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MAPKIA episode #939: What does the Pew "Malthusian Worldview" item predict?!

Winner's prize: Vintage Cultural Cogniton Project Lab Jersey! (Subject to availability)HEY EVERYONE--guess what!

Its time for the first  "MAPKIA!"!  [Make a prediction, know it all!"] episode of 2016!

Yup--this wildly popular feature of the CCP Blog—the #1 most popular game show in Macao for two years running—has been renewed for another season!


It’s of course inconceivable that anyone doesn’t know the rules, and I don’t mean to insult anyone’s intelligence, but legal niceties do require me to post them before every contest. So here they are:

I, the host, will identify an empirical question -- or perhaps a set of related questions -- that can be answered with CCP data. Then, you, the players, will make predictions and explain the basis for them. The answer will be posted "tomorrow." The first contestant who makes the right prediction will win a really cool CCP prize (like maybe this or this or some other equally cool thing), so long as the prediction rests on a cogent theoretical foundation. (Cogency will be judged, of course, by a panel of experts.)

Actually, though, the rules are being significantly modified for this particular episode!  The question I’m going to pose has to be answered with data from the Pew’s big hit  “Public vs. the ‘Scientists’ ” Report from last yr.

Ooooooo ... Pew on science literacy & polarization data! Yummy!As you likely all realize, I’ve been going on & on since last yr about the fun that can be had poking around in the “public” portion of Pew’s report.

In previous posts, I showed that the data in Pew’s study (for the public rspts; the data for the AAAS members who formed the “scientist” sample hasn’t been released, at least not yet. . .) corroborates the usual story about politically disputed risks: namely, that as science literacy goes up, cultural polarization (measured by one or another proxy for cultural identity) intensifies in magnitude.

Well, the study also has some interesting “science attitude” items, one of which is this:

I’m going to call this the Pew “Malthusian worldview” item.

“What do you think,” the question effectively asks,

are we in fact just like all the other stupid animals who keep multiplying in number and engorging themselves on all their foodstuffs and other necessary resources until they crash, calamitously, over the top of the Malthusian curve in some massive die off? Or are human beings special precisely because their reason allows them to keep shifting the curve through technological innovation?

Consider climate change to be history’s “biggest ‘I told you so’ ” confirmation of what “Marx wrote about capitalism’s ‘irreparable rift’ with ‘the natural laws of life itself’ ” and what “indigenous peoples" have been "warning[] about the dangers of disrespecting ‘Mother Earth’ [since] long before that”? 

Then answer “2” is for (or just is) you!

Alternatively, when you hear someone talking like that, do you want to let out a primal  WME   “hell noooo!”?  Are you thinking,

Right! These are the same fools who told us that we couldn’t have a city more populous than 200,000 people or we’d be choking to death on our own excrement! Well, thanks to the advent of modern sanitation systems, reinforced with related advances in public health, we can safely inhabit cities orders of magnitude larger and more dense than the ones whose residents regularly succumbed to devastating outbreaks of cholera in the 19th century.

Sure, we'll face some new challenges but we’ll just blast our shit into outer space & everything will be fine-- just you watch & see!

 Hey—did you hear about those cool mirror-coated nanotechnology flying saucer drone things that automatically levitate up to just the right altitude to reflect the sunlight necessary to neutralize climate change & keep temperatures here on earth a comfortable 72 degrees everywhere yr ‘round?

This changes ... nothing!

That's answer number "1" talking!

So the question is, should we expect the Pew item to tap into those two opposing mindsets?


How powerfully (if at all) will responses to the Pew Malthusian Worldview item predict beliefs and attitudes toward technological and environmental risks like climate change, fracking, nuclear power, and GM foods?  Will it be a stronger predictor than political partisanship? Will responses interact with—or essentially amplify—the explanatory power of political ideology and party identification? 

What will the relationship be between the Malthusian Worldview item and science literacy? Will responses be correlated with it—and if so in which direction? Will higher science literacy magnify the correlation between responses to the Malthusian Worldview item and opposing perceptions of environmental and technological risks--just as higher science comprehension magnifies cultural polarization on climate change, nuclear power, fracking, and the like?

Perhaps my framing of the question implies an answer.  But if you think I have one, then obviously mine could be wrong!

“Make a prediction know it all”—and explain cogently the reasoning for it and how one might test your conjecture with Pew dataset items, which have been featured in previous posts and are set forth in their entirety at the Pew site.

Here’s your chance to win not only a great prize but to also to demonstrate to all the schoolchildren in Macao and to billions of other curious and reflective people everywhere that you, unlike everybody else, really knows what the hell you are talking about when it comes to making sense of public perceptions of risk.

Just post your prediction, & take a stab at specifying a testing strategy, in a comment below.  I'll do the analyses & we'll see what you got!

