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The "partisan abuse" hypothesis

A reader of our Nature Climate Change study asks:

I was wondering if the anti-correlation of scientific literacy with climate change understanding is muted or reversed as one moves into the middle of the Hierarchy-Egalitarian/Individualism-Communitarianism Axes? Did you consider dividing the group into quartiles for example rather than in halves? 

My response:

Interesting question.

To start, as you know, the negative correlation (itself very small) between science literacy (or science comprehension, as one might refer to the composite science literacy & numeracy scale) & climate change risk perception doesn't take account of the interaction of science comprehension with cultural worldviews. Once the interaction is measured, it becomes clear that the effect of increased science comprehension isn't uniformly negative; it's *positive* as individuals become more egalitarian & communitarian, & negative only as individuals become more hierarchical & individualist

For this reason, I'd say that it is misleading to talk of any sort of "main effect" of science literacy one way or the other. By analogy, imagine a drug was found to decrease the lifespan of men by 9 yrs & increase that of women by 3 yrs. If someone came along & said, "the main effect of this drug is to *decrease* the average person's lifespan by 3 yrs; what an awful terrible drug, it should be banned!" I think we would be inclined to say, "no, the drug is good for women, bad for men; it's silly to talk about its effect on the 'average' person because people are either men or women." Similarly here: people vary in their worldivews, & the effect of science comprehension on their climate change views depends on the direction in which their worldviews tend.

But that's not really important.

I understand your question to be motivated by the idea that the interaction between science comprehension & culture might itself be concentrated among people who have particularly strong worldviews. Perhaps the effect is uniformly positive for everyone except some small set of extremists (extreme hierarchical individualists, it would have to be). In other words, maybe only hard core partisans are using -- abusing, really -- their science comprehension to fit the evidence to their predispositions. That seems plausible to me, and definitely worth considering.

You are right that there is nothing in the analyses we reported that gets at this "partisan abuse" hypothesis. As you likely saw, the cultural worldview variables are continuous, and in our Figures we plotted regression estimates that reflected the influence of the culture/science comprehension interaction across the entire data set. That way of proceeding imposes on the data a model that *assumes* the interaction of science comprehensionis uniform across both worldview variables -- "hierarchy-egalitarianism" & "individualism-communitarianism." We'd necessarily miss an evidence of the "partisan abuse" hypothesis w/ that model.

But we also did try to fit a polynomial regression model to the data. The idea behind that was to see if in fact the interaction between science comprehension & cultural worldviews seemed to vary w/ intensity of the cultural worldviews-- as the partisan abuse hypothesis implies. The polynomial regression didn't fit the data any better than the linear model, so we had no evidence, in that sense, that the interaction we observed was not uniform across the cultural dimensions.

One could also try to probe the "partisan abuse"  hypothesis by slicing the sample up into segments, as you suggest, and seeing if the effect of science comprehension on groups of people who are more or less extreme. But because such effects will always be lumpy in real data, there is a risk that any differences one observes among different segments along the continuum when one splits a continuous measure up into bits will be spurious. See  Maxwell, S. E., & Delaney, H. D. (1993). Bivariate Median Splits and Spurious Statistical Significance. Psychological Bulletin, 113, 181-190 (this was one of statistical errors in the scandalously idiotic "beautiful people have more daughters" paper).

Accordingly, it is better to treat continuous measures as continuous in the statistical tests -- and to include in the tests the right sorts of variables for genuine nonlinear effects, if one suspects the effects might vary across the relevant continuum. That's what we did when we tried a polynomial regression model out.

Still, let's slice things up anyway. Really, let's just *look* at the raw data -- something one always should do before trying to fit a model to them! -- to see if we can see anything that looks as interesting as the "partisan abuse" dynamic is going on. 

 I've attached a Figure that enables that. It fits a smoothed "lowess" regression lines to the risk perception/worldview relationship after splitting the sample at the median into "high" & "low" science comprehension groups. The lines, in effect, show what happens when one regresses risk perception on the worldview "locally" -- to little segments of the sample along the cultural worldview continuum -- for both types (high & low science comprehension) of subjects.


What we're looking for is a pattern that suggests the interaction of science comprehension w/ culture isn't really linear; that in fact, science literacy predicts more concern for everyone until you get to some partisan tipping point for subjects who are culturally predisposed to be skeptical by their intense hierarchy or individualism. I plotted a dashed line that reflects that for comparison.

I don't see it; do you? Both lines slope downward (cultural effect), the green one at a steeper grade (interaction), in roughly a linear way. The difference from perfectly linear is just the lumpy or noisy distribution of data you might expect if the  "best" model was linear.

Am open to alternative interpretations or tests!

Oh, since we are on the subject of looking at raw data to be sure one isn't testing a model that one can see really isn't right, here's another picture of the raw data from our study.  It's a scatterplot of "hierarchical individualists" and "egalitarian communitarians" (those subjects who score either in the top 50% of both worldview scales or the bottom 50% on both, respectively) that relates their (unstandardized) science-comprehension score to their perception of climate change risk (on the 0-10 industrial strength measure).

I've superimposed a linear regression line for each. Just eyballing it, seems like the interaction of science comprehension & climate change risk perception is indeed more-or-less linear & is the about the same in its slope for both.


How to teach *accepting* science's way of knowing, and how to provoke resistance...

Two days ago, 1000's of kids were helped by their science teachers to catch sight of Venus passing as a little black dot across the face of the sun. They were enthralled & put in awe of our capacity to figure out that this would happen exactly when it did (their teachers told them about brilliant Kepler and his calculations; & if it was cloudy where those kids were, as it was where I happened to be, the teachers likely consoled them, "hey-- same thing happened to poor Kepler!").

We should expect about 46% of them to grow up learning to answer "yes" if Gallup calls and asks them whether they think "God created the world on such & such a date."

But if they have retained a sense of curiosity about how the world works that continues to be satisfied -- in a way that continues to exhilarate them! -- when they get to participate in knowing what is known as a result of science, should we care?  I don't think so.

But if they learn too that in fact they shouldn't turn to science to give them that feeling -- or if they just become people who no longer can feel that -- because they live in a society in which they  are held in contempt by the 54% who have learned to say "of course not! I believe in evolution!" -- even though the latter group  of citizens would in fact score no better,  and would more  than likely fail, a quiz on natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variation -- that would be very very sad.


What Can We Make of the New Pew Poll?

