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« Disentanglement principle corollary no. 16a: "You don't have to choose ... between being a reality tv star & being excited to learn what science knows (including what it knows about how people come to know what's known by science)" | Main | Mine goes to 11 ... or 10, at least, for now »

"Hey Joe": "Practical scholarship" on climate "science communication"

Sorry for lack of context here, but my guess is that it will become clear enough after a few sentences.

Dear Joe:

I apologize for disparaging your work at the Society for Risk Analysis session yesterday.  You perceived my remarks that way, and on reflection I can see why you did, & why others likely formed the same impression.  I truly regret that.

In fact, it wasn’t your work that I meant to be criticizing. 

My intention was to respond to the argument you presented (with the admirable degree of clarity I wish I had been able to summon in response) in favor of “practical scholarship.”  Because you see, I don’t think the sort of work you defended is either practical or scholarly.

You  proposed to those in the room that the empirical study of climate science communication should be evaluated in light of its contribution to a “goal” of promoting a “world war II scale mobilization” of public opinion (I encourage you to post your slides; they were very well done). 

Research aimed at identifying the significance of values & science comprehension for public conflict on climate change (the subject of the panel we were both on; great new research unveiled by the Shi, Visschers, Siegrist team!) doesn’t meet this criterion, you made clear. Indeed, it detracts from it, because, in your opinion, it implies change will take a “long time” (I disagree it implies any such thing but that’s another matter).

As an example of research that is “practical,” you offered your own, which you characterized as aimed at convincing democratic representatives that their prospects for re-election depend on honoring the sorts of “public preferences” revealed by the structured preference-elicitation  methods you described.

You also stated that your work, along with that of others, is intended to “create cover” for officials to take positions supportive of climate change policies (a common refrain among researchers who generate endless streams of public opinion polls purporting to find that there is fact widespread public consensus for one or another climate change mitigation initiative). 

We should all pitch in to help acehieve this result, you exhorted.

Again, to be clear, my point is that this vision of empirical work on science communication is neither “scholarly” nor “practical.”

Scholarship—of the empirical variety, in any event—tries to help people figure out what’s true, particularly under conditions in which there are multiple plausible understandings of phenomena of consequence.  That’s what the scholarship on the relationship between “values” and “science literacy” that you disparaged is about.  The occasion for that scholarly inquiry is a practical one: to figure out what sorts of dynamics are blocking public engagement with the best available evidence on climate change.

What’s definitely not practical (as Theda Skocpol has noted) is to think that public opinion researchers can be mobilized into a project to “show” elected officials what the public “really” wants.

Elected officials are in the profession of satisfying the expectations of their constituents. They invest plenty of money, most of the time wisely, to figure out how to do that.

They know that surveys purporting to show that a “majority” of Republicans support “the EPA's greenhouse gas emission standards” are measuring non-opinion.   They know too that the sort of preference-elicitation methods you demonstrated—however truly valuable they might be for learning about cognition—are not modeling the decisionmaking dynamics that determine election outcomes. 

Most importantly, they know—because those who agree with your conception of “practical scholarship” are constantly proclaiming this-- that your goal is to create an impression in these actors for your own purposes: to help “shove” them into supporting a particular set of policies (enough with these “nudges” already, you inspiringly proclaimed: we are facing the moral equivalent of Hitler invading Europe!), not help them get re-elected. 

They know, in short, that “non-opinion” survey methods are actually intended to message them!  And I would have sort of thought this was obvious, but it’s not a very good “messaging strategy” to incessantly go on & on within earshot of Republicans about “strategies” for “overcoming” the “Republicans' cognitive resistance to climate mitigation.”

The targeted politicians (Democrat and Republican) therefore sensibly discount (ignore really) everything produced by researchers who are following this "message the politicians" strategy.  They listen instead to the professionals, who tell them something very different from what these "practical scholars" are saying (over & over & over; “keep repeating—that it hasn't worked yet is proof that we just need to do it for longer!,”--another refrain inside this bubble) .  Politicians who take what these researchers say at face value, they’ve observed, get knocked out of office. 

I believe there is plenty that science communication researchers  can do to help actual people, including elected officials, promote science-informed decisionmaking relating to climate change by collaborating with them to adapt and test lab insights to their real-world problems. 

The form of research that I think is best for that aims to help those decisionmakers change the meaning of climate change in their communities, so that discussions of it no longer are perceived as being about “whose side are you on” but instead about “what do we know, what more do we need to know, and what should we do.”

That research doesn't try to conjure a new world into existence by disseminatng "studies" that constantly purport to find it already exists. 

