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« What you "believe" about climate change doesn't reflect what you know; it expresses *who you are* | Main | Want to improve climate-science communication (I mean really, seriously)? Stop telling just-so stories & conducting "messaging" experiments on MTurk workers & female NYU undergraduates & use genuine evidence-based methods in field settings instead »

No, I don't think "cultural cognition is a bad thing"; I think a *polluted science communication environment* is & we should be using genuine evidence-based field communication to address the problem

Stenton Benjamin Danielson has a characteristically thoughtful post, 95% of which I agree with, on cultural cognition, "public opinion," and promoting constructive public engagement with climate science.  But of course the 5%-- which has to do with whether I think "cultural cognition" is a "bad thing" that is to be overcome rather than a dynamic to be deployed to promote such engagement -- sticks in my craw!  Maybe this response will get us closer to 100% agreement--if not by moving him a full 5% in my direction, then maybe by  provoking him to elaborate & thereby move me some fraction of the remainder toward his point of view.

 So read what he says.  Then read this:

Part of the problem, I'm sure, is that I'm an imperfect communicator.

Another is the infeasibility of saying everything one believes every time one says anything.

But it is simply not the case that I view

cultural cognition as unreservedly bad -- a sort of disease or pollution in our debate about an issue, something to be prevented or neutralized whenever possible so that we can make rational assessments of the evidence.

On the contrary, I view it is an indispensable element of rational thought, one that contributes in a fundamental way to the capacity of individuals to participate in, and thus extend, collective knowledge. See generally:  

Cultural cognition conduces to persistent states of public controversy over what's known only in a polluted science communication environment: one in which antagonistic cultural meanings become attached to positions on risk and policy-relevant facts, and transform them into badges of membership in opposing cultural groups.  

That's not normal.  It is a pathology that disables rational thought precisely because it disconnects cultural cognition from discernment of the best available evidence.

We can treat this pathology, and better still avoid the occurrence of it, through evidence-based science-communication-environment protection practices

See generally:  

I also agree, by the way, that "messaging" campaigns aimed at influencing "public opinion" generally are an absurd waste of time, not to mention waste of the money of those eager to support climate-science communication efforts.  This approach to "science communication" not only reflects a psychologically unrealistic account of how people come to know what's known by science but betrays an elementary-school level of comprehension of basic principles of political economy

Don't "message" people with "struggle for the soul of America" appeals. 

Show them that engaging climate science is "normal" by enabling them to see that people they recognize as competent and informed are using it to guide their practical decisions.  That is how ordinary people -- very rationally -- recognize how to orient themselves appropriately with the best available evidence on all manner of issues. 

Understanding the contribution that cultural cognition makes to individuals' rational apprehension of what is known is, I believe, is indispensable to that strategy for promoting constructive public engagement with climate science.  I'm glad to see that you agree with me on that -- even if you hadn't discerned that I agree with you! 

Those "risk experts" who want to contribute, moreover, should stop telling just-so stories-- give up the facile "take-'biases'-&-'heuristics'-literature-add-water-&-stir" form of "instant decision science"-- and go to the places where real people are trying to figure out how to use climate science to make their lives better.

Go there and genuinely help them by systematically testing their experience-informed hypotheses about how to reproduce in the world the sorts of things that experimental methods using cultural cognition and other theories suggest will improve public engagement with climate science.

We don't need more stylized lab experiments that try to convince us that things that real-world evidence manifestly show won't work actually will if we just keep doing them (followed when they don't by whinging about "the forces of evil" who--as was perfectly foreseeable--told members of the public whom you were targetting not to believe your "message").

Climate scientists update their models to reflect ten years of data.  Climate advocates should too.  



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Reader Comments (2)

I'd be inclined to disagree with a slightly different part.

"By and large we believe in or deny anthropogenic climate change because that belief is socially rewarded in our cultural group, not because we've rationally assessed the evidence."

This is a hypothesis for which I've seen no evidence. Yes, belief in CAGW is determined by cultural group. But it is unknown (so far as I can see) which aspect of the cultural group has this effect, or how.

And it also depends what is meant by "rationally assessed the evidence". I doubt very much that many people on *either* side have even *looked* at the evidence, let alone have the skills to rationally assess it. (Unless of course you consider the opinions of authorities as 'evidence', in which case it depends more on who you regard as an authority. I'm not sure what rational assessment you can do - either you trust them or you don't.)

But for those who have looked at the evidence, I would say that both sides regard their assessment as rational. They use different assumptions, standards of evidence, thresholds, and have access to different sources and arguments through their cultural networks. They will assess expertise in subjects they don't know based on how well an expert does on other claims in subjects they *do* know (or think they do). They will sometimes lazily substitute pre-established conclusions for recalculation, or recheck unexpected/uncomfortable conclusions more carefully, looking for something wrong. I know a fair few will recognise the political impact of surveys and scientific studies and try to manipulate the results to their own political advantage. But I really don't think anyone cynically assesses how this will impact in their social group before coming to an opinion on what is *true*. Expressing it, sure; lots of people don't say what they think. But what sort of person thinks that what is politically correct to say is ipso facto necessarily true?

April 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

"But I really don't think anyone cynically assesses how this will impact in their social group before coming to an opinion on what is *true*."

My guess is that the theory is that it's not a conscious process of assessing and then deciding. It's an unconscious process whereby one's orientation within a social group affects what form their "rational" assessment takes.

I disagree somewhat, as I don't think that it is deeper than just a focus on one's place in a group, but factors related to ones own self-identification are also very influential.

April 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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