A new Pew Poll, highlighted by TPM, purports to find that party identification is increasingly useful to predict respondents' cultural values, even as the polarizing effects of race, income, religiousity, and gender are have been static over the last 25 years.  Indeed, while in 1987, party identification predicted about an average amount attitude polarization, it now dominates. To put it in terms that a data analyst would appreciate: partisan identity is now explaining more of the variance in attitude than any other factor, and possibly more than most of the rest combined.

What does this mean? The big picture story is partisan re-allignment along value dimensions, itself coincident to/resulting from a number of factors.  (The causal story is complex - -you could say that this is all about the death of the democratic party in the south and its ripples, but that it seems to me is a bootstrapped explanation).  But if you drill down, the data are fascinating - and Gallup helpfully provides some great analysis tools. 

From what I can tell, on important cultural measures of interest to the CCP team, the public at large hasn't changed in material ways in since 1987.  That immediately should cause us to ask some questions about the cognitive illiberalism thesis, which, briefly, posits that motivated cognition poses a increasingly important problem for our ability to reason together liberally.  Look at the scores for questions that should matter to CCP scales, like:

-government regulation of business does more harm than good;

-womens' traditional roles;

-too far in pushing equal rights;

-corporate profits too high.

I don't notice secular trends.  Do you?  By contrast, check out the public's views on redistribution: they've cratered!  (Probably coincident with the passing of the great generation.)  

These flat lines are weird, because I think that we would have predicted increasing differences in the population over time, as individuals became better able to control the flow of information that they received; to create virtual communities (and identities) by choice; to segregate into phyles without ever leaving the home.

Here's the $1,000,000 challenge: if we'd wound the tape back to 1987, wouldn't we have predicted increasing polarization over time on the questions that formed the bases of our scales?  We certainly have said in public that our scales aren't meant to measure some fixed, biological, orientation: they are culturally and temporally contingent.  I certainly don't see how we would have predicted what actually happened, which was a wash overall for cultural polarization, and instead a reorientation of Americans into more cohesive political parties.  Two thoughts follow:

1.  Though it's often thought of as bad for politics (and our ability to get along) it's not obvious to me that partisanship is the same kind of evil that Dan so persuasively flagged in The Cognitively Illiberal State. To argue that very narrowly footed political parties are bad for civic discourse would require us to say that Britain and France and Germany and other Western European countries are marked by lower levels of civic engagement, happiness, and cohesiveness than we are, which is a tough claim to make, to say the least!  But maybe that's not right - perhaps partisan reorientation and cohesion works to reinforce identity formation in a pernicious way.

2.  Regardless of the correctness of the analysis above, I think the Project should think and write more about it's predictive story.  For instance: to the extent that we are finding intense cultural valence on global warming, was that divergence inevitable, or did it result from some factor extrinsic to our research (like strategic behavior).  Why hasn't the GM food movement produced the same public emotion as global warming.  Why was the question of corporate manager salary considered a values question in the 1930s, but isn't today? Would we have predicted these results? 


The evolution debate isn't about science literacy either

A few days ago Gallup released a poll showing that 46% of Americans "hold creationist views."

The almost universal reaction -- among folks that I have contact with; I am very aware that that sample is biased, in a selection sense --was "what is wrong our science education system?!"

Well, lots of things, but the contested state of evolution is actually not a consequence of any such deficiencies -- or at least not of deficiencies in "science education" understood as the propogation of comprehension of what is known by science.

In this sense, the evolution controversy is very much like the climate change one, which, we concluded in our Nature Climate Change study, also is not a consequence of low science comprehension.

Those who study public understanding of science have a better way to investigate the impact of science comprehension here than simply to correlate science literacy & "acceptance" of evolution.  They examine whether those who "accept" have a better grasp of the basic science of evolution than those who "reject."

They don't. There is simply no correlation between "accepting" evolution and understanding concepts like natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variation -- the core of the "modern synthesis" position on evolution.

That is, those who "reject" are as likely to understand those concepts as those who "accept" evolution. In fact, those who accept aren't very likely to understand them in absolute terms. They "accept" what they don't really understand.

This isn't really cause for alarm. Individuals can't possibly be expected to be able to understand and give a cogent account of all the things known by science. Yet they accept zillions of such things that are indeed essential to their living a good life, or even just living (antibiotics kill bacteria; drinking raw milk can make you very very very sick; a GPS system can reliably tell you where you are & how to get someplace else ... ).   

But the critical point here is that scientific comprehension isn't what causes those who accept evolution to accept it or those who reject it to reject it.

What does is their willingness to assent to science's understanding of what's known here as the authoritative account of what's known. Those who "accept" evolution are accepting that. Those who resist aren't.

Moreover, those who resist it on evolution aren't resisting across the board. They accept plenty of things -- orders of magnitude more things -- as known because science says so than they reject.

Evolution is a special kind of issue. The position you take it on it is an expression of who you are in a world in which there are many diverse sorts of people and in which there is a sad tendency of one sort to ridicule and hold in contempt those of another.

So here is an intersting moral question, I think. Is the goal of "science education" to impart knowledge only or should it aim to propogate acceptance, too?

I think it is morally appropriate, in a liberal democratic society, for the state  to promote the greatest degree of basic science knowledge (what Jon Miller calls "civic science literacy") as possible. Citizens must possess that sort of knowledge in order for them to participate meaningfully in public life and for democracy to have any prospect of using the great amount of scientific knowledge at its disposal to make its members healthy, safe, and prosperous.

But I really am not sure that the goal of science education, at least when it is provided by the state, is to make those who know what is known to science also accept it -- that is, assent to science as authoritative to say what is known.

In fact, I have a strong intuition that that sort of goal is profoundly incompatible with the basic premises of political liberalism, which obliges the state to respect the power of individuals to form their own view of the meaning of life.

I do indeed believe that people should accept the authority of science to certify what is known on issues--all issues -- that admit of scientific inquiry. However, my sense is that this is a goal to be promoted by discussion and deliberation among free citizens reasoning with one another and not a position that should be propogated as a moral or political orthodoxy by institutions of the state.

Still I don't mean to insist on this point. I find it difficult. I would actually be grateful to hear what thoughtful peole have to say on it.

I'll be satisfied for now so long as we see and get clear on the point that knowing what is known by science is different from accepting it.

People who make mistakes about what science literacy does & doesn't cause are unlikely to be effective in conveying what is in fact known by science.

