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« MAPKIA! Episode 31 "Answer": culturally programmed risk predispositions alert to "fracking" but say "enh" (pretty much) to GM foods | Main | Secular cultural trends punctuated by noisy, emotional peaks & valleys: surveying the psychology landscape of mass opinion, mass shootings, & gun control »

MAPKIA! Episode 31: what is the relationship between "environmental risk perception" predispositions, science comprehension & perceptions of the risks of (a) fracking & (b) GM foods?!

Example MAPKIA winner's prize (actual prize may differ)Okay everybody!

Time for another episode of Macau's favorite game show...: "Make a prediction, know it all!," or "MAPKIA!"!

By now all 14 billion regular readers of this blog can recite the rules of "MAPKIA!" by heart, but here they are for the 16,022 new 2014 subscribers:

I, the host, will identify an empirical question -- or perhaps a set of related questions -- that can be answered with CCP data.  Then, you, the players, will make predictions and explain the basis for them.  The answer will be posted "tomorrow."  The first contestant who makes the right prediction will win a really cool CCP prize (like maybe this or possibly some other equally cool thing), so long as the prediction rests on a cogent theoretical foundation.  (Cogency will be judged, of course, by a panel of experts.)  

The motivation for this week's show came from a twitter exchange between super-insightful psychologist Daniel Gilbert & others on whether "liberals" are "anti-science" on GM Foods.

Kind of ruins the "motivated-reasoning mirror on the wall, who is the most anti-science of all?!" game, but I can't help resorting to data whenever I catch an episode of that particular show.

In this case, however, the data surprised me! (Shit--weird things tend to happen when I say I am surprised by my data.... Oh well, too late.)

So I figured I'd give others a chance to play "MAPKIA!"" & see if they, unlike me, could accurately foresee what the data would say.

There's some background/windup here, so bear with me!

c'mon ... click me!(1) Let's start by constructing a simple scale for measuring "environmental risk perception" predispositions generally.  Members of an N = 2000 nationally representative sample of individuals recruited last summer to take part in CCP studies responded to a battery of "industrial grade" risk perception items, including ones on global warming, air pollution, nuclear power, and disposal of toxic chemical wastes.  The responses to those particular items formed a highly reliable (Cronbach's α = 0.82) aggregate Likert scale, which I labeled ... "ENVRISK_SCALE."

(2) ENVRISK_SCALE can be viewed as measuring a latent or unobserved predispostion toward culturally polarizing environmental risks.  That was my goal in forming it.

Just to confirm that I was measuring what I thought I was measuring, I regressed ENVRISK_SCALE on the "hierarchy-egalitarian" and "individualist-communitarian" worldview scales.  As expected, both scales were negatively associated with ENVRISK_SCALE -- i.e., Egalitarian Communitarians were risk sensitive, and Hierarch Individualists risk dismissive. The model R^2 was an "impressively large!" 0.43.

Moreover, as every school -boy or -girl in Macau would have predicted, these effects interact with science comprehension, an aptitude measured with SCICOMP, a composite formed from the NSF's "science literacy" indicators & a long version of Frederick's "cognitive reflection test. That is, consistent with the signature of "expressive rationality," the polarizing effect of the cultural worldviews grow even more intense as subjects' science comprehension scores increase.

Take a look!

Okay! We are almost ready for the "MAPKIA!" question.  

In addition to the global warming, nuclear power, air pollution, and toxic waste disposal items, the survey instrument also had "industrial grade" measures for both fracking & GM foods. That is, the respondents were asked to indicate "how much risk do you believe" each of those two "pose[] to human health, safety, or prosperity" on a 7-point scale (0 “no risk at all”; 1 “Very low risk”;  2 “Low risk”; 3 “Between low and moderate risk”; 4 “Moderate risk”; 5 “Between moderate and high risk”; 6 “High risk”; 7 “Very high risk”).

I suspected that at least half of the subjects would have no idea what "fracking" was -- after all, like 50% of the rest of the country, 50% of the respondents didn't know the length of the term of a U.S. Senator.

So when respondents got to this particular entry on the randomly ordered (separate page each) list of two dozen or so putative risk sources, they were asked to indicate the seriousness of the risk posed by " 'fracking'  (extraction of natural gas by hydraulic fracturing)."

I didn't use any analogous hints for GM foods.  Respondents were simply instructed to indicate how serious they thought the risks posed by "genetically modified food" were.

But in fact, GM foods are also a fairly novel risk source. Whether they threaten human health is another issue that most ordinary members of the public have given little if any thought to.

