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« Travel report: On unpolluted & polluted public health science communcation environments--the cases of the HBV & HPV vaccines (presentation summary & slides) | Main | Two of "Four Theses on Ordinary Science Knowledge" . . . a fragment »

The fourth of "four theses on ordinary science intelligence" ... a fragment

I posted the first two "yesterday"; if you want to read the third, then just download   On the Sources of Ordinary Science Knowledge and Ignorance . . .

IV. “The recognition problem [that generates conflict over decision relevant science] is a polluted science communication environment.”

The species of pattern recognition that ordinary members of the public normally use to recognize valid science enables them to get the benefit of substantially more scientific insight than any could possibly hope to genuinely comprehend.  The evidence I described in the last section, however, evinces the disablement of this critical capacity.  The final “thesis of ordinary science knowledge” identifies the source of this disablement: a polluted science communication environment.

Popper (1962b), I noted, attributes the acquisition and exercise of the capacity for science-recognition to immersion in a set of social processes and conventions. When I refer to the science communication environment, I mean to refer to the sum total of the processes and conventions that enable recognition of valid science in this way (Kahan 2015b). Any influence that impairs or impedes the operation of these social practices will necessarily degrade the power of free, reasoning citizens to recognize valid science, and hence to realize the full benefits of it. As a result, we may understand any such influence to be a form of pollution in the science communication environment.

The sorts of influences that can generate such disablement are no doubt numerous and diverse. But I will focus on one, which degrades an especially consequential cue of science validity.

Of all the sources of ordinary science knowledge, by far the most significant will be individuals’ interactions with others with whom they a share cultural commitments or basic understanding of the best way to live. The suggestion that direct communication with scientists is more consequential reflects either the First or Second False Start or both: individuals have neither the time nor the capacity to extract information directly from scientists.  Much more accessible, and much more readily subject to meaningful interpretation, are words and actions of other ordinary people, whose use of DRS vouches for their confidence in it as a basis for decision. 

Indeed, it vouches as effectively when nothing is said about it as it does when something is. Nothing—including a new National Academy of Sciences expert consensus report (National Research Council 2016) that few members of the public will even be dimly aware exists—will assure an ordinary person that it is safe to eat GM corn chips as will watching his best friend and his brother-in-law and his officemate eating them without giving the matter a second’s thought, the “all clear” signal that obviates the need for the vast majority of Americans even to bother learning that the corn chips they are eating contain GM foods (Hallman, Cuite & Morin 2013).

Of course, ordinary citizens don’t interact only with those with whom they share important cultural commitments. But they interact with them much more than they interact with others, for the simple reason that they find their company more congenial and more productive of all manner of profitable intercourse. They are also less likely to was time squabbling with these people, and can also read them more reliably, distinguishing who really does know what science knows and who is only a poser. It is perfectly rational for them consciously to seek out guidance from such individuals, then, or to form unconscious habits of mind that privilege them as sources of guidance on what science knows (Kahan 2015b).

Figure 5 ... click on it: it will increase your proportion of fast-twitch to slow-twich mucle fibers by 23.6%!This process is admittedly insular, but it clearly works in the main. All of the major cultural groups in which this process operate are amply stocked both with members high in science comprehension and with intact social processes for transmitting what they know. No group that lacked these qualities—and that as a result regularly misled its members on the content of valid DRS—would last very long! On issues that don’t display the profile of the Science Communication Paradox, moreover, individuals highest in science proficiency do tend to converge on the best available evidence, and no doubt pull the other members of their groups along in their wake (Figure 5).

But such a system is vulnerable to a distinctive pathology: identity-protective cognition (IPC). IPC occurs when a policy-relevant fact that admits of empirical inquiry becomes entangled in antagonistic social meanings that transform positions on them into badges of identity in, and loyalty to, competing cultural groups (Kahan 2010, 2012). The cost under those conditions of forming factually incorrect beliefs on matters like whether humans are heating up the earth or whether fracking will extinguish or contaminate drinking water sources is essentially zero: individuals’ personal views and actions are not consequential enough to affect the level of risk they face, or the likely adoption of ameliorating (or simply pointless or even perverse) regulatory responses. But given what beliefs on these subjects (correct or incorrect) have come to signify about the kind of person one is—about whose side on is on, in what has become a struggle for status among competing cultural groups—the personal cost of forming the wrong ones in relation to one’s own cultural identity could be high indeed (Kahan, Peters et al. 2012).