And they are also likely to fail to think seriously about the complicated moral questions that state propogation of acceptance distinctively poses.


Bishop, B.A. & Anderson, C.W. Student conceptions of natural selection and its role in evolution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 27, 415-427 (1990).

Miller, J.D., Scott, E.C. & Okamoto, S. Science communication: public acceptance of evolution. Science 313, 765-766 (2006).

Shtulman, A. Qualitative differences between naïve and scientific theories of evolution. Cognitive Psychology 52, 170-194 (2006).



More on the statistical illiteracy/inanity of trying to figure out "yeah, but whose is bigger"

So I said in the last post that the "57% vs. 56%" factoid can't be read to indicate that one side has better comprehension of science.

It was (quite reasonably) pointed out to me in a comment that our Nature Climate Change study reported statistically significant correlations between science literacy and numeracy (and the composite science comprehension scale that aggregated them), on the one hand, and climate-change risk perception, on the other. What bearing does that have on the issue of who has greater science comprehension-- the "yeah, but whose is bigger?" question--in the climate change debate?

To start, there's no tension between the statistical computations here. If one looks at the correlation between the continuous science comprehension (science literacy plus numeracy) scale and climate change, it's negative (r = -0.09) and significant (t-statistic = -3.35). But the difference in the mean scores of the most concerned and least concerned halves of the sample is not significant. That can certainly happen when one splits the sample and treats two continuous measures as categorical ones (the opposite can happen, too).

But that's particularly likely to happen when the correlation between the continuous variables is tiny. That's so here.

People who are numerate are likely to suspect that= -0.09 (r = -0.05 for science literacy by itself!) is small (which is how the paper characterizes this effect)--way too small to be responsible for the intensity of the climate change debate in our society.

But it's actually pretty bad craft to expect anyone to figure out whether an effect size is meaningful from bare correlation coefficients. Readers should be shown the effect in some way that conveys its practical importance.

The question under investigation in our study was what explains climate change conflict--differences in science comprehension or differences in cultural outlooks? One shouldn't really have to know statistics to see the answer in a figure like this:


I won't say anything more about the difference between statistical significance and practical significance because there's an excellent post that addresses it in the context of science comprehension and climate change at the Blackboard, in appreciation of & gratitude for which I am posting this:


But that leaves room to discuss another, and in my mind, more interesting point about statistical illiteracy that is reflected in obsessing over that effect: it’s meaningless in real-world terms.

The principal finding was that science comprehension interacts with cultural predispositions: individuals who are predisposed by their group values to skepticism become more skeptical, and those predisposed to concern become more concerned, as science comprehension increases.

So it is in fact misleading to characterize greater science comprehension as having any “main effect” toward either skepticism or acceptance. It has one or the other depending on other characteristics.

The only thing the “main effect” really conveys in these circumstances is the frequency of the two types (or maybe the intensity of the effect in one or the other, if it varies meaningfully) in one’s sample. Moreover, that’s true even if one’s “sample” is in fact a census: if the correlation when one looks at the population as a whole is negative, then there are simply more people out there predisposed (and/or more strongly predisposed) to fit the evidence to a "skeptical" conclusion; and if the correlation is positive — then the number predisposed (or predisposed more intensely) to see evidence as justifying concern is greater. End of story.

I talked to a researcher recently who tried to convince me that one should see a small positive correlation between science literacy & some other issue that had an interaction with ideology as meaning that when one “controls” for ideology, science literacy increases concern …” I kept trying to tell him to think about what it was he was actually modeling and how silly it is to describe the sample “mean” as the “effect controlling for” something that interacts with a characteristic that varies systematically in people in the real world.

I felt like I was arguing with the guy from spinal tap who kept saying, “mine goes to 11.”


Who has a better comprehension of science--"skeptics" or "nonskeptics"?

Neither, as far as I can tell.

This wasn’t a question we tried to answer directly or reported data on in our Nature Climate Change paper.

But I have been asked a few times now about a Fox News report on our study that states that those who are less concerned about climate change scored “57%” and those who are more concerned “56%” in our measure of science comprehension.

I am guessing the reporter derived the conclusion from this graphic, which is one I produced and circulated to people, including the reporter, in response to questions about a working paper that reported data from the study ultimately published in NCC.

It shows the mean or average number of correct responses on the combined science literacy/numeracy scale (a measure of "science comprehension,” essentially) for study subjects whose responses put them in the top 50% & bottom 50% of the sample on "climate change risk perceptions," respectively.

The bottom 50% got, on average, 12.6 out of 22 correct. The top 50% got 12.3.

The "56%" & "57%" figures are not in the Figure--or in anything else related to our study. But they are the numbers one gets when one divides 12.3 & 12.6 by 22, respectively.  

As can can be seen, this difference is not statistically significant. Not even close. Indeed, I put the graphic together so that I could answer the stock "who knows more" query-- I call it the "yeah, but whose is bigger" question -- by saying "no one, see!"

If there are people out there (apparently there are; I'm getting lots of email...) who think this is meaningful evidence that one side knows more than the other about science, they really are missing the point. In fact, they are making the kind of mistake that helps explain how it is that the "smarter" half of the population gets a score of 57% on a measure like this.

The gap between those who know more science and those who know less doesn't explain conflict over climate change science in our society.

But it's beyond question that the low average state of science literacy is a condition that detracts from our capacity for enlightened self-government.


"How confident should we be ..."

A thoughtful journalist asks in relation to our  Nature Climate Change  study:

It would be really helpful to get your reflection on the research.   In particular, I'm interested in the polarising effect you were able to identify. From the figure (Fig.2) this appears to be quite subtle, albeit in the opposite direction to that which was predicted by the SCT thesis.   It would be great if you could identify to what extent/how confident we can be to say that increasing numeracy and literacy polarises risk perception about climate change, and what can explain this polarisation.

This was such a thoughtful way of putting the question, I felt impelled -- only in part by OCD; one shouldn't ask a good question if one wants an imprecise, casual response -- to give a reasonably precise & detailed answer:

1.  All  study results are provisional. That's in the nature of science. Valid studies give you more evidence than you otherwise would have had to believe something. They never "settle" the issue; one continues to revise one's assessment of what to treat as true and how likely it is not to be as more valid studies, more valid evidence, accumulates. Forever & ever (Popper 1962).

So it is never sensible (it is a misundersanding of the nature of empirical proof) to say, "this study proves this" or "this study doesn't necessailry prove that" etc. Instead it is very sensible to ask, as you have, "how confident should we be" in a particular conclusion given the evidence presented in a particular study.  