It tries to supply people who actually are acting to make such a world with empirical information that they can use to exercise their judgment as best as they can.

Indeed, what motivated my rebuke of you yesterday was frustration at how closely aligned the program you defended (very clearly, very articulately) is with divisive forms of partisan advocacy that actually perpetuate the social meanings that make climate change a “struggle for the soul of America” rather than a practical problem that all Americans, regardless of the cultural identities, have a common interest in fighting. 

Frustration too at how much the sort of "practical" "scholarship" you called for is distracting and diverting and confusing people who are looking to empirical researchers for help.

At how self-defeating it obviously is ever to propose that a criterion other than “figuring out & sharing one’s best understanding of the truth on contested empirical issues” could possibly be practical.   

How twisted it is to call that singularly unscientific orientation  “science communication” research!

It's pretty simple really: Tell people what they need to know, not what they want to hear

That’s both ethical and practical.

Again, sorry I disparaged your scholarly work, which I think can teach people a lot about how people think. 

The intended target was your conception of “practical scholarship.”  And I did very much intend to be critical of that view and of those who are propogating the mindset you very much evinced in your talk.




p.s. My slides from talk on the challenge of "unconfounding" knowledge & identity in measuring "climate change science comprehension."

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Reader Comments (30)


December 8, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Nate Silver on making inferences about what people believe when in fact they are not really paying attention. This happens to be about making conclusions regarding the indestructibility of Trump as a candidate, but oh well, I think it has general applicability:

"One is that most Republicans are still not paying all that much attention to the campaign. Some controversies that garner wall-to-wall coverage from the political press may only reach one-quarter to one-fifth of Americans at home. That mutes the impact of most things the candidates are doing. And any actual effects can easily be overwhelmed by noise in the polling, making it hard to make inferences about causality."

The problem with this, as Nate Silver points out, is that you can create with publicity the very situation which you are trying to avoid:

'Put another way, the media’s obsession over the daily fluctuations in the polls — even when the polls don’t predict very much about voter behavior and don’t necessarily reflect people who are actually likely to vote — may help enable Trump."

Or climate denial, or ......

December 8, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis


What you say is clearly true. But like most things, only sometimes or only under particular conditions, etc!

I think the theory of those who produce the steady stream of "Attention: members of the public; everyone around you favors the the EPA's Greenhouse Gas Emission Guidelines; therefore you do too!," will create the world they want.

Not this time. Not under these conditions.

So stop confusing people, stop wasting everyone's time & resources.

To which the response is, "we just haven't done it *long* enough yet!"

December 8, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Without comment on the main theme of your post...

==> "Elected officials are in the profession of satisfying the expectations of their constituents"

I think that's only a partial picture of their profession. They are also actively engaged in creating expectations (via identity-oriented messaging) among their constituents.

One of my favorite examples should prove illustrative. By capitalizing on inchoate fear of the unknown, Republican politicians effectively created an expectation among many of their constituents for quarantining medical personnel working in countries where there was Ebola, preventing entry into the U.S. of anyone who had recently been in an Ebola-affected country, etc. No matter how impractical and counterproductive such an expectation would be, politicians recognized the potential for political expediency in leveraging a more generalized fear.

As such, I think it is misleading to isolate the kind of messaging that you are disparaging as having a role in influencing the polluted communicative environment related to climate change. Not to discount the potential that you speak to, for those efforts to translate into tools that Republicans/"skeptics" can use to reinforce their own climate change-related ideology, but those efforts do exist within a larger context where people on both sides use climate change as a proxy for ideological warfare.

December 8, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Of course, perhaps more timely, is the comprehensive effort on the part of Republicans and conservatives to create an expectation of countereffective policies to address an exaggerated and cynically exploited risk from terrorism.

What is the solution those efforts to create expectations among their constituents on the part of Republicans? How is that problem effectively dealt with when Dems similarly exploit identity-orientation to create expectations that will divide electoral constituencies? Not to say that rhetoric that demonizes Republican constituencies (or Democratic constituencies on the other side) will be effective...but focusing on the use of such rhetoric will not likely be as effective as more proactively creating open dialogue among participants who are committed to good faith exchange, and who are seeking to find common interests more than defending mutually exclusive positions.

As you seem to be finding in your work in Florida.

December 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Spot on reply from Joe Arvai, I encourage Dan to post this to his audience.

December 9, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous

Personally, I find the concept of an "open letter" to be pretty bizarre. Why write a letter directed towards a given individual, but send (publish) it as a public statement?