In such circumstances, individuals can be expected to use their reason to form and persist in beliefs that reliably vouch for their group identities regardless of whether those beliefs are factually accurate.  This conclusion is consistent with numerous studies, observational (Bolsen & Druckman 2015; Bolsen, Druckman & Cook 2014; Gollust, LaRussao et al. 2015; Gollust, Dempsey, et al. 2010) and experimental (Kahan, Braman, et al. 2009, 2010), that link IPC to the Science Communication Problem’s signature forms of polarization.  Indeed, individuals who enjoy the highest level of proficiency will display this form of motivated reasoning to the greatest extent, precisely because they will be the most adept at using their reasoning proficiency secure the interest that they share to form identity-expressive beliefs (Kahan in press).

In sum, the antagonistic social meanings that trigger IPC are a toxic form of pollution in the science communication environment of culturally pluralistic societies.  They disable individuals’ science-recognition capacities, not by degrading their reason but by conscripting it into the service of advancing their group’s cause in a demeaning form of cultural status competition. IPC does not create the role that social influences play in popular recognition of what science knows. Rather it corrupts them, transforming the role that  spontaneous, everyday social interactions play from an engine of convergence on the beset available evidence into a relentlessly aggressive agent of public dissensus over what scientific consensus really is. 


Bolsen, T. & Druckman, J.N. Counteracting the Politicization of Science. Journal of Communication 65, 745-769 (2015).

Bolsen, T., Druckman, J.N. & Cook, F.L. The influence of partisan motivated reasoning on public opinion. Polit Behav 36, 235-262 (2014).

Gollust, S.E., Dempsey, A.F., Lantz, P.M., Ubel, P.A. & Fowler, E.F. Controversy undermines support for state mandates on the human papillomavirus vaccine. Health Affair 29, 2041-2046 (2010).

Gollust, S.E., LoRusso, S.M., Nagler, R.H. & Fowler, E.F. Understanding the role of the news media in HPV vaccine uptake in the United States: Synthesis and commentary. Human vaccines & immunotherapeutics, 1-5 (2015).

Hallman, W., Cuite, C. & Morin, X. Public Perceptions of Labeling Genetically Modified Foods. Rutgers School of Environ. Sci. Working Paper 2013-2001, available at

Kahan, D. Fixing the Communications Failure. Nature 463, 296-297 (2010).

Kahan, D. Why we are poles apart on climate change. Nature 488, 255 (2012).

Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L.L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change 2, 732-735 (2012).

National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects  (National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2016).

Popper, K.R. On the Sources of Knowledge and of Ignorance. in Conjectures and Refutations 3-40 (Oxford University Press London, 1962b).



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Reader Comments (7)

== > "...precisely because they will be the most adept at using their reasoning proficiency secure the interest that they share to form identity-expressive beliefs (Kahan in press)"

I look forward to finding out what you have in press, as while perhaps it it just because of my limitations, I have yet to see you provide convincing evidence to support your statement-as-fact attribution of causality.

June 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Two more questions:


==>> They ...can also read them more reliably, distinguishing who really does know what science knows and who is only a poser.

What evidence do you use to conclude that people are better at recognizing posers in their own group in comparison to posers in out-groups?


==>> "... individuals’ personal views and actions are not consequential enough to affect the level of risk they face, or the likely adoption of ameliorating (or simply pointless or even perverse) regulatory responses.

I suppose we might say that about any large-scale social issue, such as gun control, abortion rights, same-sex marriage, environmental protection, immigration policy, welfare policy, vaccination policy, infectious disease policy (say, w/r/t Ebola), etc., that are impacted by regulations. It's hard to make a case that individual agency materially affects outcomes in those issues either, but then do you think that there are any large-scale social issues where individuals can have consequential affect in regulatory policy?

June 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Ok, (if you haven't already) now push those ideas and consider how the same processes can pollute a science itself, because the first form of communication is done within the confines of the science.

June 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Maybe I'm angling for a part V to this series. In my opinion, the interesting and significant part of this analysis, and where more work is needed by the Cultural Cognition Project, has to do with how, when and why it is that science conversations are degraded by pollution.