2. As you know, our study investigated two hypotheses: the science comprehension thesis (SCT), which attributes public conflict over climate change to deficits in science comprehension; and the cultural cognition thesis (CCT), which asserts that conflict over climate change is a consequence of the unconscious tendency of individuals to fit the beliefs about risk to positions that dominate in their group, and which in its strongest form would say that this tendency will be reinforced or magnified by grater science comprehension, which can be used to promote such fitting. 

3. The study furnishes relatively strong  evidence that SCT is incorrect. SCT would predict that cultural polarization abates as science comprehension increases. Even if we had found that the impact of science comprehension on cultural polarization was  nil, the study would supply the basis for a high degree of confidence that public conflict over climate change is not a consequence of low science comprehension. 

4. The study is consistent with CCT and furnishes modest  evidence that CCT in its strongest form is correct. That position would predict that cultural polarization will be greater among individuals with the greatest science comprehension. The results fit that hypothesis-- on both climate change & nuclear power risks; the latter helps to furnish more reason to think that the effect is genuine one for climate change.

But I'd say only modest evidence mainly because of the design of the study. It's observational --correlational -- only. Observed correlations that fit a hypothesis supply supporting evidence in proportion to which they rule out other explanations. Maybe something else is going on that causes both increased science comprehension & increased polarization in certain people. The only way to tell is through (well designed) experiments. We are conducting some now. 

5.    You note the effect size of the interaction is modest. Maybe; it's hard to know how to characterize such things in the abstract (and realize, too, that polarization is so great even for low-comprehending respondents that it would be hard for it to grow much for high-comprehending respondents!).

The size of the interaction effect we observed is probably about what you would expect for an observational study, and if the source of the effect is CCT, it should be easy to produce much more dramatic effects through properly designed experiments   (Cohen, Cohen, Aiken & West 2003, pp. 297-98). So rather than try to extract more information from the effect size about how confident or not to be in the strong CCT position, it makes sense to do experiments. Again that's what we are now doing.

6. By itself, then, the study furnishes only modest reason to be confident in CCT (in its strongest form) relative to other possibilities (one has to be able to identify such possibilities, of course, in order to have any reason to doubt CCT; I can think of possibilities, certainly). I myself am more than modestly confident -- but only because this study is not the only thing I count as evidence that (strong) CCT is correct.

7. An aside: Nothing in our study suggests that making people more science literate or numerate  causes  polarization. If CCT is correct, there is something about climate change (and certain other issues) that makes people try to maximize the fit between their beliefs and positions that predominate within their groups, which themselves are impelled into opposing stances on certain facts. That thing is the cause in the practical, normative sense. We should find it and get rid of it.


Cohen, J., Cohen, P., West, S. G., & Aiken, L. S. (2003). Applied Multiple Regression/Correlation Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences (3rd ed.). Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Popper, K. R. (1962). Conjectures and refutations; the growth of scientific knowledge. New York,: Basic Books.



Climate change polarization "fast and slow"

Our study on the effects of science literacy and numeracy on climate change risk perceptions is now out in Nature Climate Change. We find that individuals who display high comprehension of science (i.e., those who score higher in science literacy and numeracy) are in fact more culturally polarized than those who display low science comprehension.

I’ve commented before on how these data relate to the popular surmise that seeming public ambivalence toward evidence on climate change reflects the predominance of what Kahneman (in his outstanding book Thinking: Fast & Slow, among other places) calls “system 1” reasoning (emotional, unconscious, error-prone) on the part of members of the public.

Our findings don’t fit that popular hypothesis. On the contrary, they show that individuals disposed to use system 2—conscious, reflective, deductive—reasoning (a disposition measured by the numeracy scale) are even more culturally divided than those disposed to use system 1.

The interesting thing is that Kahneman himself recognized just last week that system 2 as well as system 1 might be implicated in climate change conflict.

In his Sackler Lecture (strongly recommended viewing) at the National Academy of Science’s Science of Science Communication Colloquium (say that three times fast), Kahneman explicitly commented on the connection between his theory of dual process reasoning and cultural cognition.

He recognized that one would expect, consistent with System 1, that ordinary members of the public would fit their perceptions of climate change risk to emotional resonances, which themselves might vary systematically across persons with diverse values.

At the same time, however, Kahneman argued against assuming system 2 would sort this disagreement out. Often “system 2 is just the spokesperson for system 1,” he said. In other words, people are likely to recruit their systematic, “slow” reasoning skills when necessary to reach the conclusion they prefer and not rely only on “fast” heuristic ones.

The point of the study, in fact, was to test pit two plausible alternative hypotheses about cultural cognition and dual process reasoning against one another. 

One attributes the influence of cultural values on risk perception to system 1, viewing cultural cognition as essentially a heuristic substitute for the ability to comprehend complicated scientific evidence.  Our findings (including the absence of any overall connection between science literacy and climate change concern) undermine that view.

The other hypothesis views cultural cognition as a species of motivated reasoning that is as likely to shape system 2 as well as system 1. Our finding of increased polarization among the most science comprehending members of our sample lends support to this position.

In the paper, we suggest that the alliance between cultural cognition and system 2 is actually perfectly rational at an individual level. Ordinary members of the public can't have a much bigger stake in forming views that match those of their peers on controversial issues than they do in getting the science right on climate change: making a mistake on the latter has zero impact on the risks they face (nothing they do as individual voters or consumers matters enough to make a difference) but screwing up the former can result in their being shunned by people whose emotional and material support they covet. 

So everyone tries to fit the evidence to positions that predominate in his or her group. And those who know a lot of science and are good at technical reasoning do an even better job.

The result is a tragedy – of the risk perceptions commons—and it occurs whether people reason “fast” or “slow.”

Still, once we have determined through systematic thought and actual evidence that system 1 alone is not to blame, we can then turn to identifying (again, through empirical testing; creative guessing is good only for hypotheses) what sorts of communication strategies might enable culturally diverse citizens to use their reasoning in a manner that benefits them all.






I see "They Saw a Protest"

"They Saw a Protest": Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction just came out in the Stanford Law Review.

The article--which was a team effort involving me, David "Shining a Light" Hoffman, Danieli "I'll Have Another" Evans, Donald "Shotgun" Braman & Jeff "Bear Claw" Rachlinski--features an experiment that tests the impact of cultural cognition on perceptions of facts relevant to the line between "speech" and "conduct" under the First Amendment.