Why not just state publicly what your view is (without pretending it's a letter) or send a letter privately? AFAICT, the reason is simply that an "open letter" is a rhetorical device, apparently to score points with an "audience," and not a constructive engagement in exchanging differing views.

December 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"The problem with this, as Nate Silver points out, is that you can create with publicity the very situation which you are trying to avoid [...] Or climate denial, or ......"

It's a good example. Up until fairly late on, Republicans were split in their opinions about climate change roughly fifty fifty. It wasn't actually part of the Republican 'identity'. It only became so because it did become identified with the Democrat left, who used it as a stick to beat their opponents with - branding them 'unscientific', 'ignorant', and part of the global conspiracy to preserve oil profits and stop meaningful action on climate change. (Probably because while conservatives were not generally climate sceptics, most sceptics were strongly conservative.) The Republicans picked it up from the attacks blaming them, learning that this was apparently a signature conservative position, whereupon climate scepticism then became their default position in the absence of any detailed information, on the basis that if the left and right disagreed on it then whatever position the left was supporting was probably wrong. Having ex-presidential candidate for the Democrats Al Gore so closely associated with its public image probably didn't help, either.

It's ironic that it was probably Al Gore and all the people bullying Republicans for their climate scepticism, supposedly with the intention of shaming them into changing their minds, who did the most to make climate scepticism such a signature Republican position. :-)

"Spot on reply from Joe Arvai, I encourage Dan to post this to his audience."

Was that the 'Joe' Dan was talking about? He misses the point completely. Dan's not criticising his scholarly papers - he even apologises for having given that impression - but Joe's use of science in the service of activism and propaganda - which even though Dan's very much on the same side as Joe in that particular war, understands that it doesn't work as activism (it just hardens attitudes) and risks damaging the reputation for impartiality of the science. Joe seems to still be under the mistaken impression that Dan was arguing with his science.

Although it's possible (probable?) that Joe was actually trying to keep his response classy, and stick to the science instead of engaging on the topic of his activism, which would be more likely to turn acrimonious. If so, good for him, although the unfortunate effect is to turn his reply into a non-response.

December 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

"AFAICT, the reason is simply that an "open letter" is a rhetorical device, apparently to score points with an "audience," and not a constructive engagement in exchanging differing views."

I suspect it was partly a public apology for impugning Joe's technical scholarship, which is why it was addressed to Joe, and part making a public stand against science-used-for-political-activism - which whether you agree with the politics or not, is counterproductive.

That's how I read it, anyway. Although as you've pointed out so many times, I'm not a mind-reader. :-)

(Also, scientists have been rightly criticised for keeping quiet about colleagues engaging in bad science in the service of politics, and maybe Dan felt a rush of blood to the principles and spoke up. When Tom Wrigley did something similar, he kept his letter private, and as a result the good it eventually did him when it came out was heavily muted by his failure to do it publicly. I'm not convinced that's why Dan did, it though, although it's a possibility.)

I'm interested to see that you've taken Joe's side, even though you're generally against pollution of the science communication environment. Do you think these are points that should not be scored in public?

December 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


I thought of noting & linking to it but it seemed like doing so would be directing people into something closer to an infinite feedback loop than an exchange.

Anyone who goes to his “response” will see that it is just the same representation that I wrote the blog to correct--viz, that I am expressing a negative view about his scholarship.

Again (!), I disagree with an *argument* he made in a panel presentation. Those who start at his page & have the motivation to follow the link to this one can view *my* post as a “response” to his.

But that’s a circle, & it needs to stop somewhere.

That was my thinking. You have a different view, I gather. I now agree others should take a look & make up own mind.


December 9, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


The format-- it was just an alternative to trying to answer the tweet that said I had criticized his "work" -- but in a format that is genuinely suited to making a point: yes, a critical one, but of the argument he made at the session & not all of the papers he has written or his general quality as a scholar (I truly have zero problem w/ those).

I did tweet him the link to this post-- maybe I am the "Yale colleague" he has in mind? I'm very often confused w/ another "Dan" at yale.

December 9, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

1. ==> "I suspect it was partly a public apology for impugning Joe's technical scholarship, "

What makes you think I was referring to Dan's public letter only (and not both, or not just Joe's)?

2. ==> "I'm interested to see that you've taken Joe's side, "

Actually, I haven't. Although I really have no dog in the fight, I'm generally pretty sympathetic to Dan's point. I don't know enough to have a more contextualized opinion.

3. ==> " Do you think these are points that should not be scored in public?"