I'd start with this: “Of course, ordinary citizens don’t interact only with those with whom they share important cultural commitments. But they interact with them much more than they interact with others, for the simple reason that they find their company more congenial and more productive of all manner of profitable intercourse.”

Certainly people interact most with like minded folks. And they also bounce away from ideas promoted by those they view unfavorably. The impact comes from something trusted friends may tell you. It is not likely that these friend spent hours carefully analyzing the information but rather that it is being funneled through from some other source. But, when it comes to ideas connected to public policy, they are likely to do so utilizing media outlets. This started out in the US with pamphlets, such as those by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, segued through newspapers, talk radio, TV and now Internet outlets. Wherein considerable sharing of media links with other like minded people occurs. Along with an increasing ability to bash and/or banish from consideration analogous media links from non-like minded folk. All of which is now commercialized into a system in which specific messages can be targeted to specific demographic groups. Which means that the persons and corporations most likely to help with the needed data to evaluate here are people like Mark Zukerberg of Facebook, and we can't afford his services.

I think that a good depiction of this is given in what was apparently a tweet by former Google executive and Egyption activist, Wael Ghonim, shown in the middle of the article here: http:r//

“We are looking for the valley of openmindedness where productive conversations can occur. And the problem is that this location is unfortunately tedious and boring as compared to the ego boosting positive re-enforcement of echo chambers or the emotional charge of flame wars.”

It didn't take the Cultural Cognition Project for corporate marketers to learn how to take advantage of basic principles here. On a national level, the Marlboro Man, a cigarette advertising campaign effectively utilized by Philip Morris from the 1950's until the 90's is an example of effective utilization of identification with tough and strong cowboys to subtly thwart tobacco health concerns.

I'd also say that Donald Trump is a master.

Stepping back to a broad, sociological anthropological view, many possible dominate cultures and subcultures are possible. Some cultures value rugged individualism, others operate on the value that the nail that sticks out ought to get hammered down. Some seek dominance by aggression, others by intellectual advancements. Still others look to “be fruitful and multiply”. Some value continuity, others continually seek a “Manifest Destiny”. Our modern pluralistic civilized society contains socio-economic trajectories of threads of many differing cultural sources.

From a previous post here: “Popper characterizes the aggregation of these processes as “tradition,” which he describes as “by far the most important source of our knowledge” Continuity, or continuance of previous trajectories are valued in human cultures.

I agree with your paper's premise that:

“To preempt such disruptions and to repair them when they occur, science must form a complete understanding of the ordinary processes of science recognition, and democratic societies must organize themselves to use what science knows about how ordinary members of the public come to recognize what is known to science.”

But I think that it is important to recognize that what it means to be in power is to be in control of cultural trajectories.

How do cultural values affect our conversations on GMOs and who are the influencer's of public perceptions?

Starting with corn chips and health. I disagree with the premise here. Corn chips are bad for you, and bad for the planet. It's just all way more complex than generally presented. Getting to the root of those issues would require all sorts of disruptions to cultural tradition and the status of those now in positions of power.

If we went by today's best available science, and started with a fresh planet, there is no way that we would be basing an agricultural system on corn. Corn is not protein rich, and is actually amino acid deficient. It is high in simple sugars, lacks many vitamins, and does not contain the most heart healthy oils. We harvest small grains from the “ears” of the plant, but have to expend much energy and effort providing sufficient water and nutrients to do so. The plants are relatively huge compared to the grain, and are annuals requiring continual plowing and replanting.

But of course we are starting with all sorts of cultural baggage, controlled by cultural values promoted by existing power structures. Our reliance on corn goes back in time to the actions of early hunter gatherers looking for conveniently large (and thus annual) wild grass seeds to collect in Mexico, and continues through the Aztec empire, Spaniards crushing that civilization while acting on the Doctrine of Discovery, and on to it's adaptation into Europe and back again to the US where pioneers acting on precepts of Manifest Destiny displaced earlier Native American corn cultures. It has now become a mainstay of the economy in states like Iowa.

