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Science of Science Communication 2.0, Session 6.1: Communicating climate science, part 1

It's time for session 6 of virtual "Science of Science Communication 2.0" (time for real-space version in about 4 hrs)! Reading list here


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1a) If ever some understanding got through that predicting the climate system (with or without man's perturbations) is a wicked problem, with possibalistic scenarios not probabilistic ones, this would be useful. However the controversy is currently one maintained by entrenched culture, and so initially at least will need cultural calming and dispersion before genuine communication can ensue.

1b) It reflects cognitive biases that potentially distort *everyone's* perceptions of risk, scientists and non-scientists alike, with emotive bias being a major driver. As the greater polarization of the science-aware shows, such knowledge does not buy scientists or sciency types out of bias. Whose views *actually have* become distorted, is dependent upon other characteristics, not the possession or lack of science knowledge.

1c) The climate change Consensus does not reflect scientific truth because it is a dynamically maintained cultural structure, having the chief narratives of human causation and imminent (in decadal terms) catastrophe. Attempting to promote this Consensus still more will only inflame the situation and provoke more resistance to climate culture, obscuring still further what genuine scientific truths may or may not lie beneath the cultural structure. Cultures are not only capable of maintaining consensus in the face of the unknown, it is part of their job description.

1d) In some part, yes. In larger part the controversy reflects a blind trust of the Consensus among persons who hold a particular ideology or worldview, which ideology after decades is becoming synonymous with climate culture. Plus a cultural alliance with the Consensus by still more persons (in the US, especially Democrats), and most of all a resistance to misinformation and cultural takeover by those who are 'innately skeptical' (an instinctive, not knowledge-based, resistance: Lewandowsky's 'key to accuracy').

1e) Yes. All the groups in 1d are attempting to maintain and promote their own cultural position. For instance it is very much in the interests of climate culture to de-emphasize the (quantifiable) increased danger and death from fuel price-hikes, food price-hikes (bio-fuel debacle), etc. and instead heavily emphasize potential danger from the as-yet unknowable effects of increased CO2, while avoiding uncertainty issues. Ubiquitous cultural mechanisms whose effects are observable throughout history, enable such positions.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

If you want to solve the problem of science communication as it relates to one's ability to properly educate society about the growing preeminence of climate change, you need to understand your enemy (ie, the people who refuse to accept what you have to say on ideological grounds, there are also people incapable of understanding and/or indifferent, but it's my opinion they are a vast minority and so aren't being included here).

You have to understand that we live in a country where 90% of the people believe in talking snakes, resurrection, man walking on water, people turning to salt and on and on and on. None of that would be as bad as it is if there were at least some circumstantial or even anecdotal evidence, but there is nothing but a story in a book.

That is what you have to overcome. The issue of climate change has become politicized due to the financial and economic impacts of decisions made and/or not made about it. Conservatives have taken the stance that anthropogenic climate change is not real, and some cases that climate change period is not real. The vast majority of the Christian religious align themselves with the conservative party and since everything today is judged by its partisan position and not its merits, the vast majority of those people will believe what the conservative political party tells them.

So, you either A)have to convince the conservative party, B)have to convince the religious to stop being religious, or C)coerce the religious to convince themselves, from within, that anthropogenic climate change is real, that man has the ability to do something about it, and that man should do something about it.

Unless you can monetize your position to the extent that it surpasses the fossil fuel industry, "A" isn't going to happen. There's a higher probability that Christianity is right, than there is of you convincing a Christian to not be one. That leaves "C" and already some instances of this are taking place (ie the Pope making declarations).

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBrian


Gotta admit, it's my friends whom I have the most problem understanding...

February 17, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Brian, the majority of Democrats are religious too, albeit with more religious diversity. Do you only ascribe cultural fairy tales to Christianity, or indeed just to a particular brand of Christianity? It is also useful to bear in mind that religions aren't the only cultural entities that promote arbitrary narratives, or, for instance, a consensus on the unknowable. 'monetization' is probably a red herring. In terms of action on climate change, I find it interesting that in almost all recent US surveys, while a clear majority of Dem / Libs believe in human-caused climate change (typically about 64% to 84%), regarding this apparently ultimate planetary threat, only a minority of them (typically 25% to 42%) place this as their top priority within a list of US domestic issues. Why do you think that is?

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

Andy -

==> "1a) If ever some understanding got through that predicting the climate system (with or without man's perturbations) is a wicked problem, with possibalistic scenarios not probabilistic ones, this would be useful.

