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Travel report: Has liberal democracy lost its power to motivate?

This is a belated postcard from stop on recent around the world (I know it was because it included both Cambridges—UK and US—with lots of stops in between) tour. . . . It reports on one of two talks I gave at the annual Breakthrough Institute Dialogue series.  This one was part of a panel on “Progress Problems,” in which the question that I and the other panelists, who included Max Roser and Lydia Powell, addressed was “why are so many of the richest and most privileged people on earth, despite reaping such extraordinary benefits,  convinced that progress is a mirage and modernity must inevitably end badly?My remarks, as best as I can recall them, were as follows (slides here) . . . .

So the question as I understand it is --

Have liberal democratic ideals lost the power to motivate the citizens of liberal democracies?

Can we summon their attention to the common challenges they face by invoking their shared commitment to self-government, civil liberties, and free markets? Or are the animating ideals of liberal democracy now themselves a source of estrangement and division that ennervate public spiritedness?

My answer to these qustions will take a dialectical form. That is, like Clint Eastwood at the Republican Convention of 2012, I will treat you to a disagreeable dialogue with myself, in which I will radically change direction at least twice.

But insofar as I will get the last word, I’m confident that I’ll ultimately come out on top in the exchange.

So to start, with . . .

                Thesis: Sure, those ideals can motivate! I’ll show you . . . .”

I’ll show you, that is, an experiment (Kahan, Jenkins-Smith et al. 2015), one in which invoking the spirit of liberal democratic institutions sharpened apprehension of, and magnified the will to address, a collective challenge –namely the one posed by human-caused global warming.

In the experiment, we measured the willingness of subjects (members of two separate nationally representatives samples, one from  American and the other from England) to engage open mindedly with a climate-change study.

A composite of two real studies (Allen et al. 2009; Solomon et al. 2009), the one featured in our experiment—call it the “Nature-Science study”—told a bleak story. Scientists, it reported, had overestimated the speed with which carbon dioxide dissipates. As a result, even if human beings were to cease generating all greenhouse gasses tomorrow, past emissions would guarantee continued increases in global temperatures along with devastating consequences—from catastrophic flooding of coastal regions, to production-ending droughts in agricultural ones—for decades to come.

We also measured our subjects cultural worldviews along the two dimensions—hierarchy-egalitarianism and individualism-communitarianism—featured in studies of the cultural cognition of risk (Kahan 2012).

As we anticipated, experiment subjects of a hierarchical, individualistic orientation—the ones most predisposed to climate skepticism—were preemptively dismissive of the Nature-Science study results.

This, however, was in a control condition, in which subjects, before grappling with the Nature-Science study, read a news article about a town meeting over a proposal to install traffic lights in the vicinity of a new residential development.

Subjects in two other conditions were assigned to read different news articles: in one, a story about how a national association of preeminent scientists had issued a statement calling for increased limits on human CO2 emissions to combat global warming; and in the other, a story about how the same association had issued a statement calling for research on geoengineering to offset the effects of past and future emissions. We labeled these the “anti-pollution” and “geoengineering” conditions.

Logically, there’s no reason why subjects assigned to either of these conditions should have formed different views on the validity of the Nature-Science study: the validity of the evidence for an asserted problem doesn’t turn on whether someone approves or disapproves of any particular solution for it.

But psychologically, the solution might well matter.

The “anti-pollution” and “geoengineering” stories embed the problem of climate change in different narratives and thus invest it with alternative social meanings (Lessig 1995).

The former narrative is about the inevitable limits on technological ingenuity and the consequences for having too long ignored them. Against the background of the “anti-pollution story,” the message of the Nature-Science story is  “game over” and “I told you so.”

Individuals of a hierarchical, individualistic cultural outlook revere commerce and industry, not just for what they do but for what they signify about human resourcefulness and the welfare-enhancing consequences of spontaneous private orderings and the stratified systems of authority that they spawn.  They are motivated, unconsciously, to resist evidence of the existence and impact of human-caused climate change precisely because they know that if society credits such evidence it will call into question the premises of their preferred way of life.

The social meanings in the anti-pollution story reinforce that perception, and hence amplify the motivation to resist the evidence.

But the message of the “geoengineering story” is very different.

We are not the stupid animal, this narrative goes, who when it reaches the top of the Malthusian curve comes crashing down ass over tincups.  We shift the f***ing curve!

Drinking your own shit, you say? No problem! Try modern sanitation & you can increase the density of cities 10 fold relative to what a bunch of tight-sphinctered naysayers once told us was the “natural limit,” enforced by the dreaded penalty of cholera outbreaks.

Well, it’s time to shift the curve again! This time with mirror-coated nanotechnology flying saucers that magically—hell, not magically; by rational intention & design—spontaneously assemble at just the right attitude to cool the atmosphere to a predetermined, geo-thermostatically determined level.

Not “game over” but more of the same!

“I told you so”? Unh uh! Try, yes we can!

Whereas the social meanings implicit in the “anti-pollution” story narrative threaten and denigrate the identity of the hierarch individualist, the meanings implicit in “geoengineering” affirm and gratify his vision of the best life and its prospects

The result is an abatement of the unconscious, reflexive resistance to evidence that there is in fact a problem to be addressed—by one means or another.

In any case, that was the conjecture we wanted to test in our experiment.

And it was the result that we in fact observed.

