MAPKIA! Episode 31 "Answer": culturally programmed risk predispositions alert to "fracking" but say "enh" (pretty much) to GM foods
Tuesday, January 21, 2014 at 7:14PM
Dan Kahan

Okay!  "Tomorrow" has arrived, which means it's time to real the "answer" "yesterday's" "MAPKIA!" episode.

As you no doubt recall, the question was ...

(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 science comprehension, as measured by SCICOMP, affect the relationship between people's environmental-risk predispositions and their perceptions of the dangers posed by GM food and fracking, respectively?

What made this an interesting question, I thought, was that both "fracking" and GM foods are novel risk sources.

If you read this blog ... Hmmm...

I was going to say if you read this blog this might surprise you, because in that case you have a weridly off-the-scale degree of interest in political debates over environmental risks and thus are grossly over-exposed to people discussing and arguing about fracking and GM food risks and what "the public" thinks about the same.  

But if you do regularly read this blog, then you, unlike most of the other weird people who fit that description, actually know that most Americans haven't heard of fracking and aren't too sure what GM foods are either.

Indeed, if you regularly read this blog (why do you? weird!), then you know that the claim "GM foods are to liberals what climate change is to conservatives!!" is an internet meme with no genuine empirical substance.  I've reported data multiple times showing that GM foods do not meaningfully divide ordinary members of the public along partisan or cultural lines.  The idea that they do is not a fact but a "rule" that one must accept to play a parlor game (one much less interesting than "MAPKIA!") that consists in coming up with just-so explanations for non-existent trends in public opinion.

But I thought, hey, let's give the claim that GM foods are politically polarized etc. as sympathetic a trial as possible. Let's take a look after turning up the resolution of our "cultural risk predisposition" microscope and see if there's anything going on. 

To make what I mean by that a bit clearer, let's step back and talk about different ways to measure latent risk predispositions.

"Cultural cognition" is one framework a person genuinely interested in facts about risk perceptions can use to operationalize the hypothesis that motivated reasoning shapes individuals' perceptions of culturally or politically contested risks.

What's distinctive about cultural cognition -- or at least most distinctive about it -- is how it specifies the latent motivating disposition.  Building on Douglas and Wildvasky's "cultural theory of risk," the cultural cognition framework posits that individuals will assess evidence (all kinds, from the inferences they draw from empirical data to the impressions they form with their own senses) in a manner that reinforces their connection to affinity groups, whose members share values or cultural worldviews that can be characterized along two dimensions--"hierarchy-egalitarianism" and "individualism-communitarianism."  Attitudinal scales, consisting of individual survey items, are used to measure the unobservable or latent risk predispositions that "motivate" this style of assessing information.

But there are other ways to operationalize the "motivated reasoning" explanation for conflict over risk.  E.g., one could treat conventional left-right political outlooks as the "motivator," and measure the predispositions that they generate with valid indicators, such as party identification and self-reported liberal-conservative ideology.

Do that, and in my view you aren't offering a different explanation for public controversy over risk and like facts. Rather you are just applying a different measurement scheme.

And for the most part, that scheme is inferior to the one associated with cultural cognition. By that, I mean (others might have other criteria for assessment, but to me these are the only ones that are worth any thoughtful person's time) that the cultural worldview measures of latent risk predispositions have more utility in explainining, predicting, and fashioning prescriptions than does any founded on left-right ideology.

I've illustrated this before by showing how much left-right measures understate the degree of cultural polarization that exists among ordinary, relatively nonpartisan members of the public (the vast number who are watching America's Funniest Pet Videos when tiny audiencies tune in to either Madow or O'Reily) on certain issues, including climate change.

Cultural worldviews are more discerning if one is trying to measure the unobserved or latent group affinities at work in this setting. 

But certainly it should be possible to come up with even more discerning measures still. In fact, in between blog posts, that's all I spend my time on (that and listening to Freddie Mecury albums).

In a previous blog post, I referred to an alternative measurement strategy that I identified with Leiserowtiz's notion of "interpretive communities."  In this approach, one measures the latent, shared risk predisposition of the different affinity groups' members by assessing their risk perceptions directly.  The risk perceptions are the indicators for the scale one forms to explore variance and test hypotheses about its sources and impact.