Because both "fracking" & GM food risks aren't nearly so salient -- aren't nearly so entangled in relentless, high-profile forms of cultural conflict-- as global warming, nuclear power, air pollution, or even toxic waste disposal, it would be surprising if cultural worldviews explained a lot of variance in individuals' perceptions of how dangerous they are.

If we really want to give these risk perceptions a "fair chance" to show that they are responsive to the gravitational force of cultural contestation, then we need to turn up the resolution of of our measuring instrument to compensate for the remoteness of fracking and GM foods from the center of everyday tribal rivalry.

ENVRISK_SCALE fits the bill. The risk perception items that are its indicators are necessarily even more proximate to whatever the unobserved or latent group affinity is generating the cultural cognition of risk than are the cultural worldview measures.  Why not be really generous, I thought in my own know-it-all way as I reflected on the DG twitter colloquy, & use a culturally infused environmental risk perception measure to show what the evidence really has to say about who fears GM foods & why? 

So now the question, which has two subparts:

(i) What is the relationship between environmental-risk predispositions, as measured by ENVRISK_SCALE, and perceptions of GM food risks and fracking, respectively? And (ii), how, if at all, does respondents' level of science comprehension, as measured by SCICOMP, affect the relationship between their environmental-risk predispositions and their perceptions of the dangers posed by GM food and fracking, respectively?

Ready ... get set ..."MAPKIA!" 

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Reader Comments (12)

I would expect it to break down the way other risk perceptions break down, high risk on the left, low on the right, more so by the scientifically minded. I spend time in NY state, and fracking is a highly politically charged issue (political football). Again with my rural/urban paradigm, rural Republican landowners stand to make huge money with fracking, urban Democrats do not. In Democrat NY state, if the Democrats ever manage to tax fracking income at greater than 50% (or get their hands on it some other way), fracking will begin an hour or two later. Until then, not a chance. In Republican Pennsylvania, they are fracking the same reservoir like there's no tomorrow, but then, the money goes to the rural Republicans. And so it goes. The distortions of the science by both sides is severe, and very reflective of political culture.

January 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL

@Dan - also - where can I find the question set for ENVRISK?

January 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL

In rural PA the governor and legislature had to take the decision -making power related to fracking out of the hands of the Republicans in the rural communities - because they were worried that things might not go so smoothly for the industry if they didn't. I think that your dichotomy is a bit simplistic, FrankL. There attitudes towards fracking is mixed in many PA communities.

What part of NY State?

January 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua - Just west of Binghamton - Yes, attitudes are mixed in every community, but the majority is pretty much Republican in the rural areas, particularly for landowners I bet. (see here - not many rural reds but loads of rural purples.) But I don't understand - do you know how and why rural PA Republicans were making things unsmooth for the industry?

January 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL


Act 13 (obviously passed with Repuiblican support dominating) eliminated local zoning authority over oil and gas extraction. It is the kind of development that you and I have discussed previously; an example where ideology (in this case anti-centralization/anti-state ideology) of Republicans can be quite context-specific.

So it wasn't Republicans exclusively that might make things go less smoothly for the industry, but it was the Republicans (and Dems) in various municipalities where Republicans predominate.

The state Supreme Court partially overturned it in part in: Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

I moved up to the Catskills (West Hurley) in July.

January 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


The ENVRISK_SCALE measure is a composite Likert scale. I normalized the sum of the (normalized) responses to 8-point "industrial strength" risk-perception items for "nuclear power," "global warming," "air pollution," & "disposal of hazardous wastes in landfill sites. Click on this sentence to examine items & also summary statistics.

January 18, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Dan - good, thanks, my prediction doesn't change!

@Joshua - so it was a (failed?) attempt by the Republican state to prevent locals, whoever they are, from deciding on the fracking issue? That's interesting. I think its much the same in NY, locals cannot decide.

I don't see Republicans as ideology driven any more than Democrats. I think of the two parties as single mindedly dedicated to the acquisition of political power. Various ideologies (particularly liberal and conservative) and single-issue groups choose one or the other based on which party "steps on their toes" the least. The parties concern themselves with ideology only to the extent that it enhances their political power, which does not mean they hardly concern themselves at all, on the contrary, Republicans have to hew the conservative line and Democrats the liberal line because these are large blocs in their respective parties. But things are constantly shifting. Republicans used to be the go-to party for black people. The civil rights act of 1963 was passed by an overwhelming Republican vote, with only half the Democrats voting for it (the southern Democrats voted against). But there are moves and counter-moves and now its the other way around. The parties are not wedded to any particular ideology. That's why it's very likely that neither will ever "destroy" the other.

