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Some "pathological" public risk perceptions & a whole bunch of "normal" ones

From slides in tak about to give at a biotech conference in Syracuse.  Political differences (or lack thereof) in top slide & "science comprehension" magnification of the same (or lack thereof) in bottom.

More later -- but if anyone wants to offer their own views in the meantime, freel free!

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Reader Comments (4)

Oooh--I love cross-issue comparisons! Cool.

May 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Gelman

I thought it was interesting that in every case, the Right reduce their assessment of risk with increasing scientific comprehension. What are the odds of that?

May 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


The question can't be answered in an informative way w/o an understanding of the the selection criteria for the reported observations. The risk perceptions reported certainly weren't randomly selected from any sort of representative collection.

If you knew what the criteria were, you might conclude that the "odds" were very high yet both perfectly consistent with what you expected and perfectly consistent with the expectation that in the real-world population of "societal risk perceptions" the frequency of risk perceptions for which concern goes up as science literacy increases is as great for right-leaning as for left-leaning. Or maybe not -- but there's no way to know w/o knowing the selection criteria.

But if you have a hypothesis about what the relative frequency of "risk perception goes up" & "goes down" as science comprehension increases w/r/t right- and left-leaning people, tell us what it is!

Then we can figure out which observations it would be possible to make, given the data on hand, that would support an inference one way or the other w/r/t that hypothesis. Part of that process, of course, would be to select "risk perception" observations in a manner that we were satisfied wasn't biased relative to the hypothesis. Probably we could do it -- or if we couldn't w/ the evidence on hand, we could likely agree what sort of evidence to collect that would be acceptable in that regard.

My general imppression is that across the run of putative risk sources, perceived risk goes down w/ any valid measure of one or another disposition related to reasoning proficiency. But sometimes not -- & sometimes not conditional on one or another measure of peoples' group commitments.

I'd be inclined to hypothesize that the frequency of "goes up" has zero correlation w/ ideology. That is, that there will be some number of instances in which it goes up for both left & right-leaning folks, and then equal & off-setting numbers in which it goes up for one but not the other.

My prediction is based on collection of evidence on the "asymmetry thesis", but for sure this is very much a conjecture on my part & I can't even say I've reflected on it enough to know whether the hunch really does follow from what I think I know about "symmetry" of cultural cogntion & like forms of reasoning.

So come up w/ something & maybe this will turn out to be a worthwhile WSMD, JA!

May 17, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I didn't have any particular hypothesis in mind when I made the observation. I just thought it was a highly unlikely combination to have occurred by chance.

I've seen cases in the past where experimenters picked topics based on their own political/cultural context and interests, which I thought might have introduced a bias that could explain the political asymmetry they saw in their results. In this case, the topics don't show the same partisan bias of that other study, and I'm not suggesting that's the case here, but the coincidence clearly isn't accidental. p = 0.5^9 is significant.

But just for fun, here's a possible hypothesis to consider. There is a familiar phenomenon of the 'media scare story'. Drama sells, and the media whose mission is to attract a big audience rather than to educate them, commonly publish alarming stories based on marginal science about risks and dangers to the public. There is a general media bias towards overselling the danger - bogus threats would be picked up more commonly than scientifically solid threats would be ignored.

I suspect your list came from the category of well-known (and hence media-driven) science stories about risk, and would therefore have picked up a large proportion of 'scare stories'. In the case of most scare stories, the more scientifically aware you are, the lower you will think the risk to be.

The only instances of the assessment of risk *increasing* with scientific literacy are global warming and fracking, and then only for the Left. These are related topics where political/cultural identity has a tendency to override other factors - but it's interesting that it only does so for the more scientifically literate.

So my hypothesis is that those with a low scientific understanding get their views primarily from the mainstream media, and those with high scientific understanding get their information from other sources to a greater extent. The former tend to take the same position as the popular media on any given topic, resulting in little if any partisan division. The latter are more likely aware of counter-evidence, and more likely to treat media scare stories with suspicion.

But that's just a random guess without much thought put into it, and I'm sure many other hypotheses could be devised. I've got no particular stake in this one.

May 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

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