Experiment subjects were assigned to play the role of jurors in a case in which protesters are suing the police for breaking up the protestors' demonstration. The police, subjects were told, claim the protestors were threatening onlookers and blocking their access to a building. The protestors say they were just engaged in impassioned advocacy.

The parties agree that the key piece of evidence is a video of the protest. The subjects are instructed to watch the video and then report what they saw and determine whether it counts as "threatening," "intimidating" or "blocking" under a specified law.

The experimental manipulation involved the supposed nature of the protest. Half the subjects were told that the protestors are demonstrating against abortion rights in front of an abortion clinic. The other half were told that the protestors are objecting to the military's then-existing "Don't ask, don't tell" policy outside a college campus recruitment center.

Consistent with our hypotheses, we found that what subjects saw depended on whether the position the protestors were represented to be taking was congenial or hostile to the subjects' own cultural outlooks. Thus, egalitarian individualists disagree with hierarchical communitarians who are in the same experimental condition (either "abortion clinic" or "military recruitment center") but disagree with other egaligatarian individualists who are in the opposing experimental condition.

The disagreement, moreover, is over facts--like whether the protestors "screamed in the face" of pedestrians and blocked them from entering the clnic/recruitment center. 

This is a problem for the First Amendment, which tries to impose an obligation of state neutrality by confining regulation of putative expression to harms that can be defined independently of any negative reaction people might have toward the speaker's ideas. People have a hard time applying this rule, we find, because they are unconsciously motivated to see these sorts of "noncommunicative harms" -- like threats, intimidation, blocking -- when behavior conveys an idea that offends their values.

The study was patterned on a classic 1950s study in social psychology entitled "They Saw a Game." In it, researchers found that students from two Ivy League colleges were more likely to see the penalty calls of a referee as correct or incorrect depending on whether the rule violation was being attributed to their college's football team or its opponent. This was probably the first experimental demonstration of "motivated reasoning."

The most fun part of doing the study was making the movie. We tried really hard but couldn't find any stock footage of demonstrations that could plausibly be described as either an abortion protest or a military recruitment center protest. People who engage in one tend to look very different from the other.

Fortunately (for us), members of the infamous Westboro Church came to town (Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the winter of 2009). When they show up to preach hate against gays and lesbians, so do massive numbers of counterdemonstrators.  

We managed to cull quite a number of useable scenes from 90 minutes of footage, and were able to confirm in a pretest (of judges and lawyers!) that viewers would believe whichever of the stories we told them about what the demonstration was about, and where it occurred.

Then in an even greater stroke of luck, the U.S. Supreme Court granted review in a case in which the parents of a soldier at whose funeral the Church members demonstrated were awarded $5 million in damages. The Court overturned the verdict on the ground the distress of the emotional distress of the parents was a noncognizable "communicative harm" under the First Amendment.

We were able to kick out a timely study result showing that if a state now passes a law prohibiting groups like the Westboro Church from "intimidating" funderal attendees, the jury's factual determinations will likely be unconsciously guided by the very sorts of things the Court said were not proper bases for damages in the Westboro case. Oh well!

Actually, our point is that it's not enough (maybe not even of any use) to have a doctrine that seems great as a matter of political philosophy if that doctrine imposes psychologically unrealistic demands on decisonmakers.

Constitutional law needs a dose of psychological realism. 


NAS says: Listen to the science of science communication

National Academy of Science President Ralph Cicerone (foreground) & Nobelist Daniel Kahneman during the Q&A that followed Kahneman's (outstanding) lecture.

This picture really captures it, I think.

The NAS's Science of Science Communication Sackler Colloquium is modeling what the practice of science & science-informed policymaking needs to do: start listening to the science of science communication, the foundational insights of which reflect the work of Kahneman (and Amos Tversky, Paul Slovic & Baruch Fischhoff, among others) on risk perception.

I feel very optimistic today!



Protecting the science communication environment: sneak preview


Am embarking soon (was supposed to already; small travel misadventure) for NAS Science of Science Communication colloquium. Attached are slides that I'm sending my co-panelists & commentators (I think they'd like a text but I don't speak from one, or use notes, when doing a talk).

Probably will have to shrink it -- so maybe this is "director's cut" as well as "sneak peek."


But if you have time on your hands, tune in (my talk is Tues. @3:15; agenda for event here).


The science of protecting the science communication environment

Am giving a talk on Tuesday at the NAS's Sackler Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication. Was asked to submit an "exeuctive summary" for the benefit of commenters. This is it: 

The Science of Science Communication and Protecting the Science Communication Environment

Promoting public comprehension of science is only one aim of the science of science communication and is likely not the most important one for the well-being of a democratic society. Ordinary citizens form quadrillions of correct beliefs on matters that turn on complicated scientific principles they cannot even identify much less understand. The reason they fail to converge on beliefs consistent with scientific evidence on certain other consequential matters—from climate change to genetically modified foods to compusory adolescent HPV vaccination—is not the failure of scientists or science communicators to speak clearly or the inability of ordinary citizens to understand what they are saying. Rather, the source of such conflict is the proliferation of antagonistic cultural meanings. When they become attached to particular facts that admit of scientific investigation, these meanings are a kind of pollution of the science communication environment that disables the faculties ordinary citizens use to reliably absorb collective knowledge from their everyday interactions. The quality of the science communication environment is thus just as critical for enlightened self-government as the quality of the natural environment is for the physical health and well-being of a society’s members. Understanding how this science communication environment works, fashioning procedures to prevent it from becoming contaminated with antagonistic meanings, and formulating effective interventions to detoxify it when protective strategies fail—those are the most critical functions science communication can perform in a democratic society.

In my remarks, I will elaborate on this conception of the science of science communication. I will likely illustrate my remarks with reference to findings on formation of HPV-vaccine risk perceptions, culturally biased assimilation of evidence of scientific consensus, the polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on climate change risk perceptions, and experimental forecasting of emerging-technology risk perceptions.  I’ll also describe the necessity of public provisioning to assure the quality of the science communication environment, which like the quality of the physical environment is a collective good that is unlikely to be secured by spontaneous private ordering.

If any of the other panelists would like to form a more vivid impression of my remarks, they might consider taking a look at:

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

2. Kahan, D.M., Wittlin, M., Peters, E., Slovic, P., Ouellette L.L., Braman, D., Mandel, G. The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change. CCP Working Paper No. 89 (June 24, 2011).