What is happening in the head of the person eating corn chips? They are highly unlikely, at that moment, to be thinking at that moment about the genetic development of the plant we cultivate today as corn. Or the environmental consequences of the cultivation of so many large monocultures of corn. They may, in a back corner of their mind actually know that corn, is not, in fact a particularly healthy food. And realize that they are not actually in particularly in need of extra calories. Although they are unlikely to want to be contemplating diabetes or obesity. They may have noticed from past experience that once they open a bag of chips it is hard to not empty it. But in that back brain corner, they probably do remember that someone, probably a parent, told them to “Eat your vegetables!”. And corn chips do not qualify. It is snack time and they also are not particularly interested in how, through the wonders of science, corn could be transformed into something that was healthier all the way around.

Big Food does not care either. As long as the product is cheap and profitable, and a good contributor to the bottom line. They are in general not particularly imaginative. They are not fond of disruption. If Nachos Cheese Doritos were a thing last year, perhaps Doritos, Jacked!!! Ranch Dipped Hot Wings Chips!!! will be great now. They do perform marketing research. Chips are likely to be presented in a determined to be appetite appealing yellow-orange-red bag. Unless organic chips were selected in which case they are likely to be eco-green or even a decidedly contrarian brown paper. Behind the scenes, chemists are busy trying to maintain the all important umami, the chemical components that keep chip eaters coming back for more.

To fully understand the current GMO debate I think it is also important to understand the mechanizations of the corporate chemical industry, and in this case, Monsanto.

(Although if you want to read a description and indictment of the chemical industry in general, and how corporate fostering of a tribal “see no evil” culture in a company town can operate to the great detriment of that community, I highly recommend Dan Fagin’s “Toms River”.

The original Monsanto was the primary manufacturer of PCB's. The current Monsanto claims no responsibility for this, having spun off that part of its operations to a new company, Solutia, which subsequently fell into bankruptcy: This financial disappearing act process can, IMHO, perhaps be best understood by reading about the current tactics being (seemingly very belatedly) employed by DuPont, here:

In Monsanto's case that left a corporation focused on agriculture. One that still felt the need to invest heavily in lobbying and one that came to wield great influence over both government agencies and academic research. One that had learned the value of corporate information control and secrecy. Potentially, applications of the science of genetically modified organisms could have been very disruptive to Monsanto.

What would have happened if GMO development had been led as a publicly funded, university and research agency process that led to open source seeds? Instead, what we got was a line of seeds that re-enforced the need for Monsanto's premium product, the glyphosate containing herbicide, Round-Up.

In my opinion, a lot of the pollution of conversations regarding appropriate usage of GMO technology is shut down by Big Ag interests. Big Ag companies, like other chemical corporations, dislike governmental regulatory restrictions. For them, a focus on extremists, easy to portray as nut cases works to keep the conversation closed. This is a tactic that keeps the conversations tribal. It prevents construction of a “valley of open-mindedness” from which constructive and democratic conversations on the future of agriculture might have been able to occur. These tactics can work not only directly but also via front groups and paid intermediaries. I believe that real science is poorly served by this emphatic and limiting “Because Science!” response. It has the potential to degrade the public trust in science and scientists. But the Internet is very amenable to this sort of thing, as noted by Wael Ghonim above.

One of the examples of our polluted scientific process is the fact that very little research has been done into the environmental impacts of the use of so much glyphosate,or it's degradation byproducts. And that what has been done comes not from the US Department of Agriculture or the EPA but from the apparently more independent USGS: We are also lagging in serious research on replacement for corn. For which the science of genomics would be quite useful.

As herbicides go, glyphosate is relatively benign. However, as a result of the short term thinking employed by many corporations, (or perhaps a strategy of planned obsolescence as in the auto industry?), overuse of glyphosate is leading to the evolution of resistant weeds, which is causing the use of more harmful herbicides, such as Dow chemical's 2, 4, D. While still remaining locked in to agricultural practices in which food crops are strengthened to resist herbicides, rather than giving them the competitive strengths of the plants we call weeds. The “relatively benign” status of glyphosate, in my opinion, is true despite its designation as a probable carcinogen, a status held by many chemicals, including those in existing foodstuffs. Which is not to say we should be saturating the Midwestern US with this chemical, a process now occurring as demonstrated by the USGS studies linked to in the paragraph above. Our food regulatory system has a built in acceptance of long term foods, as GRAS, “generally recognized as safe”. This is part of a regulatory structure that makes it easier to stop production of something new, and more difficult to regulate something that is pre-existing.

