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« Another “Scraredy-cat risk disposition”™ scale "booster shot": Childhood vaccine risk perceptions | Main | New "strongest evidence yet" on consensus messaging! »

Scientists discover source of public controversy on GM food risks: bitter cultural division between scaredy cats and everyone else!

Okay. Time for a “no, GM food risks are not politically polarizing—or indeed a source of any meaningful division among members of the public” booster shot.

Yes, it has been administered 5000 times already, but apparently, it has to be administered about once every 90 days to be effective.

Actually, I’ve monkeyed a bit with the formula of the shot to try to make it more powerful (hopefully it won’t induce autism or microcephaly but in the interest of risk-perception science we must take some risks).

We are all familiar (right? please say “yes” . . .) with this:

It’s just plain indisputable that GM food risks do not divide members of the U.S. general public along political linies. If you can’t see the difference between these two graphs, get your eyes or your ability to accept evidence medically evaluated.

But that’s the old version of the booster shot!

The new & improved one uses what I’m calling the “scaredy-cat risk disposition” scale!

That scale combines Industrial Strength Risk Perception Measure (ISRPM) 0-7 responses to an eclectic -- or in technical terms "random ass" -- set of putative risk sources. Namely:

MASSHOOT. Mass shootings in public places

CARJACK. Armed carjacking (theft of occupied vehicle by person brandishing weapon)

ACCIDENTS. Accidents occurring in the workplace

AIRTRAVEL. Flying on a commercial airliner

ELEVATOR. Elevator crashes in high-rise buildings

KIDPOOL. Accidental drowning of children in swimming pools

Together, these risk perceptions form a reliable, one-dimensional scale (α = 0.80) that is distinct from fear of environmental risks or of deviancy risks (marijuana legalization, prostitution legalization, pornography distribution, and sex ed in schools).

Scaredy-cat is normally distributed, interestingly.  But unsurprisingly, it isn’t meaningfully correlated with right-left political predispositions.

So what is the relationship between scaredy-cat risk dispositions & GM food risk perceptions? Well, here you go:

Got it?  Political outlooks, as we know, don’t explain GM food risks, but variance in the sort of random-ass risk concerns measured by the Scaredy-cat scale do, at least to a modest extent.

We all are famaliar with this fundamental "us vs. them" division in American life.  

On the one hand, we have those people who who walk around filled with terror of falling down elevator shafts, having their vehicles carjacked, getting their arms severed by a workplace “lathe,” and having their kids fall into a neighbor’s uncovered swimming pool and drowning.  Oh—and being killed by a crashing airplane either b/c they are a passenger on it or b/c they are  the unlucky s.o.b. who gets nailed by a piece of broken-off wing when it  comes hurtling to the ground.

On the other, there are those who stubbornly deny that any of these  is anything to worry about.

Bascially, this has been the fundamenal divide in American political life since the founding: Anti-federalist vs. Federaliststs, slaveholders vs. abolitionists, isolationists vs. internationalists, tastes great vs. less filling.

Well, those same two groups are the ones driving all the political agitation over GM foods too!

... Either that or GM food risk perceptions are just meaningless noise. Those who score high on the Scaredy-cat scale are the people who, without knowing what GM foods are (remember 75% of people polled give the ridiculous answer that they haven’t ever eaten any!), are likely to say they are more worried about them in the same way they are likely to say they are worrid about any other random-ass thing you toss into a risk-perception survey.

If the latter interpretation is right, then the idea that the conflict between the scaredy-cats and the unscaredy-cats is of any political consequence for the political battle over GM foods is obviously absurd.  

If that were a politically consequential division in public opinion, Congress would not only be debating preempting state GM food labels but also debating banning air travel, requiring swimming pool fences (make the Mexicans pay for those too!), regulations for mandatory trampolines at the bottom of elevator shafts, etc.

People don’t have opinions on GM foods. They eat them.

The political conflict over GM foods is being driven purely by interest group activity unrelated to public opinion.

Got it?

Good.  See you in 90 days.

Oh, in case you are wondering, no, the division between scaredy-cats and unscaredy-cats is not the source of cultural conflict in the US over climate change risks.