I think that point-scoring is generally sub-optimal in pretty much any real sense. People can certainly feel more justified in their identity protective behaviors, but there's usually little benefit w/r/t to identifying common interests when point scoring is taking place. Of course, that doesn't mean that I don't engage in the practice, but I do always recognize that it is sub-optimal in comparison to the full range of options.

It's not a matter of "should." People are entitled to do what they want, and it isn't my position to judge whether they should or not. But it is my right to offer my observations about the outcomes. Do you think that there is likely much beneficial outcome from the point-scoring in this situation - particularly when viewed in the context of other potential pathways of exchange? Again, I suppose that would depend on whether you think that there is some long-term, real, differential advantage from food fighting. I see little benefit from the point-scoring. Both teams inevitably are absolutely certain that they're the ones who scored the points - without any serious attempt to: (1) define what the advantage is to the point-scoring or, (2) controlling for the biases in the calculus of their scoring system. It's rather amusing, to me, how both sides in the climate wars are so completely convinced that their scorched-earth strategies, like name-calling and demagoguery, are effective.

December 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan -

==> "...I truly have zero problem w/ those)."

I gathered that. But I find it unsurprising that given the format of communication that you chose, he seems to have interpreted otherwise. And I think that with more forethought, that could have been interpreted.

December 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Sorry...I meant "...could have been anticipated..."

December 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

==> "It only became so because it did become identified with the Democrat left, who used it as a stick to beat their opponents with..."

I see the soft-focus and rose tint are in play again when you consider the actions of "the Republican right." What is the origin of the polarization about climate change? Where is the origin point where the discussion became weaponized?

==> "The Republicans picked it up from the attacks blaming them, learning that this was apparently a signature conservative position, whereupon climate scepticism then became their default position in the absence of any detailed information, "


It's always quite interesting to me that you spend so much time considering the mechanics of motivated reasoning, cultural cognition, identity protective cognition, etc., yet fail so completely to apply them in context.

Do you really think it's so one-sided and unidirectional (in the flow from point of origin) as you describe there? Really?

You're really going to go with: "They made us do it?" or "They did it first?" Really? Really, NIV?

December 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


I think (clearly) it is fine to disagree with an argument he made, supposedly, this is what science and scholarship is all about, constructive debate, reasoned argumentation etc...sometimes, even being critical of a colleague's work. However, I tend to find that being critical and being thoughtful are not mutually exclusive objectives.

You mention in your post, "It wasn't your work that I meant to be criticizing" but uhm, "I don’t think the sort of work you defended [which clearly includes his own] is either practical or scholarly.

That's a non-statement. As @Joshua said; " I find it unsurprising that given the format of communication that you chose, he seems to have interpreted otherwise".

I get the sense that you enjoy antagonizing other scholars in some sense. Which, in an ironic way, make sense, as you know very well, "polarization sells". You seem to tend to polarize your work against other approaches, and it clearly stands out, as a result.

I remember seeing a post a while ago where you mentioned that a certain guide to climate change communication was "very very bad".

I think what some of us are trying to say is that either you possess some tremendous foresight in knowing what type of scholarship is going to benefit the community (in theory and practice) in the future (i.e., you've evaluated all possible scenarios in which other work, such as Joe's, could make a contribution, and in your omnipotent state, decided this sort of argument is "bad"), or, you correctly qualify your argument as "your opinion". But where does your opinion come from? Writing about identity-protective cognition certainly doesn't exempt you from this practice or anyone else (i.e., science-based arguments aren't always free of motivated reasoning either, especially when one seems to be highly committed to one particular type of explanation).

All of this is just to say that one can be critical, without being impolite. You might say, good science has nothing to do with being polite or impolite, it is simply about the science and evidence.

I'm not sure if you're familiar with Satoshi Kanazawa (famous evolutionary psychologist who nearly got fired for his controversial claims on his blog about the attractiveness of black women). His motto is; "if the truth offends you, that's your problem, not mine". The thing is, his truth mostly consists of bending the empirical evidence to fit ideologically-motivated evolutionary hypotheses. But the data! The data shows! Since no one actually knows the *truth* about anything, perhaps the good ones, like yourself (who try to approximate the best empirical evidence), might find it useful to consider being more reflective about what we profess to know and don't know, especially about other people's work, and especially publicly in a one-way communication - (but then again, what do I know).

December 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous


Thanks for the thoughtful explanation. I'll reflect on it.

I'll say, though, that I don't enjoy antagonizing. But I also don't think argument should be stripped of the information that emotion, including anger, uniquely conveys.