I formed a set of "interpretive community" measures by running factor analysis on a battery of risk perceptions assessed with the "industrial strength" measure.  The analysis identified two orthogonal latent "factors," which, based on their respective indicators, I labeled the "public safety" and "social-deviancy" risk predispositions.

How useful is this strategy for explaining, predicting, and forming prescriptions relating to contested risk?

The answer is "not at all" if one is interested in explaining etc. any of the risk perceptions that are the indicators of the "interpretive community" scale.  If one goes about things that way, then the explanans -- the interpregtive community (IC) scale-- has been analytically derived from the explanandum-- i.e., the risk one is trying to explain. This approach is obviously circular, and can yield no meaningful insight.

But if one is trying to make sense of perceptions of a novel or in any case not yet well understood risk perception, then a latent-measurement strategy like the IC one could well be quite helpful.

In that case, because the risk perception that one is interested in examining is not an indicator of the IC scale, there won't be the circularity that I just described.

In addition, the IC risk measure is likely to be more discerning with respect to that risk than the cultural cognition worldview scales.  

That's because individual risk perceptions are necessarily even more proximate, measurementwise, to the latent risk-perception predisposition that generates them than are latent-variable indicators relating to values and other individual characteristics.

Accordingly, if we think the relationship between a motivating predisposition and a risk perception might be weak -- or if we just aren't sure what the relationship might be -- then it might be quite sensible to use an IC method to measure the predisposition.

The inferences we'll be able to draw about why any relationship exists will be less suggestive of the operative social and psychological influences than ones we could have drawn if we measured the predisposition with indicators more remote ("distal") from individual risk perceptions. But if a valid IC scale picks up a relationshp that is too weak to have registered otherwise, then we'll know at least a bit more than we would have.  And if nothing shows up, we can be even more confident that the risk perception in question just isn't one that originates in the sort of dynamics that generate cultural cognition & like forms of motivated reasoning. . . . 

So I thought I'd try an IC apparoach for genetically modified foods rather than just repeat for the billionth time that there isn't any reason for characterizing them as a source of meaningful public conflict, much less one that pits "anti-science scared liberals" against conservatives. 

I formed a simple aggregate Likert scale by normalizing the sum of the (normalized) scores on responses to the industrial-strength risk perception measure as applied to global warming, nuclear power, toxic waste disposal, and air pollution.  I confirmed not only that the resulting scale was highly reliable (Cronbach's α = 0.82) but also that it generated a sharp division among individuals whose cultural outlooks-- "egalitarian communitarian" and "hierarch individualist," respectively--tend to divide over environmental and technological risks.

I confirmed too that the degree of cultural division associated with these risks increases as people with these outlooks score higher on a science-comprehension measure -- as one would expect if cultural cognition is motivating individuals to use their critical reasoning abilities to form identity-congruent rather than truth-congruent beliefs.

That gives me confidence that ENVRISK_SCALE, the aggregate Likert measure, supplies the high-resolution instrument I was after to examine GM food risk perceptions, and fracking ones, too, just for fun.

To appreciate how cool what one can see with ENVRISK_SCALE is, consider first the blurry, boring view one gets with a right-left political-outlook scale, which as I indicated supplies only a low-resolution measurement of the relevant motivating dispositions.

These scatterplots array members of the 1800-or-so-member, nationally representative sample with respect to their right-left political outlooks, measured with a composite scale formed by aggregating their responses to a party-identification measure and to a liberal-conservative ideology measure, and their perceptions of global warming, fracking, and GM food risks, all of which are assessed with the industrial-strength measure.

The visible diagonal pattern formed by the observations, which are colored "warm," red & orange for "high" risk concern" and "cold" green/blue for "low," shows that there is a strong right-left political influence on climate-change risk perceptions.

By the same token, the absence of much of a diagonal pattern for GM food risk perceptions illustrates how trivially political outlooks influence them.

To quantify this, I plotted regression lines, and also reported the R^2's, which reflect the "percentage of variance" in the respective risk perceptions (models here) "explained" by the right-left political outlook measure.  In the case of global warming, left-right outlooks explain an "impressively large!" 42% of the variance.  For GM food risks, political outlooks explain a humiliatingly small 2%.... But hey, don't let facts get in the way if you want to keep "explaining" why liberals are so worried about GM food risks!