You see, there really is public division on global warming. 

GM foods are on the evidence-free political commentary radar screen but not the public risk-perception one.

That's exactly what the “scaredy-cat risk disposition” scale helps to illustrate.


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Reader Comments (3)

Wow, I don't think I've ever seen such direct evidence showing how science awareness makes you less generally fraid-y. (We said "fraid-y cat" where I was a kid.) It certainly reminds me of attitudes that I think of as rather self-righteously 19th-century about uneducated peoples being superstitious and backwards, unwarrantedly afraid of inconsequential things. Maybe there was more to that attitude than I gave it credit for.

Moreover, the fact that OSI is negatively correlated with general risk sensitivity increases the noteworthiness of situations where OSI magnifies sensitivity to particular risks. I can see two hypotheses about this:

1) Cultural factors that magnify select risk perceptions with increasing OSI could operate against a general gradient of OSI-mediated suppression of scaredyness; if true, the population of high-OSI people should be less sensitive to culturally loaded alarm signals, even when those signals come from the ingroup.


2) The kind of processing that OSI measures could suppress scaredyness by enabling people to concentrate a given amount of "risk attention" onto the risks their culture identifies as important. If true, I'd expect the relative salience of culturally significant risks to decrease with increasing scaredyness. Quantitatively, if I were looking at a population self-identified as of a culture known to be sensitive to risk X, and I were modeling their assessments of risk X, I expect the (OSI x scaredyness) term to be < 0. Any observed synergism between scaredyness and OSI would weigh heavily aginst this view.

Where does the balance of the evidence we've collected so far lie? I think it lies against 1).

April 22, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

@Dypoon--yeah that is pretty darn intersting.

Here are two possibilities;

1. higher OSI does have a "secular" risk-reduction effect; &
2. higher OSI is negatively correlated with whatever nongenuine risk sensibillity is being measured by “scaredy-cat risk disposition.”™ SCRD's mission, in my view, is to help us see whether asserted correlations between risk perceptions and one or another disposition support the inference that the disposition really "explains" it. IF the asserted correlation falls below the “scaredy-cat risk disposition,”™ threshold, the ifnerence is pretty weak; b/c in fact the asserted risk perception, such a test shows, correlates w/ any old random ass thing just as strongly as the featured "explanatory" dispositon.

But under (2) “scaredy-cat risk disposition”™ is a bit of a sport. If that's right the negative correlation w/ OSI might simply mean that the dispositoin to just express generalized fear in random ass ways that arent' very meaningful is concentrated in lower OSI folks....

But help me out here. I'm trying tomake sense of things

April 22, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Yeah, I think we're thinking in the same direction here - trying to use SCRD as a null comparison for cultural worldviews, the argument being if a worldview's effect size doesn't beat SCRD's effect size, then it isn't worth looking at. Moreover, if a worldview element is a significant predictor both alone and in a multiple regression with SCRD as a co-predictor, then it's that much more noteworthy.

For us to be able to use SCRD as a sort of "null-worldview of risk aversion", which is awful tempting, what would have to be true? I think among other things, we're looking to check that SCRD itself doesn't interact in weird ways with anything else we're trying to compare it to. That's what led me to the "finite risk attention hypothesis", my 2), which I think is our worst-case scenario. If OSI suppresses SCRD by magnifying culturally significant risks, then SCRD's utility as a null model for cultural cognition studies is greatly diminished, right? (or am I wrong? maybe even this is in fact our best-case scenario and you can show me how?)

(I've noticed that here I'm confusing using SCRD as a "null" with SCRD as a predictor. Eech. not thinking clearly tonight...)

I love 'SCRD'; the acronym, unlike so many others, is self-explanatory!

Regarding distinguishing your (1) and (2), it seems like maybe we should be asking as a control about non-controversial risks, like how risky UV exposure is for your skin (known and conceded by everybody to be risky - but ask them just -how- risky? SCRD people would be higher by definition, higher OSI people dunno.) Does that make sense to you? do you think that would help?

April 23, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

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