Is Cultural Cognition Culture-Specific? 

Is cultural cognition culturally specific?  

I just read a great piece over on the PLoS Blog about the cultural specificity of many purportedly universal psychological biases / mechanisms.  As an example, the blog uses the famous Müller-Lyer Illusion.  You probably know of it.  In the image below, many people see the line on the right as longer than the one on the left.  

For almost a hundred years, social psychologists thought this a universal illusion.  It turns out, though, that this illusion is actually acute only in those who live in modern urban environments -- environments where straight lines, flat sides, and sharp corners are common.  When, in 1966, Marshall H. Segall conducted a study across cultural groups, he found tremendous variation (as illustrated in the graph below). 

For folks who are interested in the phenomenon of cultural cognition, this raises an interesting question: Is cultural cogntion itself culture-bound?  The answer, I think, is either "probably yes" or "probably no" depending on what is meant by "culture-bound".  

The "probably yes" answer obtains if one were to try to use the same value measures across highly distinct cultural groups.  There is no reason to believe that San foragers or the Fang are divided over the questions that comprise the cultural value measures we use to distinguish US subjects from one another.  It wouldn't make sense (at least without more evidence) for us to presume our measures are universal.  

But that isn't really what the PLoS Blog post is about.  It asks whether the underlying phenomenon itself is generalizable.  One could broaden the way that such illusions are characterized in order to account for visual training and local adaptions.  Do people see view depth-cues that are relevant to their conceptual contexts.  The newly recast "local cues for depth perception" bias could still plausibly be universal. 

The phenomenon of cultural cognition, I would argue, is closer to the latter than the former.  It is one in which people develop factual beliefs that support or are consistent with their preferred social orderings (typically with the life-ways and values of their in-groups given high status).  If viewed this way, the answer is "probably no" because the theory derives from observations by anthropologists across many different cultural groups.  (I can't say "definitively no" or even "almost certainly no" since we haven't done extensive work across these non-Western cultural groups ourselves.)  More recently, a more general form of this has been studied as "motivated cognition" by social psychologists.  For cultural cognition as a general concept to be culture-bound, the phenomenon of motivated cognition itself would have to be culture-bound.  And, because the idea of motivated cognition is something that we use to describe differences in belief-formation across cultures, it would be very hard to construe it as culture-bound as well.  

But then again, it may be that my sample is too limited -- indeed motivated cognition would suggest that I would be particularly motivated to not notice contrary evidence! Perhaps it just seems obvious to me that the everyone sees the world as shorter or longer as befits there preferred social order when, in fact, there are some groups who do not.  

But one thing we can be fairly certain of: these groups would have to be very distinct from the main groups involved in various forms of culture wars in the United States.  As Dan has pointed out in numerous posts at this point, there is very strong evidence that whatever cultural groups might be immune to cultural cognition, they are not the cultural groups who are involved in popular political debates in this country.  Your cultural adversary may fall foul of cultural cognition, but the fact that you have cultural adversary suggests that you are just as likely to yourself. 


Wild wild horses couldn't drag me away: four "principles" for science communication and policymaking

Was invited to give a presentation on "effective science communication" for the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council committee charged with preparing a report on wild horse & burro population management.

I happily accepted, for two reasons.

First, it really heartens and thrills me that the NAS gets the importance of integrating science and policymaking, on the one hand, with the science of science communication on the other. Indeed, as the NAS's upcoming Sackler Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication attests, NAS is leading the way here. 

Second, it only took me about 5 minutes of conversation with Kara Laney, the NAS Program Officer who is organizing the NRC committee's investigation of wild horse population management, to persuade me that the science communication dimension of this issue is fascinating. The day I spent at the committee's meeting yesterday corroborated that judgment.

Not knowing anything about the specifics of wild-horse population management (aside from what everyone picks up just from personal experience & anecdote, etc), I confined myself to addressing research on the "science communication problem" -- the failure of ample and widely disseminated science to quiet public dispute over policy-relevant facts that admit of scientific investigation. Like debates over climate change, HPV vacccination, nuclear power, etc.,  the dispute over wild-horse management falls squarely into that category.

After summarizing some illustrative findings (e.g., on the biasing impact of cultural outlooks on perceptions of scientific consensus; click on image for slides), I offered "four principles":

First, science communication is a science.

Seems obvious--especially after someone walks you through 3 or 4 experiments -- but in fact, the assumption that sound science communicates itself is the origin of messes like the one over climate change. As I said, NAS is now committed to remedying the destructive consquences of this attitude, but one can't overemphasize how foolish it is to invest so much in policy-relevant science and then adopt a wholly ad hoc anti-scientific stance toward the dissemination of it.

Second, "science communication" is not one thing; it's 5 (± 2).

Until recent times, those who thought systematically about science communication were interetested either in helping scientists learn to speak in terms intelligible to curious members of the public or in training science journalists to understand and accurately decipher scientists' unintelligible pronouncements.

These are important things. But the idea that inarticulate scientists or bad journalists caused the climate change controversy, say, or that making scientists or journalists better communicators will solve that or other problems involving science and democratic decsionmaking is actually a remnant of the unscientific concepion of science communication-- a vestiges, really, of the idea that "facts speak for themselves," just so long as they are idiomatic, grammatical, etc.

As I explained in my talk, the disputes over climate change, the HPV vaccine, nuclear power, and gun control are not a consequence of a lack of clarity in science or a lack of science comprehension on the part of ordinary citizens.

The source of those controversies is a form of pollution in the science communication environment: antagonistic social meanings that get attached to facts and that interfere with the normally reliable capacity of ordinary people to figure out what's known (usually by identifying who knows what about what).  

Detoxifying the science communication environment and protecting it from becoming contaminated in the first place is thus another kind of "science communication," one that has very little to do with helping scientists learn to avoid professional jargon when they give interviews to journalists, who themselves have been taught how to satisfy the interest that curious citizens have to participate in the thrill and wonder of our collective intelligence.

Those two kinds of science communication, moreover, are different from the sort that an expert like a doctor or a finanancial planner has to engage in to help individuals make good decisions about their own lives. The emerging scientific insights on graphic presentation of data etc. also won't help fix problems like ones about climate change.

Still another form of science communication is the sort that is necessary to enable policymakers to make reliable and informed decisions under conditions of uncertainty. The NAS is taking the lead on this too -- and isn't laboring under the misimpression that what causes climate change is the "same thing" that has made judges accept finger prints and other bogus forms of forensic proof.