The only question for me on this post or in any in which I have expressed anger about what researchers might have said or done is whether the emotion, and the information it conveys, are well founded.A disagreement about the weight of the inference to be drawn from a valid study certainly doesn't merit anger. A proposal about what the point of research should be & how it should be evaluated might. So might the selective presentation & misrepresentation of data & the like -- not something that is the subject of this post but that is of others in which I have expressed anger.

I have also decided that I shouldn't refrain from expressing anger on things that merit it even if that will predictably put me at risk of getting people who have attained a high standing in some scholarly community angry at me.

That's a stance, actually, that doesn't "sell" if one is a participant in the "market" for professional status. Indeed, we can count on that sort of criticism being underproduced--because of the legitimate reticence of individuals (particularly ones less established in a field) to avoid bearing the personal cost of something the benefit of which is enjoyed by others.

But personally I've decided just to live w/ cost. The benefits gained by stifling objection in such circumstances don't matter to me that much, particularly given that the scholarly community that has the problem here is only one of the many "science of science communication" ones of which I'm a part (and is for sure the smallest of them).

But I do care about whether I am right -- & I therefore value, immensely, the opportunity that a response such as yours gives me to think hard again about whether I am. So thanks again

Funny you should mention Kanazawa. Candid and angry responses to his invalid methods are exactly what helped serious people recognize that he is not a serious scholar.

We should be worried about the state of health of a *particular scholarly community* in which it is necessary for someone to express anger, and absorb the *cost* that doing so predictably imposes, to get it to take seriously the proposition that it has become pervaded by norms opposed to production of valid scholarship.

December 10, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


Honestly, I don't know how I can make it clearer that it is the "argument" -- one he made 5 mins before I offered the criticism at the panel -- & not the "work." I think Joe is a very good scholar & has done plenty of things that *can't* be seen as fitting his own criterion of "practical."

I *do* want to disentangle "scholarly work of Joe" from "what criteria should we use to value 'climate science communication' scholarship?" Latter only is the question-- & it is one about professional norms.

But I think it's easy for people to think I must be criticizing his work when I criticize his argument (I saw that when *he* had had felt impelled to try to show people how good his work was after the session; hence the post).

But now I can see in your & @anonymous's comments that even insisting over & over "no, it's the argument, not the work!!" can reinforce the inference that in fact one *does* mean to criticize someone's work after all!

Guess I need a "framing" strategy.

December 10, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

==> "....can reinforce the inference that in fact one *does* mean to criticize someone's work afterall!

What you're describing is ubiquitous, and IMO, is part and parcel with the whole point-scoring, and open-letter type of communicative paradigm. In fact, it goes even further. In a polarized context, criticism of a specific work or conclusion is very commonly interpreted as a personal attack. At a personal level, that's something that happens over and over when I make comments that are critical of someone like Judith Curry, when "skeptics" are absolutely convinced that I'm impugning her integrity, character, motivations, etc., when what I've offered are opinions about the logic of her reasoning.

In fact, we can see something very similar play out when even the concept of "motivated reasoning" is brought up, when people assume that reference to the potential for an influence of "motivated reasoning" on someone's analysis is judged as equivalent to passing judgement on someone's motivations. We've seen that countless times at this here blog, most interestingly, IMO, when "skeptics" line up to react to your work about motivated reasoning in the climate wars as being nothing other than another "realist" attacking the integrity, motivations, etc., of "skeptics."

As I said, I got what you're describing as a distinction, and in fact that's why (contrary to NiV's incorrect assumption), my comment about the impact of "open letters" came after reading, and was primarily directed in response to, Joe's open letter and not yours.

But again, I find it entirely unsurprising that the discussion played out in such a fashion, and I think it was easily part because of the structure you chose for presenting your views. An open-letter is, IMO, inherently, personally antagonistic - unless it's directed towards some automaton who is unaffected by identity-protective behaviors and perhaps more importantly, written by an automaton who can plausibly assert that he/she is unaffected by identity-aggressive behaviors.


But that said, (1) I certainly know that this phenomenon is ubiquitous and likely to play out when I engage in discussions involving differing points of view (and not from within a communicative model designed to mitigate the mechanisms), and so I can choose to either go out of my way to hedge as much as possible against that possibility by using caveats, e.g., using "IMO" in every sentence, using exaggerated conditional language, etc. and (2) I accept responsibility at some level for it happening and, (3) I am aware that it is very difficult for me to really tease out to what extent, perhaps very small, in fact I am prone to criticizing an individual or their larger body of work through the implications of offering a discrete criticism of reasoning or a specific piece of work.

December 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

And please note, it wasn't only I and anonymous who saw such an attribute - whether it was primary or intended or not - as would be likely to be interpreted as more generally antagonistic by Joe.