So the PA state Republicans evidently went against the conservative ideology because they made the calculation that their political power would increase by doing so. To me that's a piece of information, not a cause for indignation. I would expect the same out of Democrats if a similar situation arose and would not be indignant over that either.

January 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL

FrankL -

A couple of thoughts.

I don't see as much of a distinction as perhaps you see between the parties and their constituencies. Just as party representatives seek to exploit ideology to accrue power, so do constituencies exploit ideology to increase the power of their group and to diminish the power of "the other." Constituencies seek to imbue their party leaders with increased power so as to increase the power of their group.

(Although I frequently vote based on choosing the lesser of evils), I fundamentally disagree that people choose parties that step on their toes the least as a stand-alone motivator. People choose parties to affirm their identity, at least to some extent.

Certainly you know that for the most part there were changes in party constituency and party ID corresponding with a shift in party platform on civil rights so I'm not sure what point you were making in bringing that up. I raise the question because I often read "conservatives" arguing that the votes on civil rights legislation somehow means that current-day Republcans are more supportive civil rights than curren-day Dems.

The PA State party leaders went against conservative ideology not to increase their power directly as in increase the size of their constituency directly, but to increase their coffers (money from industry lobbies), which would indirectly increase their political viability

I don't find it a cause for indignation. I find it a cause for believing that cultural cognition/identity protection trumps ideology, as opposed to derives from it.

Of course the same would be expected of Dems - cultural cognition/motivated reasoning is not attributable to party ID.

January 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua - yup, I think you are right. It's a two-way street, but I think affirming identity is a big part of "not stepping on toes". I also agree that Republicans have no claim to being supportive of civil rights based on their record of 50 years ago. Actually, that was my point, that the party positions are fluid since they are focused on acquisition of political power rather than strict adherence to a particular ideology. I'm interested in the NY vs. PA fracking controversy, but I am more familiar with the NY side. That PA info is interesting.

January 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL

Check out how much Corbett got from the fracking industry. It's really pretty mind-blowing.

We were looking to move to the Calicoon/Demascus area before we wound up moving here to West Hurley. At the time, we got to see up close the divisions over fracking. It's interesting how much less of an issue it is where we are now - no doubt because we are now in the NY City watershed (via the Ashokan Reservoir right up the road). I'd have to think that part of the difference is because of the disproportionate power NY City has in NY politics relative to areas of PA that are downstream of the Delaware River.

January 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

For what it's worth, I lived in Pittsburgh for 14 years before moving back to Boston this summer. Everyone knows (or thinks they know) what fracking is- it's in the news constantly. It seems (in my own observation- so this is 100% anecdotal and non-scientific) to follow the urban-rural pattern. In the city, the more progressive types are very much against fracking, and especially became motivated to resist when there was talk of fracking within city cemetaries and other public grounds. Most of my white, middle class, prius driving, co-op shopping friends were very much against fracking but couldn't really give me any science/factual rationale for their feelings- it always seemed to center more around a distrust of the fracking/natural gas industry, and an issue of individual profit vs. the "common good." Meanwhile, I also knew folks who lived in the more rural areas of southwestern PA (and you only need drive about 20 minutes outside of Pittsburgh to reach them) and they were a lot more understanding- many of them were hurting financially and perfectly willing to accept a good chunk of $$ for rights on their land, which was otherwise not very lucrative to own any more. What's more, the individual vs common good argument seemed to be reversed in a lot of those cases- the individual right to profit seemed to loom large over the weaker arguments for banning it town by town.

Is this purely an individualist vs communitarian issue? I doubt it, and I don't have an answer for this week's question that hasn't already been suggested above- but I can talk at length about my observations on the fracking debate in Pittsburgh if you guys want.

As a liberal in Pittsburgh, I didn't want them to frack in the city and I worried about the exploitation it would imply; as a person with a science background I'm not convinced fracking is harmful (yet). Shrug.

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJen

Jen -

A couple of other observations. In some of the areas where I was looking to buy a house, rural areas, there were exceptions to the patterns you describe. There were long-term locals who were not trusting of the fracking industry and who were concerned about the impact on their land and that of their neighbors, who were concerned about the build-up of roads and increased truck traffic and water quality issues that negatively impacted their lives, etc. Also, there were transplants who lived in the rural areas and who were not particularly in need of the income potential of fracking, and who were opposed to the industry on various grounds, primarily environmental concerns.

I think that for many, opposition or support was not directly tied to some ideological identification, but to a more direct assessment of costs and benefits filtered through a screen of life circumstances. Ideology had little to do with it.

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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