Finally, there is stakeholder science communication -- the transmission of knowledge to ordinary citizens who are intimately affected by and who have (or are at least entiled to have) a say in collective decisionmaking. That's mainly what the decisionmaking process surrounbding the wild-horse population is about.  There are scientific insights there, too-- ones having very little to do with graphic presentation of data  or with good writing skills or with the sort of pollution problem that is responsible for climate change.

Third, "don't ask what science communication can do for you; ask what you can do for science communication."

Having just told the committee that their "science communication problem" is one distinct from four others, I anticipated what I was sure would be their next question: "so what do we do?" 

Not surprisingly, that's what practical people assigned to communicate always ask when they are engaging scholars who use scientific methods to study science communication. They want some "practical" advice--directions, instructions, guidelines.

My answer is that they actually shouldn't be asking me or any other science-communication researcher for "how to" advice. And that they should be really really really suspicious of any social scientist who purports to give it to them; odds are that person has no idea what he or she is talking about.

Those who study science communication scientifically know something important and consequential, I'm convinced, about general dynamics of risk perception and science communication. But we know that only because we have investigated these matters in controlled laboratory environments-- ones that abstract from real-world details that defy experimental control and confound interpretation of observations.

Studies, in other words, are models. They enable insight that one couldn't reliably extract from the cacophony of real-world influences. Those insights, moreover, have very important real-world implications once extracted. But they do not themselves generate real-world communication materials.

The social scientists who don't admit this usually end up offering banalities, like "Know your audience." 

That sort of advice is based on real, and really important, psychological research. But it's pretty close to empty precisely because it's (completely) devoid of any knowledge of the particulars of the communication context at hand (like what characteristics genuinely define the "audience" that is to be known, and what there actually is to "know" about it).

The practical communicators -- the ones asking to be told what to do -- are the people who have that knowledge. So they are the ones who have to use judgment to translate the general insights into real-world communication materials.  

Experimentalists are not furnishing communicators with "shovel ready" construction plans. Rather they are supplying the communicators with reliable maps that tell them where they should dig and build through their own practical experimentation.

Once that process of experimental adaptation starts, moreover, the social scientist should then again do what she knows how to do: measure things.

She should be on hand to collect data and find out which sorts of real-world applications of knowledge extracted in the lab are actually working and which ones aren't. She can then share that new knowledge with more people who have practical knowledge about other settings that demand intelligent science communication -- and the process can be repeated.

And so forth and so on. Until what comes out is not a "how to" pamphlet but a genuine, evolving repository filled with vivid case studies, protocols, data collection and analysis tools and the like.

If you ask me for a facile check list of do's & don'ts, I won't give it to you.

Instead, I'll stick a baton of reliable information in your hand, so you run the next lap in the advancement of our knowledge of how to communicate science in a democracy. I'll even time you!

Fourth, science communication is a public good.

Clean air and water confer benefits independent of individuals' contributions too them. Indeed, individuals' personal contributions to clean air and water tend not to benefit them at all -- it's what others, en masse, are doing that determines whether the air and water are clean.

Same thing with the science communication environment. We all benefit when ordinary citizens form accurate judgments about what the best evidence is on issues like climate change. Accordingly, we all benefit when we live in an information environment free of toxic social meanings. But the judgments any ordinary person forms, and the behavior he or she engages in that amplify or mute toxic meanings -- those have zero impact on him or her.

As a result, he or she and every other individual like him or her won't have sufficient incentive to contribute. There has to be collective provisioning of such goods.

We need government policy for protection of the science communication environment every bit as much we need it to protect the physical environment.

There's an importnat role for key entities in civil society too -- like universities and foundations.

NAS is modeling the active, collective provisioning of this good.  Many others must now follow its lead!


Some data on CRT & "Republican" & "Democratic brains" (plus CRT & religion, gender, education & cultural worldviews)

This is the latest in a series of posts (see here, here, here, here ...) on the relationship between ideology &/or cultural worldviews, on the one hand, and cognitive reasoning dispositions, on the other.

I've now got some new data that speak to this question -- & that say things inconsistent with the increasingly prominent claim that conservative ideology is associated with low-level information processing.

If you already know all about the issue, just skip ahead to "2. New data"; if you are new to the issue or want a brief refresher, read "1. Background" first.

1. Background

As discussed in a recent post, a series of studies have come out recently that present evidence--observational and (interestingly!) experimental--showing that the tendency to use heuristic or system 1 information processing ("fast" in Kahneman terms, as opposed to "slow" systematic or system 2) is associated with religiosity.

I expressed some agitation on the absence of reported data on the relationship of system 1/system2 reasoning dispositions and ideology.

The source of my interest in such data is the increasing prevalence of what I'll call -- in recognition of Chris Mooney's role in synthesizing the underlying studies --  the Republican Brain Hypothesis (RBH). RBH posits a relationship between conservative political positions and use of low-effort, low-quality, biased, etc. reasoning styles. RBH proponents--  Mooney in particular-- conclude that this link makes Republicans dismissive of policy-relevant science and is thus responsible for the political polarization that surrounds climate change.

Although I very much respect Mooney's careful and fair-minded effort to assemble the evidence in support of RBH, I remain unpersuaded. First, RBH doesn't fit cultural cognition experimental results, which show that the tendency to discount valid scientific evidence when it has culturally non-congenial implications is prominent across the ideological spectrum (or cultural spectra).

Second, as far as I can tell, RBH studies have all featured questionable measures of low-level information processing. The only validated measures of system 1 vs. 2 dispositions -- i.e., the only ones that has been shown to predict the various forms of cognitive bias identified in decision science -- are Shane Frederick's Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) and Numeracy (CRT is a subcomponent of the latter).  The RBH studies tend to feature highly suspect measures like "need for cognition," which are based on study subjects' own professed characterizations of their tendency to engage in critical thinking.

So why are researchers who are interested in testing RBH not using (or if they are using, not reporting data on) the relationship between CRT & political ideology?

A few months ago, I reported in a blog post some data that suggested the being Republican and conservative has a small positive correlation with CRT. In other words, being a conservative Republican predicts being slightly more disposed to use systematic or system 2 reasoning.

The relationship was too small to be of practical importance -- to be a plausible explanation for political polarization on issues like climate change -- in my view. But the point was that the data suggested the opposite of what one would expect if one credits RBH!