NiV, in his defense, characterized it as "public point scoring" and as a result, cheered it on - because, apparently, he thinks that there is an advantage to be gained from public point-scoring.

December 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua: Got it.

Of course, if people think my post was "antagonistic" to Joe-- they are right: I say that I "meant to be" very critical. Also guilty as charged for trying to persuade people -- w/ the information that emotion adds, uniquely, to an argument (as stressed above). The qestion is about *what* was I being critical, about *what* was I angry?

BTW, Joe was impassioned, too, in his presentation. I don't fault him for that!

But an emotional assessment is reliable and worthy of respect only if is getting the situation right.

The situation here-- in this one very small scholarly community -- needs to be examined. If this "incident" (I wish it were an "exchange") contributes to that, then that will help to compensate for the sheer misery of having been involved in it.

December 10, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

==> "But an emotional assessment is reliable and worthy of respect only if is getting the situation right. The situation here-- in this one very small scholarly community -- needs to be examined.

I think that an approach needs to be judged by the outcome, impartially and with evidence. Not by subjective and de-contextualized views about the strategies employed.

With my background in education, I like to focus on validity and reliability. How well do the metrics used evaluate what is intended to be measured, and how well can those metrics be controlled against biases.

What is the desired outcome from the exchange with Joe? How well did the strategies employed achieve those outcomes - as measured objectively?

I would think that enhanced mutual understanding of the questions at hand might be the desired outcome in this case. Did the emotional appeal further that goal? I kinda think not, in this case (although measuring that requires a longitudinal evaluation and can't be made on the basis of a quick exchange).

But emotional appeal can produce other desired outcomes. It just depends on which outcomes are desired.

December 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Off-topic, but with respect to viewing the concerns about micro-aggressions, trigger warnings, etc. in the full context.

December 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@ Dan

Thanks for the reflective and thoughtful comments. I agree with you that criticism, when passionate, can sometimes draw attention and make people more likely to process information (e.g., fair point re Kanazawa) but arguably, it can also put people on the defense , so much so, where they feel personally offended and stop listening to most of the ideas you wish to convey. As a part-time science communication scholar, I think you are very well aware of this and I don't think that this is your goal (maybe other people will hear your argument but that individual will probably go on believing he is right anyway, despite your heated criticism).

In my experience, academia is a collaborative enterprise, where we learn from and improve upon each other's ideas, not compete with or fight them in an angry way. The view that everyone's scholarship is on trial unless proven *solid* otherwise, is very much a lawyer-type of worldview. As you mention, the other fields you dabble in are not your main scholarly areas anyway. But I actually think that makes this so interesting, if you're trained as a lawyer, and your main field is law, then presenting such heated opinions in fields that are not primarily your own, seems almost counter-intuitive (not suggesting that if you don't have a degree in a certain field, your vote doesn't count, I think that's an unproductive and potentially dangerous way of thinking) but I think you get my drift.

Anger is a common human emotion (although an entirely unproductive one if you ask me) but maybe it makes things sound more persuasive and I get that and I don't blame you for it, it's good to be passionate about what you do. However, I would reiterate that I'd be careful about making inferences about other people's motivations (e.g., selective representation or misrepresentation of data is quite a serious accusation). Making absolute judgments such as "this is good and this is bad", "this type of scholarship is practical but this is impractical" seems to lack the kind of refined thought we'd expect from a scholar (i.e., knowledge of the fact that there are few things truly absolute in life). But sometimes you're just trying to make a point, I get that. If you happen to piss some people off and you're happy to bear the *social* cost (if there is any real cost), I get that too, especially if you *believe* you're doing it in the interest of advancing "good" science, and especially when it's not in your primarily field anyway.

But my view is that science is supposed to be collaborative, if you don't agree with others, why not propose an adversarial collaboration to sort out any differences. Surely, they don't always work out. Kahneman and Gigerenzer have had *nasty* arguments in the literature about each other's work, Chomsky and Pinker or Chomsky and Sam Harris have had very impolite and unproductive e-mail exchanges recently. Yet, I find that there is a common thread here, namely; that one party often seems to be unwilling and might have a different agenda.

No need to drag this out, I think we understand each other's viewpoints quite well - but thanks for the thoughtful response(s) though. I think your blogs are unrepresentative of the type of *reflective* thinking that goes on in your scholarly work, but perhaps, that's not the point of your blog anyway. If the blog is about giving people your passionate, unfiltered thoughts, you can still do so without antagonizing others - I'm sure. Time will tell.

December 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

A certain amount of creative contentiousness is constructive. Much better than venues in which the constraints of a contrived consensus forces allegiance or silence.