Relative to the control condition, hierarchical individualists in assigned to read the “anti-pollution” news story first became even more skeptical, even more dismissive of the validity of the Nature-Science study, increasing polarization within the study sample.

But those who read the “geoengineering” story first were decidedly more receptive to the evidence in the Nature-Science study; they didn’t dismiss its findings out of hand. 

As a result, polarization, over the validity of the study and over the reality of human-caused climate change, both decreased.

So there you go!

The ideals of liberal democracy include the  confidence that people have that technology, human ingenuity, private orderings, and individual strivings can in the course of freeing us from the limits of nature, devise effective solutions for problems of their own making.

Invoking these ideas, narratively, can inspire, can summon attention to common problems and the will to address them!

I’ve shown you!

 Antithesis: “No they can't! Take a closer look.”

Hold on.


What you’ve shown us is that liberal democratic ideals can’t genuinely motivate the citizens of liberal democratic regimes.  Just take a closer look at your own data, and you’ll see.

Yes, relative to their counterparts in the “antipollution” condition subjects in the “geoengineering” one became more open-minded about climate change.

But egalitarian communitarian subjects—people of the sort who normally are “climate concerned”—became less so.

They are the citizens who bridle at the self-centered acquisitiveness implicit in market institutions and in liberal conceptions of individual rights.

For them, the meanings of boundless individual ingenuity and permanent technological progress that pervade the narrative implicit in the “geoengineering” condition threatened and denigrate their identity.

If the meaning of climate change is “yes, we can” and “more of the same!,” then they want none of it.

Or least they want less.  Things aren’t that bad, egalitarian communitarian subjects assigned to the “geoengineering” condition said after reading the Nature-Science study.  We can still make “progress” by shutting down industry, turning off modern agricultural techniques, and simply retreating into a pre-modern style of economic life.

The scientists who wrote this study are biased, are relying on unproven computer models, are furnishing us with evidence that it would be precipitous to use in policymaking without a lot more corroboration etc etc.

Sound familiar? These are the tropes of skepticism—now from the mouths of those most inclined to be embrace climate change.

Why? Because what they really care about, what motivates them, is not  “evidence” (they definitely lack the science literacy to understand it) but the social meaning of “I told you!” and “game over!” (“This changes everything” blah blah) that informs the default narrative on climate change.

Change the narrative and they change their tune.

Just look at your data: They show that, relative to their counterparts in the anti-pollution condition, egalitarian communitarians became skeptical about climate change science in the in the geoengineering condition.

That, plus the greater receptivity to the Nature-Science study data on the part of hierarch individualists, was why there was less polarization in the “geoengineering” condition!

The motivation that invoking liberal democratic ideals, in the form of narratives of limitless technological progress and the self-corrective, self-redemptive power of private orderings and markets, is offset by the resistance that doing so motivates in that portion of or factionalized body politic that has come to despise individual striving, technology, and markets.

You can’t inspire with these ideals!

Invoking them on behalf of one cause of another is a zero sum game. 

Synthesis: “Liberal democratic ideals can indeed inspire--if you just stop obsessively looking at them.

I’m sorry.

You—both of you—are just playing a game.

What is this angst over the loss of the inspirational force of liberal democratic ideals, private markets included?  I mean really, what are you talking about?

Or better why are you focusing so much on talk—by such a small, small group of people who bother to theorize about these things?

Just look a tthe behavior of people—hierarch individualists, egalitarian communitarians, demoKrats/RepubliKans, “liberals,” “conservatives” or whatever.

Ambivalence about technology? Disaffection with consumption?

Ask Apple or Netflix or Amazon if that’s what their bottom lines tell them.

Yes your buddy’s new “environmental studies major” girlfriend is telling you about how environmentally destructive new information technologies are. But she’s showing you on her IPad, which has a “Green Party for Bernie Sander’s” IPad “skin”!

Against capitalism, Naomi Klein? Seriously? (Any chance you’ll show us your tax returns?)

Look.  This s a fashion statement:

And so is this:

Just as these opinions are:


Now here’s a worldview:

It’s real.

It’s anti-liberal.

It’s anti-market.

It’s anti-democratic.

And it’s just not on the table, in this society

No one around here finds this genuine repudiation of liberal democratic ideals the least bit inspiring.

The only thing that’s on the table here are the tokens of a demeaning, petty symbolic status competition driven by intellectually juvenile, self-promoting conflict entrepreneurs. . . . 

(Actually, you two guys both have garishly expensive but ridiculously dated sensibilities about fashion; in-your-face black is so 1999! You ain't no Johnny Cash, that's for sure.)

So don’t play that stupid game.

Stop looking & looking & looking at it.

“Messaging”/arguing liberal democracy doesn’t motivate people.

Living it does.


Allen, M.R., Frame, D.J., Huntingford, C., Jones, C.D., Lowe, J.A., Meinshausen, M. & Meinshausen, N. Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne. Nature 458, 1163-1166 (2009).

Kahan, D.M., Hank, J.-S., Tarantola, T., Silva, C. & Braman, D. Geoengineering and Climate Change Polarization: Testing a Two-Channel Model of Science Communication. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 658, 192-222 (2015).

Lessig, L. The Regulation of Social Meaning. U. Chi. L. Rev. 62, 943-1045 (1995).

 Solomon, S., Plattner, G.-K., Knutti, R. & Friedlingstein, P. Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, 1704-1709 (2009).



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