A regulatory environment that makes stopping something new much easier than re-evaluating existing practices is another aspect of the pollution of a broader GMO conversation. Change activists need a handle. Those wanting to block old growth forests look to spotted owls or other species covered under the Endangered Species Act, rather than beginning by trying to promote the importance of entire ecosystems. Anti tar sands activists first target the proposed KXL pipeline, rather than older pipelines bringing tar sands as far as Denver where the also old refinery converted to tar sands use has had problems with leakage of benzene into the South Platte River. Activists looking to contain our increasingly corporatist commodity agricultural system look to levers to focus on. Such as GMOs.

In my opinion, the most serious impact of GMO seeds is in the manner in which they enable large monocultures. In the US we overproduce corn to the extent that we had to develop an alternative technology to get rid of the excess, by ethanol production for fuel. This process does not make much sense from a total lifecycle analysis perspective. Overall, we are not taking into account long term environmental consequences of these monocultures on soils, water quality and usage or key species such as pollinators. This also turns these crops into global commodities. Corn, corn syrup, and the meats produced from corn and soy based feeds are promoting issues with diabetes and obesity.

It might be useful to check in with Dan's Kentucky soy farmer from previous blog posts, at this point. It turns out that GMO seeds similar to the ones that farmer purchased have also been sold to farmers in Brazil. Large scale corporate farms that are able to turn portions of the Amazon into cropland. That scale, along with low fuel prices and Brazilian currency depreciation are currently making it more “economic” for animal feedstock producers in the US to purchase Brazilian corn and soy rather than soy from neighboring farms. So much for profits.

Places like Vermont or France that still have small scale farms look at places like Iowa, where that small farm/ small town economic structure is largely a thing of the past, and organize to keep GMOs out to preserve the status quo. Kentucky is looking for ways to help its farmers create value added crops not subject to commodity pricing also. Such as by promoting the "Bourbon Trail' and a system of small, direct, farm to market outlets.

The key in any of these places is to find crops that can be profitable and sustainable.

At the present time, it is organic, non GMO products that are providing much of that small scale niche.

And as a reminder that tribes are not what one might expect, Koch Industries Cargill is marketing non-GMO products, and their quote here would belie the idea in the post above, that consumers are not conscious of non-GMO as a desirable product:

“In a new study of 4,000 U.S. consumers conducted by Cargill, 50% of those surveyed said that non-GMO was important to them when purchasing packaged foods or beverages. This research revealed that 38% of consumers say they would be likely to pay more for products not containing GMOs. “

Sadly, not much of the above is really getting at the root issues of agriculture, sustainability, and good health, which are appropriate matters of applied science.

Nor are they educating the public regarding upcoming genomic methods, which will be both much more specific, but also a lot easier to implement. The risks and opportunities of which deserve better public discussion.

June 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis


It seems to me that unlike in the first two of the four theses, you're trying to argue by assertion here. You're defining the problem as a term with preexisting connotations, and then using the terms' connotations to argue for your point.

If we replaced the term "polluted science communication environment" with "a critical shortage of chocolate chip cookies," we'd have this in place of your second paragraph:

Popper attributes the acquisition and exercise of the capacity for science-recognition to immersion in a set of social processes and conventions. When I refer to the consumption of chocolate chip cookies, I mean to refer to the sum total of the processes and conventions that enable recognition of valid science in this way. Any influence that impairs or impedes the operation of these social practices will necessarily degrade the power of free, reasoning citizens to recognize valid science, and hence to realize the full benefits of it. As a result, we may understand any such influence to be a form of critical chocolate chip cookie failure.

The sorts of influences that can generate such disablement are no doubt numerous and diverse. [...]

My point is that you bear a certain burden of proof to justify your choice of connotation. My not-quite joke example has its own moral: before communicating science to people, feed them and de-escalate them with a chocolate chip cookie. Your point is different.

I take it therefore that you mean to argue in the direction that there are people who are polluting the science communication environment, and liberal democracy needs ways of inducing them to stop it right now.

I think your writing would be even stronger if you nailed that point and supported it more thoroughly in your article.

June 22, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

I like it and thanks so much!

August 10, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterfynsy

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