature BS detectors were working quite well. Too bad Dr. Frank's is less capable.

Joshua, how would you answer this point? "If climate scientists are driven by their own advocacy and political ideology, why should that be the responsibility of citizens? And further, nothing that citizens do or don’t do will change the bias of these climate scientists." Not only is the brush very large, you appear to be painting a just so story. Where I disagree is that I agree with your statement "the important issue is not the advocacy itself, but when advocacy results in a poor approach to science. And that would include speculating about cause-and-effect without having quantified and/or validated data to support your speculation." But more so. I don't see how you can disentangle advocacy and the results of poor science caused by the advocacy. The scientists advocate the poor science. Look at Dr. Frank's contribution to misinformation.

BF: Inglis is from my state. There was more to his demise than just climate change. He also didn't seem to understand that in a conservative state, that conservative on climate change meant taking a wait and see attitude until there was a narrower range in the science.

Part of what is missing in these discussions is just how broad the "consensus" is. And both sides use this lack of definition of what a good climate sensitivity is, and the lack of definition of what the consensus is, to further their side's advocacy.

August 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

Culture presents us with much that is real and also less that is illusory. From a psychological standpoint, because humans are shaped early and pervasively by cultural transmissions in our perception of reality, it is an evolutionary challenge for humankind to see the world as it is. When a psychologist thinks a patient is suffering from a mental illness, that is an evidence-based clinical judgment. However, general standards of normalcy are not clinical judgments, but matters of socio-cultural norms and conventions that are full of correctly perceived aspects of reality as well as some misperceptions of reality. Deeply disturbed mental patients distort reality drastically. “Normal” people pay no attention to them. Or if attention is paid to them, it is usually just long enough to put them away. After all, they are crazy; they cannot distinguish what is fantasy from what is real.

By way of contrast, organizations like nation-states, as well as cultures, appear not to misperceive reality so sharply, yet distortions of what large aggregates of people perceive do remain. A term of art in psychology is useful here, “folie a deux.” The term means that two people share an identical distortion of reality. This understanding leads to other terms, “folie a deux cent million” for a social order or “folie a deux billion” for a culture. These terms refer to a misperception of reality commonly held by many people of an organization or culture. One way to define the highest standard of what is “normal” for the individual and for human aggregates could be looked at in terms of what is free of illusion, what is real, according to ‘the lights’ and best available science we possess.

Even experts confuse ideology with science, contrived logic with reason, self-interested thinking with common sense….and fantasy with reality. Science regarding activities of the human population appears to be denied when ignorance of the world as it is serves to support greed-mongering, social order, religious dogma and culture. Self-interested thought leads to distortions of what could be real and to cultural bias in science. In such instances, fantasy is embraced everywhere; knowledge of what could be real is eschewed.

Humanity is now confronted with formidable, human-driven global challenges. Some of them are already visible on the far horizon. We can also recognize how the blinding power of certain adamantly maintained and widely shared culturally transmitted fantasies regarding global consumption, production and propagation activities of the human species could have mesmerized many experts into thinking that the humankind is somehow not an integral part of the natural world we inhabit. They mistake the fantasy of human exceptionalism regarding population dynamics for reality. It is the fantasy of human exceptionalism that has been broadcast ubiquitously during my lifetime as if it was real.

What is aiding the perpetuation of fantasy and the denial of reality? Why the stony silence among top-ranked experts regarding the soon to become, patently unsustainable growth of the human population worldwide, while the false hope of population stabilization and an end to population growth soon has been broadcast everywhere as if such an attractive idea had the support of sound science?

Extant science indicates with remarkable simplicity and clarity that Demographic Transition Theory, for example, is a misleading, incomplete, ideologically-driven, logical contrivance that just so happens to be politically convenient, economically expedient, religiously tolerable, socially agreeable and culturally prescribed. Demographic Transition Theory is not adequately supported, indeed it is directly contradicted, by heretofore unchallenged scientific research referred to in this presentation.

How did this collective, willful denial of what could be real occur on our watch? Rather than ‘what could be real’, we have been bombarded with broadcasts of false hopes and promises regarding a benign and somehow magically automatic end to human population growth soon. Bought-and-paid-for experts have been acting as gatekeepers of the status quo and censors of science. Powerful people inside and outside science have been colluding to deny scientific research of human population dynamics and the demographic transition.

A new kind of leader and follower from within the family of humanity can do better, and I trust we will soon enough by awakening collectively to the need for behavior change rather than continue down the primrose path that Rachel Carson called a superhighway. The adamant advocacy and relentless pursuit by TPTB of a fantasy-driven, morally disengaged and patently unsustainable (superhigh)way of life — one of endless population growth and economic expansion — has to acknowledged, addressed and overcome.

August 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteven Earl Salmony

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