Hmmm. I wonder if you are conflating probablistic scenarios with probable scenarios.

I'm not sure that I see this distinction as you do. The science speaks to possibilities and the quantification of probabilities. In other words, the science does speak to probablistic scenarios (as distinct from probable scenarios). It isn't a matter of one versus the other - at least w/r/t the science itself.

The meat of the climate scientific discussion is w/r/t how probabilities are quantified, and indeed, the follow-on economic science discussion is w/r/t the implications of those quantifications. The meat of the policy discussion should be how the implications can inform scenario planning.

But those discussions are subjugated to identity-aggressive and identity-defensive manipulations on both sides. On the one hand, in service of identity-oriented pursuits, some "realists" lean towards one end of the range of uncertainties in mainstream climate science - thus possibly looking at the uncertainties in a way different than the science supports. In other words, they might conflate probabilistic scenarios with probable scenarios. On the other hand, some "skeptics" lean towards exploiting uncertainties, largely misrepresenting mainstream climate science science by claiming that it doesn't account for uncertainties at all when in fact, it does present ranges of probabilities. For both sides, the treatment of uncertainties reflects known patterns in how people have difficulty with risk assessment, particularly in contexts where risk becomes a tool to fight ideological warfare.

In other words, IMO, as Dan describes:

Public controversy of climate change reflects cognitive biases that distort non-scientists' assessment of remote, less emotionally charged risks.

In that sense, climate change is not unique; other issues reflect a similar pattern of distortion that stemming from cognitive biases.

(FWIW, I don't fully understand Dan's wording there because it seems to me that the quality of being "remote" and "emotionally charge" have someone independent influences in the distortion of public perception. Or maybe one is a moderator/mediator?...)

==> "However the controversy is currently one maintained by entrenched culture, and so initially at least will need cultural calming and dispersion before genuine communication can ensue."

"Cultural calming and dispersion." I wonder what that really means, and how would you see that taking place? Seems to me that once identification is in place, participants are invested in maintaining the ideological orientation. They specifically resist cultural calming and dispersion because attempts along those lines are inherently seen as manipulative and threatening to existing orientation. I can think of many examples where (what is at least my conception of what you probably mean by) cultural calming and dispersion have been largely ineffective if not counterproductive. I can't thin of any where the effects have been productive.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

All the groups in 1d are attempting to maintain and promote their own cultural position.

For instance it is very much in the interests of (the "skeptical" side) of the climate culture to de-emphasize the (potential) increased danger and death from continued BAU ACO2 emissions and the associated uncertainty about the negative externalities of existing use of fossil fuels, and to instead heavily emphasize the as-yet unknowable impact of fuel price-hikes, to make simplistic arguments about the ideological causality associated with food price-hikes resulting from bio-fuel policies, etc., and instead heavily emphasize potential danger from the as-yet unknowable effects of increased CO2 mitigation, while avoiding uncertainty issues related to the related economic projections.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

==?> "1d) In some part, yes. In larger part the controversy reflects a blind trust of the Consensus among persons who hold a particular ideology or worldview, which ideology after decades is becoming synonymous with climate culture."

How do you distinguish between "blind trust" and a belief that there is greater probability that a strong majority of experts on a topic are right, than the probability that they are all either stupid or corrupt?

If the majority of the public thinks that the "consensus" is right about the cause of AIDS, or GMOs, or Vaccinations, does that mean that they have a 'blind trust" in the experts in those fields? If you have a disease and your doctor tells you that you could try an alternative cure that hardly any experts think will help or another cure that a strong majority of experts think will be effective, would you be displaying a "blind trust" if you go the more accepted route?

==> "Plus a cultural alliance with the Consensus by still more persons (in the US, especially Democrats), and most of all a resistance to misinformation and cultural takeover by those who are 'innately skeptical'

Interesting. So how do we know who is "innately skeptical" (or "knowledge-based" skeptical) and who is "skeptical" because what is operational are the exact same sorts of cognitive biases that affect those who you describe as the "climate culture?"

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Andy, in my humble opinion, the root of the problem is the type of critical thinking skills that religion instills in a person. When you are indoctrinated in to a system that not only encourages belief in things with no factual merit, but discourages the questioning of irrational or extraordinary claims, it makes it difficult to use reason and rationality as your basis for arguing.