Joe Arvai has a blog page called “Mean Joe” and his twitter account states that his aim is to be an “Occasional thorn in your side”. Dan publicly posted his could have been private letter publicly, where it has attracted some attention from Joe, and thus expanded the ranks his interactions beyond those of us that have been the usual suspects as commenters on his blog page. Joe responded in kind. Thus, the main thing to say about this dispute is that it seems to be working well for both parties. Not too many worries that both aren't well equipped to hold up under the stress of the conversation, all that remains is to make it constructive and thus of use to the rest of us.

In that regard, what does it have to say about the science of science communication? The new to me related link I find most interesting so far is that by Sander van der Linden, provided by Joe Arvai, in which she describes cultural cognition as a strange loop. I don’t think that this the only strange loop involved here. And also the work of Christina Demski I'll digest that, and more of what Joe seems to have to say and get back to this later.

Meanwhile, based on the comments above:

Dan, from his post above:
“Elected officials are in the profession of satisfying the expectations of their constituents. They invest plenty of money, most of the time wisely, to figure out how to do that.”

Joshua (in his first comment):
“I think that's only a partial picture of their profession. They are also actively engaged in creating expectations (via identity-oriented messaging) among their constituents.”

I don’t think that that Joshua’s comment is an even partial picture of the profession of politics. As I see it, politicians are primarily out for themselves. They are not in the business of figuring out, and then mirroring their constituent’s desires. They may (or may not) have significant internal values which drive their quest for office. They may simply adopt trendy values that can attract the necessary funds to run for office. Success, (the win), depends on connecting those values to those of their potential voter constituents They may be driven altruism, (or greed). They may or may not be wise, but only a few of them, Donald Trump is the current main example, actually invest “plenty of money” at this. Most depend on outside funding. The cleverest amongst them do own mirrors and they do know how to manipulate the triangulation devices installed on the edges that manipulate the mirrors to make it seem to constituents that they are reflecting their values while actually collecting the energy of the needed funding stream. A few may just stand there and spout whatever comes to mind. Most make at least some effort to be "political", meaning that they use their culturally cognitive skills to match the parts of their message that best fits to the current audience, and to buffer the rest in ways that will not directly inflame antagonistic responses. And thus come across as appealing and worthy of support, or at the very least, the lesser of two evils.

December 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Gaythia -

FWIW, I certainly didn't intend my description of their profession to be a complete one, but I will note that I think that what you've described is largely a subset of what I described: The reason that they create policy expectations is that then they can advocate for those policies - because they are primarily in it for themselves and they can advance their own cause by creating expectations and then meeting those expectations. That works in conjunction with adopting trendy values or "satisfying expectations" as Dan describes.

December 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Academics denounce other academics much more savagely than lawyers tend to denounce one another. The latter have much less at stake!

But denouncing isn't the appropriate idiom for scholarly exchange, I agree.

December 10, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


thus expanded the ranks his interactions beyond those of us that have been the usual suspects as commenters on his blog page

For sure!

December 10, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Joe Arvai on Energy Strategy and Dan Kahan’s Cultural Cognition as it relates to Energy Policies

From Joe Arvai (

“Overall, an energy strategy is not about what can be done or (in the eyes of some observers) should be done. Instead, it is a process for organizing analyses, encouraging deliberations, and making decisions in a scientifically rigorous, transparent, and defensible manner.”

Ok, this makes sense, it is democracy in action, and what has been going on in this country since the days of town hall meetings and Constitutional conventions.

But how does that sort of process work out in modern real life? I’ve been involved in public deliberative processes, on the topic of water, and also ocean acidification, in Colorado and Washington State. I strongly support the use of such processes. At the same time I think that a real danger in the outcomes is that people do not necessarily come out of these meetings more inclined to be accepting of new points of view, but rather to have found the experience re-enforcing of their original outlook.

Joe uses as an example, an individual preparing a financial strategy. But the barriers here, as Joe Arvai accurately states, isn’t that most people don’t know what they want: “Most people have a sense of what they want to achieve with their decisions—for example, high rates of return, stability, low uncertainty, and social responsibility.” The issue is how to get there.