It's that friggin' simple!

Ready ... set ... MAPKIA!

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Reader Comments (18)

==> "How powerfully will responses to the Pew Malthusian Worldview item predict beliefs and attitudes toward technological and environmental risks like climate change, fracking, nuclear power, and GM foods? "

Why did you put GM foods along with those other items? My recollection is that while the other items track together along with ideological orientation, you present data which show that GM foods doesn't track similarly...

January 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Hey-- I mention GM foods, but was careful not to say that left-right measures explain variance in perceived risk of them! Maybe the problem was that I wasn't using this much better measure of the motivating worldviews! Bet you those Malthusians all shop at whole foods (they never run out of no-GM potato chips etc)

January 5, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

I'm still struggling to understand:

"How powerfully (if at all) will responses to the Pew Malthusian Worldview item predict beliefs and attitudes toward technological and environmental risks like climate change, fracking, nuclear power, and GM foods? Will it be a stronger predictor than political partisanship? "

How are you disentangling "Malthusian Worldview" from political partisanship?

"Will responses interact with—or essentially amplify—the explanatory power of political ideology and party identification?"

My guess is that a "Malthusian Worldview" will be a weak product of political partisanship. Not as strong as some other issues (say climate change), because I suspect that concern over the impact of population growth is shared, to some degree, across ideological boundaries.

==> "...just as higher science comprehension magnifies cultural polarization on climate change, nuclear power, fracking, and the like?"

see comment downstairs. It sure looks to me like you are asserting causality (magnify as a transitive verb....comprehension magnifies polarization)...and I just don't get how you make that claim.

January 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Well, as you noted, you & I & the 14 billion readers of this blog know what most people apparently don't-- that neither party identification, liberal-conservative ideology, nor the nice scale one can form by combining them explains any meaningful quantum of variance in perceptions of GM food risks.

Same for cutlural cognition worldviews, which definitely are up to the task of ferreting out conflict that evades detection with a simple left-right political outlook measure, particularly among individuals (i.e., most of the population) who aren't highly iinterested in matters political.

So I spend a lot of time complaining about those who keep saying GM foods are "left's" "anti-science" equivalent of climate change blah blah.

But of course I could be wrong -- and maybe the source of my mistake is that I'm still just not using the right measures foir getting at that unobservable something that bands people together into factions who disagree about risk; maybe the Pew Malthusian Worldview item is what's needed to help us actually find & measure conflict on this issue in the general public (as opposed to among news junkies, narrow if highly motivated speical interst groups, and

If the Malthusian Worldview item (MWI) explains *any* meaningful amount of conflict over GM foods, then it will explain that particular risk-perception conflict "more powerfully" than political partisanship.

As for disentangling -- that's a measurement issue, right?

Do you think right-left political outlooks & affiliations will be strongly correlated with the MWI? If not, then we don't have to worry about "partialing" out their effects if we treat them as separate predictors.

If they *are* strongly correlated, then likely we shouldn't even be trying to disentangle; instead we should be treating it as another observable indicator of the latent or unobserved disposition that motivates people (sometimes but a lot less often than people tend to believe) to form polarized perceptions of risks & like facts. We should in that case *combine* MWI and right-left measures into some sort of scale, would then be even more discerning and powerful than either of those things alone.

But still another possibility is that there is an interaction between whatever is being measured by MWI & whatever is being measured by right-left political measures. More people profess to having right-left affinities, one might surmise, than actually care very much about what's right & what's left. Maybe we need to filter out those weakly partisan types w/ something like MWI. This would make having a strong MWI akin to proficiency in critical reasoning & science comprehension -- a kind of magnifier or accelerant of poltically partisan, or culturally sectarian, sensibilities.

But hey-- you tell me! Remember, under the Macao Gaming Commission rules, *I'm* disqualified from entering CCP contests & winning any of the great prizes awarded to the winners of them!

January 6, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

My candidate: The likelihood of buying a book by Bill McKibben.

Left and right are seriously messed up terms which only seem to have coherence because of our inability to separate ideology from group identity and our mostly completely unanalytical view of ideology. If we seriously looked at ideology we'd probably find a dozen or two more-or-less orthogonal axes. That would not bode well for a constitution that refused to say anything about parties and which hence always gravitates to a two-party system (more than 2 means you frequently vote for Ralph Nader and get GWB or vote for Ross Perot, and it's hard to tell which of the 2 mainstream candidates you'd have preferred but the chances of getting the opposite of your preference are great).

Postmodernism was largely a reaction of disgust to both typical liberal western values and communism, and indeed anything reminiscent of what Foucault called the Enlightenment "gaze".

Between the 1850s and today the Democratic and Republican parties essentially switched places and hardly anybody noticed.