You might feel compelled to point out the a majority of Democrats are Christians, but depending on the circumstances, I might feel compelled to point out that they are bad Christians. It's not my intention, however, to turn this in to a religious debate, only to point out how the psychology of decision making is influenced by religious background, and that it is difficult to approach it from the counterpoint with reason and rationality.

Monetizing the side of climate change that recognizes its existence and impact, is not possible to the extent that would be necessary to compete with the side that refuses to acknowledge it, but if it could be done, that would sway the political discussion in favor of taking action because in our country, money moves mountains.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Per first reply...

Hi Joshua. No I'm not conflating probabilistic with probable. I think you've participated in the threads at Climate Etc. about decision making under deep uncertainty, of which below is one:

Hence you know should be aware of the ground on possibilistic versus probabilistic (which I wish were easier to spell), and in particular the Betz quote that Curry highlights and regards as 'hugely important' for the climate domain:
Accepting the limits of probabilistic methods and refusing to make probabilistic forecasts where those limits are exceeded, originates, ultimately, from the virtue of truthfulness, and from the requirements of scientific policy advice in a democratic society.

Per your text on the climate discussion: If you look at any individual exchange or small-scale debate (assuming no trolling or other outright emotive outliers, and equally matched intellect), one would not theoretically be able to tell if one side of an intense debate was much more culturally driven than the other. As you note, similar methods are deployed by both. So, one has to step back and look at the larger context in which those players are embedded, and indeed trace that context over some length of time. A sentient computer, say, which has no access to context, would not know for instance who was most right in a passionate argument about evolution in 1860, conducted between a priest and a student of Darwin. Yet allowed context, it would see that the priest is embedded in an overwhelmingly powerful (for the era) cultural context that has permanently blinded said priest to critical parts of his opponent's position. Similarly, one has to step back from the climate debate cut-and-thrust of which you speak, and ask 'who is embedded in what cultural contexts?'

Step 1: who are the cultural players involved? An understandable error in the US is to cite left-wing and right-wing culture. But the more polarized left-right thing here (Dan's blog is US based :) tends to hide the fact that there is a third player, climate culture itself. Now who is allied to what culture by what strength (in the US), and who is the bigest player in the environmental domain? Who is an adherent of more than 1 culture? Bear in mind some interesting figures. Per my reply to Brian above, on average about 2 in 3 Dem/Libs do not place climate change as a top priority relative to US domestic issues, nor anywhere near top in most surveys despite the apparently calamitous import (in fact 11th per Gallup 2014!). Yet around 8 to 10% of Rep/Cons do place it top, surpassingt 2/3 of Dem/Libs in their desire to save the planet. As Dan tends to say: what is going on here? :)

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

Brian, I'm not religious, so I wouldn't know good Christians from bad. I suspect that may be how some divisions of them view others, therefore it's probably identity and not truth.

Nevertheless I accept that orthodox religious strictures (of whatever religious flavor or sub-flavor) can indeed, on average (there are some brilliant thinkers who are religious) discourage critical thinking. Or at least discourage critical thinking IN PARTICULAR DOMAINS. And that's the interesting thing about cultures, they have domain boundaries. A complete bigot in one domain can be an enlightened and outreaching person in another, as long as those domains don't overlap. Dan knows all about this I guess, though he proposes partitioning essentially inside the same domain too (possible but rare).

Thing is, these things happen not just for religious cultures, but for secular cultures too. Now ask yourself, putting left-wing and right-wing aside, are there any other cultures or cultural effects you may have noticed in the environmental domain? Surely you've noticed at least *some* guys who look like they may conforming to a culture??

Have you also noticed that in countries like the UK, where orthodox climate change policies are embraced by *all* mainstream political parties, left through to right, that there is still enormous skepticism. Can't blame the Conservatives this time! Who is the 'culprit' then?

Culture moves money much more than money moves culture.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

Joshua, per second reply. Of course skeptics will work the equation the other way around. But if you think energy and economic downsides are less knowable than the climate system, I figure you are working the equation ;)

However, per above what really matters is who has the big cultural drivers behind them, which will bias and blind systemically. Bear in mind too that coherence (being in sync) is another requirement for a culture. To whom belongs the barrage of emotive co-developing, coherent narratives that have dominated the media for decades?

