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Civic-epistemic virtues in the Risk Regulation Republic

From a recent lecture, this one at Texas Tech, in Lubbock Texas (Slides here):

My goal is to present evidence on the mental dispositions necessary for enlightened self-government in a risk-regulation republic

By a “risk regulation republic,” I mean a regime that is charged with using the best scientific evidence at its disposal to protect its citizens from all manner of hazards—from environmental ones, like climate change; to public health ones, like infection by the Zika virus; to social ones, like crime victimization or financial poverty.

Because the risk-regulation republic is democratic, its success in attaining these ends will depend in part on its citizens’ capacity to recognize such evidence. What kinds of mental dispositions—call them the civic epistemic virtues—does that capacity require?

For over two decades, the answer has been assumed to be one or another form of civic science literacy. As a theoretical construct, “civic science literacy” consists in knowledge of certain foundational scientific findings (e.g., human beings evolved from other species of animals; the Earth revolves around the Sun rather than vice versa), along with a set of critical reasoning skills that enable citizens’ to enlarge their stock of scientific knowledge and to bring it to bear on risk-regulation and other policy issues.

This position, I’ll argue, is incomplete.  Indeed, it is dangerously incomplete: for unless civic science literacy is accompanied by another science-reasoning disposition, the widespread attainment of  knowledge and reasoning skills that civic science literacy comprises can actually impede public engagement with the best available evidence—and deepen predictable, baleful forms of cultural polarization over what science knows. 

The additional disposition that's needed to orient civic science literacy is science curiosity.

The position that enlightened self-government requires science curiosity is definitely not new. Dewey saw science curiosity as an indispensable civic-epistemic virtue.  He was right, although not merely because curiosity motivates knowledge acquisition and activates information processing essential to its use—Dewey’s central points. 

What makes science curiosity an civic-epistemic virtue in the risk regulation republic is the role this disposition can play in quieting the defensive, identity-protective forms of cognition that turn science comprehension into a barrier rather than an entryway to public recognition of the best available evidence on societal risks.

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Reader Comments (7)


Are you, or do you know of others who are planning any other experiments to verify your science curious hypothesis?

Questions I'd like to see answered include:

Would high science curious high numeracy folks be less likely to polarize in the skin-rash-gun-control test than low science curious high numeracy folks? There is no authoritative evidential presentation in this test for them to converge on, after all.

Are science curious folks simply more credulous, more likely to believe in the most recent evidence - weighting their priors lower than they should, hence only polarizing less when exposed to evidence orders such that the most recent evidence agrees, and possibly polarizing more when it doesn't?

September 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Shifting echo chambers in US climate policy networks:

September 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan


1. We are doing various studies now. They will address some of your points, in fact. But it is unlikely the survey & experiment results we have published so far reflect some sort of "recency" bias-- we didn't show anybody any evidence, and it's implausible to think that somehow the subjects arrived at the studies having just seen evidence contrary to their political predispositions!

2. We have had contact w/ many researcher who want to use the scale. One issue w/ us of it in general is that it is too long. We are conducting studies on short-form versions (the properties of which we've already simulated using existing data).

September 19, 2018 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"But it is unlikely the survey & experiment results we have published so far reflect some sort of "recency" bias-- we didn't show anybody any evidence, and it's implausible to think that somehow the subjects arrived at the studies having just seen evidence contrary to their political predispositions!"

Not what I meant. In those tests, you show subjects a popsci article or a statement from a scientist and then determine to what extent their political identities appear to interfere with their belief maintenance. The question is - if you had presented more than one such vignette to the subjects, in different orders, and the opinions in those vignettes diverged, what would happen when the subjects are tested soon after that last presentation? Would science curious folks diverge from each other based on the order of presentation? Or, converge despite both presentation order and their stated political inclination?

Oh - another question - might science curiosity be nothing more than a temporary suspension of extraneous identity concerns that quickly resets?

After all, if science curious folks should converge on their beliefs when in similar evidential environments, this makes one wonder how you are able to find science curious folks with different beliefs on widely reported issues. You already determined that it isn't due to living in separate media bubbles, because they seek out and prefer surprising skeptical information.

September 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

@Jonathan-- I'm confused. Are you saying we exposed the subjects to vignettes & then measured their beliefs? That's not a design we used in any of our science curiosity studies.

September 20, 2018 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Apologies - it's my confusion. Fortunately, have recently organized my readings in Zotero, so can do fast searches (although haven't yet developed the habit of doing this prior to posting!). I was for some reason sure that you had run vignettes similar to those in Misconceptions, Misinformation, and the Logic of Identity-protective Cognition and earlier papers against SC subjects. Searching through your papers that I've read (35 and counting) shows otherwise.

Um, never mind...

September 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Could a test be designed to show whether SC can be significantly increased in the public of developed western nations? Say by 50% or 30% or something around there that will actually be enough to make a difference? There is a huge amount of science encouragement out there already, and presumably some folks are never going to be particularly curious about science because they happen to be far more curious about art or politics or music or sport or whatever. Presumably one should not cross the line from encouragement of SC, to attempted manipulation into SC, as likely this would have more downsides than upsides for a free society.

If the above shows plenty of headroom for significant SC growth, a longitudinal study would be a good next move, because more SC will lead in the following years to higher science literacy (or at least this seems to be a universal assumption of teachers who invoke curiosity to assist learning, and I know of nothing opposing that view). In some folks the very increased literacy that SC enabled, will satisfy their original curiosity (i.e. it turns off again, or lessens; it is not maintained high for everyone). And for all those who eventually (maybe years later) ended up with increased literacy that was originally enabled by encouraged SC, the increased literacy will increase their polarisation again, so over a long number of years the test would be to see whether there was a *net* beneficial effect once equilibrium is again reached in the tested population. Unfortunately this would take a long time, and I can’t think of a way to virtualize that test by taking selected samples from existing populations, hence skipping the time element.

In ‘quieting’ identity protective behaviour and consequent polarization, the more harmonized samples in the two main culturally conflicted domains you were using as test vehicles, leaned more towards the science consensus position in one case, and more away in the other. If we regard those consensuses as the gold standard for what is correct, in one case the support for correctness increased, in the other it decreased. Swapping ‘within domain’ polarization for ‘by domain’ polarization, wouldn’t necessarily result in a net benefit for society. So a test that showed there would indeed be a net benefit over many domains would be highly useful. Easy enough to widen the domain net, I guess, but comparing the effects of ‘within domain’ polarization to ‘by domain’ polarization may be comparing apples to oranges, hence true net benefit could end up being a value judgement thing rather than an objective measurement. I guess a valuable insight regarding net benefit would be knowing *why* the more harmonised high SC folks leaned towards consensus in one case, yet away in the other, but how to find out that why…? For sure SC is neither knowledge or understanding, so we wouldn’t expect them to lean more towards correct than incorrect over a large number of domains. But there may be scenarios that would cause them to be systemically more often wrong than right, for instance if their leaning was always towards the more dramatic, or emotive, or cautious, or exciting, or whatever answer, of which some may be systemically more wrong than right (the right answer is not usually the most emotive, for instance).

September 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

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