January 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHal Morris


I get the theory, I think, but the Pew dataset doesn't have "buy McKibben's book" (or Naomi Klein's for that matter) or "postmodernism" items! Can you identify some close substitutes?

As explained, I myself can't enter the contest, but isn't what your saying a good reason to think that items like this would be more promising for measuring motivating dispositions on disputed risks & like then left-right political orientation measures?

January 6, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Dan - I just had a look at the "CCP Data Playground Concept" and conceptually, I like it. I fantasize about a kind of "structured middle layer" of the noosphere - consisting of collections, made as navigable and coherent of tabulated "just facts". The results of polls, yes. "These are the answers given by 1000 individuals chosen according to X criteria to this list of questions", but also crime statistics, various numeric and non-interpretive tables that facilitate ways of looking at the economic structure of the world, or the total number killed by suicide bombers year by year; possibly even month by month. I think it is mostly in areas of concern to governments that we see a collection on data points plotted year by year, and ordinary people rarely even know that such data exist. Discussing the pros and cons of different visual presentation methods is a good move, as you did there. I'd like to see such a "structured middle layer" between things, people, and events, and the "front page" interpretations of data that is frequently cherry picked, and maybe
create an interface in the form of a browser plug-in, so you could highlight a claim, and a cloud of descriptions or pertinent organized datasets (with colorful top level iconic aids to visualizing WTF they mean), and upon selection of one, a spreadsheet-like window into the data permitting it to be viewed in various ways.

For possibly useful illustrations of what is possible with superimposing tabular data onto an existing display format, you might as an experiment the keepa Amazon Price Tracker add-on (for Firefox and Chrome) or the Camelizer. Once you've installed this, pick any book in the Amazon inventory, and imagine how an online used book dealer's consideration of what books to buy might be enhanced.

With the "death of the front page", and the tendency of people to find news aggregators that provide daily rationalizations of what they already believe, if such a thing existed and became well known, it might provide a set of pulls to somewhat counter the blossoming of bizarre frames of reference and echo chambers. Some people might compete to "one up" eachother on their skill at using the tool, countering the present tendency to "one up" ones comment-section buddies with the "best new zinger" ridiculing Al Gore or those other "libtards" as some like to say.

So I like the idea of "data playgrounds" and maybe contests, but just can't get worked up about whether belief A highly correlated with belief B or action X, and I think the time dimension (as alluded to in my prior comment) would make any data playground more powerful, and predicting the about-to-be-released this month's answers to the questionaire might inspire some real contest over T-shirts or more importantly bragging rights.

Whether you pay any attention to my suggestions or not, keep up the great work.

January 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHal Morris

P.S. a "just facts middle layer" would require some sort of judicial "seal of approval" which could only gain respect through transparency, much vaunted care in construction, and a track record of integrity.

January 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHal Morris


Well, your imagined playground is to mine what Camden Yards is to whatever the hell Kevin Cosner built out behind his barn.

I just want to get CCP data sets up; the interfaces w/ all the other stuff is beyond me (& even the 10 yr old kid across the street I pay 50 cents an hour to do the complicated stuff w/ this site -- once the snow shoveling jobs start coming in, there's now way I'll get her to do anything for less than $5/hr, of course)

Actually, the main thing that slows me down in implementing this is that the data sets all need decent codebooks & instructions on how I myself do the analyses that I post (at a minimum the stata scripts -- people can then figure out how to reproduce if they use other programming applications) or else people willl stare blankly at the data & not know what to do.

But I've posted good number of CCP datasets, including codebooks etc. (some in connection w/ specific papers, others not) so I at least ought to make a list.

Soon I'll post a set to go with Ordinary Science Intelligence': A Science Comprehension Measure for Study of Risk and Science Communication, with Notes on Evolution and Climate Change", which is now "in press." Maybe that will give me the impetus to open the playground-- even though it really will be more like monkeybars & a "spinner" (the ones that always make kids puke!) than the disneyworld you seem to be dreaming of!

Actually there are tons of places on line that list "canned" data sets -- from GSS to NES ones & others, not to mention the Pew data set that I'd been playing w/ & that led to this MAPKIA.

E.g, here's a set of analyses I just did on a bunch of "new science literacy" items the NSF was trying out (see 2010 Indicators) & that appear in 2008 GSS data. Think of all the cool items in rest of 2008 GSS data set that one could then correlate w/ this IRT scale?!

All friggin free, too! Who needs M Turk?

January 7, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Am I too late?