Now, interestingly, right-left political outlooks explain 30% of the variance in fracking risk perceptions.  That's also "impressively large!"  Seriously, it is, because as I said, most members of the public don't know much if anything about fracking; I suspect at least 50% had never heard of it before the study!

I could turn up the resolution with cultural outlook measures but I've done that a bunch of times in the past and not seen anything interesting on GM foods.

So now let's zoom in with the even higher-resolution ENVRISK_SCALE.

Here I've just plotted fitted regression lines for the sample as a whole, and lowess ones for those subjects in the bottom 50% & top 10% on the "science comprehension" scale. I've left out global warming, for as I indicated, it makes zero sense to use an attitudinal scale to explain variance in one of its indicators.

Clearly, ENVRISK_SCALE is more discerning than are right-left political outlooks.  The R^2s have gone up a lot!

Indeed, at this point, I'm willing to accept that something at least slightly interesting seems to be going on with GM foods.  There are no "hard and fast" rules in assessing when an R^2 is "impressively large!" (I think the main value of R^2 is in comparing the relative fit or explanatory power of models, in fact).  But my practical sense is that the "action" that ENVRISK_SCALE is indeed meaningful, and suggestive of at least a weak predisposition among individuals, mainly egalitarian communitarians, who are on the "risk concerned" side of issues like climate change and nuclear power to worry.

The impact of science comprehension is also quite revealing, however, and cuts the other way!

As one would (or ought to) expect for risk perceptions that genuinely trigger motivated reasoning, science comprehension magnifies the polarizing effect of the disposition measured by ENVRISK_SCALE for fracking.

But it doesn't for GM foods.  Science comprehension predicts less risk concern, but it does so pretty uniformly across the range of the disposition measured by ENVRISK_SCALE.  

That suggests positions on GM foods aren't particularly important to anyone's identity.  If they were, then we'd expect the most science-comprehending members of competing groups to be picking up the scent of incipient conflict & assuming their usual vanguard role.

So on balance, I'm a little more open to the idea that GM foods could be a source of meaningful societal conflict--but only a tiny bit more.  More importantly, I'm less sure of what I believed than before & anticipate that someone or something might well surprise me here -- that would be great.

I'm really excited, though, about fracking!

Fracking already seems to warrant being viewed as a matter of cultural dispute despite its relatively novelty.  There's something about it that jolts individuals into assimilating their impressions of it to the ones they have on cluster of very familiar contested risks (climate, nuclear, air pollution, chemical wastes) that are the focus of the ENVRISK_SCALE.  That the most science-comprehending individuals are even more polarized on fracking suggests that the future for fracking might well look a lot like that for climate change.

As I adverted to last time, it's possible -- likely even-- that the wording of the fracking item, by referring to to "natural gas" being "extracted" from the earth, helped to cue relatively unfamiliar or even completely unfamiliar respondents as to what position to form.  But I think the settings in which people are likely to encounter information about fracking are likely to be comparably rich in such cues.

So watch out fracking industry!  And everyone else, for that matter.

Well, who won the game this particular "MAPKIA!" contest?

I'm going to have to say no one.

There were literally thousands of entries, most sent in via postcards from around the globe.

But for the most part, people just assumed that GM food risks perceptions would behave like the other risk perceptions measured by the ENVRISK_SCALE, both in the nature and extent of variance and their interaction with science comprehension.

Given the hundreds of thousands of Macanese children who never miss a "MAPKIA!" episode and who undertandably view its players as role models, I can't in good conscience declare anyone the winner under these circumstances! 

As I've emphasized -- zillioins of times -- cultural polarization on risks is the exception and not the rule. Ignoring the denominator-- as commentators sadly do all too often -- makes cogent explanations of this dynamic impossible

No problem whatsoever, of course, to predict a polarized future for GM food risks. But we're not there yet, and any interesting prediction of why that's where we'll end up would have to reflect a decent theoretical account of why GM foods will emerge as one of the lucky few risk sources that get to travel down the polarization path when so many don't.

Feel free to file your appeals, however, in the comments section!

Article originally appeared on cultural cognition project (
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