This, IMHO, is where Joe Arvai’s analysis starts to have problems. What is facing people trying to make wise decisions is not a perfect matrix of decision possibilities. If “lucky” they may work for a corporation with a 401K program. The details of that program are somewhat improved by a government requirement that the corporation, in order for higher level people to get their perks, must be structured with enough appeal that lower level people will actually sign up for it. Still, choices are likely to be highly limited. Information as to how they operate and what fees and expenses are involved is even more difficult to determine. The selection of a provider and package was not under the control of the employees. It may have occurred in a discussion between a corporate HR person and a finance company salesman over a golf game. Another alternative investment the individual and his/her family might chose to invest for the future would be by purchasing a house. Here they face the complexity of mortgage companies, and a lot depends on the biases created those companies based on where the customer lives, who they are and their past history. Upward mobility of neighborhoods over time isn’t really free market, it involves a lot of bad practices such as red-lining. All along the investment path, finance related corporations are making enticing sounding, but largely self-serving offers that are meant to confuse and obscure the actual benefits to the investor. The problem is not just that people take shortcuts, the problem is that wily finance corporations have figured out where those shortcuts are likely to occur and have laid carefully constructed traps for the purpose of exploiting them for their own gain.

Ok, so let’s accept the assertion by Joe Arvai that:
“recent research in the decision sciences has demonstrated that there are also many situations where the preferences or preference orders needed to inform decisions are insufficient or altogether absent.”

How are those gaps filled?

It is true that any such decision is likely to have a number of potential beneficiaries, often corporate, and with the resources to completely evaluate the situation. These entities are likely to have figured out their desired course of action in advance. They are also easily equipped with demographic and preference information for potential voters. Marketers have the rest of us all segmented into groups based at least on age, gender and zip code.

So, as I think both Dan Kahan and Joe Arvai could agree:

“Under these conditions, people are unable to evaluate decision problems and alternatives by simply drawing on preexisting and stable preferences. Instead, they must construct their preferences, and by extension, the judgments and decisions that result from them, in response to cues that are available during the decisionmaking process itself.”

But these are very busy people, largely involved with simply getting through the day to day activities. These larger issues are not seen as central to their day to day lives. For most issues, they are not going to engage in some elaborate decision making process. Thus, if the issues are not ignored entirely, at most, they are going to use the shortcut of figuring out where these new bits might fit within their already constructed value and preference system. However, in my opinion, unlike the analysis of cultural cognition generally presented by Dan Kahan, they are not really going to do that either. They are going to respond to outside cues that are in the business of packaging this new preference, and selling it based on knowledge of the preference systems of the targeted constituency.

Take for example anthropogenic climate change. Scientists have been discussing this amongst themselves for a long time. Oil and Gas corporations are now known to have also been involved in serious investigations of climate change, especially with an eye towards how this directly affects their operations and how governments regulate those operations. As profit making entities they are not in the business of going out of business. Investing in deep water Arctic drilling is one response. Another is thwarting regulations that would limit their current business operations.

Among members of the public, farmers and ranchers are the most likely to be climate change aware. They are in a position to observe, and have a real need to respond to, multi-year climate cycles and changes. They frequently do not hold the mineral rights to their land. They generally hold a deep long term personal attachment to their particular patch of land. On the other hand, this may also be associated with the belief that they should be able to use it as they see fit and be able to sell at maximum profit should they choose to do so. Farmers and ranchers, and the related small town support services are a huge rural America voting constituency. They also have a long history of antipathy towards governmental regulation, especially environmental regulations. And like oil and gas corporations, that antipathy towards government regulations does not extend to the acceptance of governmental subsidies. Both groups have similar attitudes towards the unbridled use of water. There is also considerable overlap between the two groups. The children of farmers and ranchers may go into oil and gas. Oil and gas employees may, when they get a little money ahead, buy a small ranch and add a few cows. Other members of the public have less reason to be either climate aware or land use conscious. But they may hold jobs that are very fossil fuel dependent. They may travel long commutes to get to those jobs. They may also already have an antipathy towards government regulations. They may already dislike "eggheads" and environmentalists.

On the face of it, it is farmers and ranchers that have the most to lose by oil and gas operations. It is their land that gets chopped up for fracking pads. Their land endangered if an oil pipeline cutting through if it bursts and their crops that can’t get to market if the railroads are too busy with oil trains. And, they are actually quite aware of climate changes. And yet, they are also the very people electing the likes of Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma, and State Senator Doug Ericksen (the thorn in the side of Washington State Governor Jay Inslee and his proposed carbon program).

The why of that can arise out of an understanding of Dan Kahan’s cultural cognition work. Which would inform and enhance the success of the decision support processes proposed by Joe Arvai.

Science really ought to be a collaborative process. Mean Joe and Bulldog Dan ought to be able to work together on this.

December 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis


But I really mean it: I was talking about a presentation Joe gave about using public opinion studies to shape politicians' perceptions of "what people really want" -- not his work generally

December 11, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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