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

Joshua per your 3rd. In short you do the kind of detailed survey work that Dan does here. Cultures create strong polarizations that are different to just 2 sides of a logical argument. I think the point regarding climate change is that even after decades, the majority of the public *don't* buy it. Isn't that what all the fuss about 'better climate communication' is about?

You have to question carefully to separate things like cultural alliance and innate skepticism etc. Per above, *two thirds* of Dem/Libs put climate change *11th* on the list of priorities. Whatever climate change it is that they believe in, it isn't the one that orthodoxy is saying is almost upon us and requires top action planet wide. This is cultural alliance, in this case for party allegiance. Most of the rest of the public are even below this position.

Dan's work showing extra polarization for the science aware, separates those using sophisticated and informed argument on both sides (the aware) from those who are unaware and believers regarding a culture, or unaware and innately skeptical regarding a resistance to that culture. As awareness grows, the innately skeptical can be lifted to explicitly skeptical. Meanwhile the loose believers will be lifted to emphatic orthodoxy (all on average, of course). Hence more polarization.

So this is how you know the categories exist. Lewandowsky came across innate skepticism in his papers on misinformation (cultures thrive on misinformation), and named it 'the key to accuracy'. Too long to explain here, but it may be triggered by narrative features, and at any rate is not dependent on topic knowledge.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

I'd like to write about the more substantive areas of debate, but first I'm curious - how would class participants assess the experimental and analytical methodology of Ranney et al? I find a lot that's problematic about this study, including:

a) We don't see most of question wording for Studies 1 and 2.
b) % agreement with GW and AGW in Study 1 is way above that found by most surveys. This could affect Study 2, too - BUT we don't know if same wording was used in Study 2.
c) Not only is there no wording provided for Study 2 questions, I think we're not even given a scale for climate change acceptance. So telling us that acceptance changed by, for ex., 2.28, seems pointless.
d) In addition this shift is not broken down as a correlate of strength of belief. Is it a shift mostly from very accepting to extremely accepting? From not at all accepting to slightly accepting?
e) A big problem: no breakdown of participants by political orientation/ideology. Ironically this paper purports to address those with low acceptance of global warming, ie those on conservative end (as described by ”Reinforced Theistic Manifest Destiny" theory [RTMD]) but the observed shift could just be among those already pre-disposed to believe in global warming, ie liberals.
f) Study 2 limited to college students. Educational status, cognitive powers, etc. could have influence on climate change belief, knowledge, and interplay between these two latent variables. This study therefore does not represent a good prediction of effects among the US population at large.
g) Sample sizes in Study 2 were small (65 open-faced, 49 sandwich).

That's not even getting started on RTMD as a theory.

Curious if this seems accurate or if I'm missing something - I'm still quite new to social science methods, stats, etc!


February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTamar Wilner

Andy. I'll pick up these questions with you on another thread. I have already disrupted the class thread enough already.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

These are some interesting hypotheses:

1a) I predict increasing public understanding of the scientific evidence (not elite opinion of the evidence, the actual evidence) would greatly exacerbate the cultural divide in opinion on climate change. In support I would offer the large amount of data you've collected showing a strong correlation between scientific knowledge and intensity of one's belief.

1b) I think this is definitely true. Yudkowski had several articles on less wrong about people's tendency to treat arguments like soldiers, friendly soldiers must be fought for at all costs, and enemy soldiers must all die. If the enemy says a warmer climate will be dangerous, an argument patriot says it will be beneficial. If the enemy says renewable energy will raise energy bills, the argument patriot says they'll actually be cheaper.

1c) This will fail because there is no way to increase public familiarity of the level of scientific consensus. It's at lvl 99 and this is a 90's JRPG where levels can't go into triple digits. As I read that I think a Spinal Tap "this doesn't go up to 11" joke may have been funnier.

1d) I think this is definitely true. People have a general problem with not being able to believe that someone else is wrong but doesn't think they're wrong. Logically this problem would be exacerbated when the person thought to be wrong is a scientist, with all the connotations for intelligence and sound reasoning which goes along with it.

1e) The problem here is the idea that anyone is forming an attitude toward risk. I know of no evidence to indicate that human opinions proceed in the course you seem to assume. Rephrase the hypothesis with that part taken out, "Public controversy over climate change reflects the stake that individuals have in protecting their status within cultural groups" and you have another "definitely true" in my mind.

2) So counting my responses I'd say 2 are definitely true, #1 is definitely false, #3 is false but for a unique reason, and #5 is true if you take the unicorn out of the equation.

February 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

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