1) Respondents who give the Malthusian answer (#2) are more likely to oppose nuclear power, GM food, and fracking. They will, however, be less likely to believe in human-caused climate change and more likely to oppose restrictions on greenhouse gases. This is the result of a general pessimism a la Michael Chrichton about man's ability to control the environment. The environment is unruly and dangerous, so messing with it (nuclear power, GM food, fracking) is very risky. On the other hand, because the environment is so unruly, it is unlikely that humanity is causing climate change (even if it is possible) and it would be unwise to alter the status quo in an effort to control the unruly environment (by attempting to reduce warming that may or may not be human-caused to begin with). This relationship will not be related to ideology and will, in fact, be stronger than the relationship between these views and ideology.

2) There will be no relationship between Malthusian views and science literacy. Malthusian views are a kind of generalized pessimism about man's relationship with nature. There is sufficient evidence to support either the Malthusian or the optimistic view at any level of scientific sophistication, so no relation.

3) Science literacy will magnify the relationship between Malthusian views and the other items b/c of the ability for more knowledgeable respondents to find evidence confirming their viewpoint.

January 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTodd

No, not too late! I mean I can’t guarantee the #20 CCP vintage Jersey at this point – a lot of Macanese parents ordered those for their kids this x-mas. But there are still plenty of other amazing prizes in stock!

Very formidable hypotheses, too.

Now here’s one for you while you wait for contest results to be posted:

"Are Americans who “disbelieve in” human evolution as likely as those who “believe in” it to be interested in a science documentary on our species’ natural history? Would they accept the evidence in such a documentary as valid and convincing?"

January 12, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

First, your research is my not-so-new favorite thing, and your blog is hilarious and wonderful.

Second - "So the question is, should we expect the Pew item to tap into those two opposing mindsets?"
(I'm just going to answer that one, because if I'm lengthier the damned jersey might be gone).
I say NO. While I think the mindset you illustrate re answer 1 is apt, I think the mindsets of those who answer 2 could split, ideologically. In addition to the one you lay out, I think you might also get the "This is the chance for American innovation, bigger factory farms, more GM foods!, we can go to space and make stuff for astronauts to eat there? We've GOT this." So I don't think answer 2 is antithetical to those who believe in free market - it can speak to those who want freer ones.

That's all I got. Husband is making crepes with cheese from local goat farm and sustainably raised piggies.

Thanks for all you do, Dan!

January 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLynn

@Lynn... oooooooh-- someone is really gunning for a synbioipad here!

January 12, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I'm going with the null- I model the Malthusian statement as being reflective of two main hidden factors, peoples' understanding of demography and quantitative scale (which is known to be poor) and optimism about technology. All that's just going ot be noise that obscures any signal.

The one prediction I'll advance is that other measures of optimism about investment in unknown technology, like the space program, might be related to the Malthusian statement response. I think people who are pessimistic about technology's ability to meet demographic challenges will also be pessimistic about the likely social returns on investment in the space program.

January 13, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon


Now that's raising the stakes!

I sure wish that Pew had had a measure on how many times a day people listened to Space Oddity...... Now *that* would be a kick-ass "worldview" item (of course, data from last week isn't valid; everyone is listening/watching more or less continuously)

January 13, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Really interested to know what you found. And since you haven't told us, I'm going to throw another idea into the mix.
I'd been thinking that a lot of this rests on whether the topic of global population growth has become ideologically polluted. And I don't really think so. And if your interpretation of System 1 and 2 is correct, then higher science comprehension should always magnify ideologically based responses, right? System 2 in service of System 1??

BUT - in this case, I think the only people who ARE concerned about world population growth impacting natural resources are.... SCIENTISTS. So I'm going to say there are stronger correlations between Malthusian worldview and science comprehension (with high science comp correlated with greater concern about risk of population growth) than there are between Malthusian worldview and political partisanship.

January 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLynn


we've got 400 Apple Watch CUPs working around the clock to model the 737,216 entries. But for sure the winner will be announced "soon," "very soon," in fact.

On global population -- it seems so 1970s, don't you think?...

January 14, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

How powerfully (if at all) will responses to the Pew Malthusian Worldview item predict beliefs and attitudes toward technological and environmental risks like climate change, fracking, nuclear power, and GM foods?

ZB: .3 on climate change. practically 0 on fracking, nuclear power, and GM foods.

Will it be a stronger predictor than political partisanship? Will responses interact with—or essentially amplify—the explanatory power of political ideology and party identification?

ZB: Not stronger than political partisanship. Will add little to predictions based on partisanship.

What will the relationship be between the Malthusian Worldview item and science literacy? Will responses be correlated with it—and if so in which direction? Will higher science literacy magnify the correlation between responses to the Malthusian Worldview item and opposing perceptions of environmental and technological risks--just as higher science comprehension magnifies cultural polarization on climate change, nuclear power, fracking, and the like?

ZB: Little relationship between Worldview and science literacy. No appreciable magnification of the correlation.

March 14, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterzbicyclist

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