The relationship between CRT and the cultural worldview measures was similarly inconsequential -- very small, off-setting correlations with Hierarchy and Individualism, respectively.

2. New data

Okay, here are some new CRT (Cognitive Reflection Test) data that reinforce my doubt about RBH (the "Republic Brain Hypothesis").

The data come from an on-line survey carried out by the Cultural Cognition Project using a nationally representative sample (recruited by the opinion-research firm Polimetrix) of 900 U.S. adults.

The survey included the 3-item CRT test, various demographic variables, partisan self-identification (on a 7-point scale), self-reported liberal-conservative ideology (on a 5-point scale) and cultural worldview items.

Key findings include:

  • Higher levels of education and greater income both predict higher CRT, as does being white and being male. These are all results one would expect based on previous studies.
  • Also consistent with the newer interesting studies, religiosity predicts lower CRT. (I measured religiosity with a composite scale that combined responses to self-reported church attendance, self-reported personal importance of religion, and self-reported frequency of prayer; α = 0.87).  
  • However, liberal-conservative ideology has essentially zero impact on CRT, and being more Republican (on the 7-point partisan self-identification measure; but also in simple binary correlations) predicts higher CRT. Not what one would expect if one were betting on RBH!
  • Being more individualistic than communitarian predicts higher CRT, being more hierarchical than communitarian predicts essentially nothing. Also not in line with RBH, since these cultural orientations are both modestly correlated with political conservativism.

Now, those are the simple, univariate correlations between the individual characteristics and CRT (click on the thumbnail, right, for the correlation matrix).

But what is the practical significance of these relationships?


To illustrate that, I ran a series of ordered logistic regression analyses (if you'd like to inspect the outputs, click on the thumbnail to left). The results indicate the likelihood that someone with the indicated characteristic would get either 0, 1, 2, or all 3 answers correct on the CRT test.

As illustrated in the Figures above, these analyses reveal that the impact of all of these predictors is concentrated on the likelihood that someone will get 0 as opposed to 1, 2, or 3 answers correct. That is, the major difference between people with the "high-CRT" characteristic and those with the "low-CRT" one is that the former are less likely to end up with a goose egg on the test.

Indeed, that's all that's going on for both religiosity and partisan self-identification; there's no significant (& certainly no meaningful!) difference in the likelihood that those who are high vs. low in religiosity, or who are Republican in self-identification vs. Democrat, will get 1, 2 or 3 answers correct--only whether they will get more than 0.

The likelihood of getting 1 or 2 correct, but not 3, is higher for men vs. women and for more educated vs. less educated individuals. But the differences -- all of them -- look pretty trivial to me. (Not that surprising; few people are disposed to engage in system 2 reasoning on a consistent basis.)

Note, too, that there's essentially no difference between "hierarchical individualists" and "egalitarian communitarians," the members of the cultural communities most divided on environmental issues including climate change. Also none when liberal-conservative ideology and party affiliation are combined.

These are models that look at the predictors of interest in relation to CRT but in isolation from one another. I think it's easy to generate a jumbled, meaningless model by indiscriminatingly "controlling" for co-variates like race, religiosity, and even gender when trying to asses the impact of ideologies and cultural worldviews, or to "control" for ideology when assessing the impact of worldviews or vice versa; people come in packages of these attributes, so if we treat them as "independent variables" in a regression, we aren't modeling people in the real world (more on this topic in some future post).

But just to satisfy those who are curious, I've also included a "kitchen sink" multivariate model of that sort. What it shows is that religion, race, education, and income all predict CRT independently of one another and independently of ideology and cultural worldivews. In such a model, however, neither ideology nor cultural worldviews predict anything significant for CRT.

3. Bottom line

So to sum up -- when we use CRT as the measure of how well people process information, there's no support for RBH. In fact, the zero-order effect for political-party affiliation is in the wrong direction. But the important point is that the effects are just too small to be of consequence -- too tiny to be at the root of the large schisms between people with differing ideological and cultural worldviews over issues involving policy-relevant science.

What does explain those divisions, I believe, is motivated reasoning, a particular form of which is what we are looking at in studies of cultural cognition.  

The lack of a meaningful correlation between CRT, on the one hand, and cultural worldviews and political ideologies, on the other, is perfectly consistent with this explanation for risk-perception conflicts, because the evidence that supports the explanation seems to show that motivated reasoning is ample across all cutural and ideological groups.

Indeed, motivated reasoning, it has long been known (although recently forgotten, apparently), affects both system 1 (heuristic) and system 2 (systematic reasoning).  Accordingly, far from being a "check" on motivated reasoning, a disposition to use system 2 more readily should actually magnify the impact of this sort of distortion in thinking.

That's indeed exactly what we see: as people become more numerate -- and hence more adept at system 2 reasoning -- they become even more culturally divided.

To be sure, being disposed to use heuristic reasoning -- or simply unable to engage in more technical, systematic modes of thought -- will produce all sorts of really bad problems. But the problem of cultural polarization over policy-relevant science just isn't one of them.

In my opinion, the sooner we get that, the sooner we'll figure out a constructive solution to the real problems of science communication in a diverse, democratic society.


Krugman acknowledges cultural cognition (at least in others!)

The point of the cool Justin Fox post that I noted yesterday now has been seconded by Paul Krugman, who says he already knew this -- that cultural cognition contrains public acceptance of scientific evidence -- based on the failure of his own columns to persuade people who disagree with him:

Justin Fox has an interesting post documenting something I more or less knew, but am glad to see confirmed: People aren’t very receptive to evidence if it doesn’t come from a member of their cultural community. This has been blindingly obvious these past few years.

Consider what the different sides in economic debate have been predicting these past six or seven years. If you got your views from, say, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, you knew – knew – that there was no housing bubble, that America in 2008 wasn’t in recession, that budget deficits would send interest rates sky-high, that the Fed’s expansion of its balance sheet would produce huge inflation, that austerity policies would lead to economic expansion.

That’s quite a record. And yet I’m well aware that many people – including people with real money at stake – consider the WSJ a reliable source and people like, well, me flaky and unbelievable. Much of this is politics, of course, but that’s intertwined with culture: the kind of people who turn to the WSJ, or right-wing investment sites can clearly see that I’m a latte-sipping liberal who probably favors gay rights and doesn’t worship the financially successful (I actually prefer good filter coffee, black, but that’s otherwise accurate), and just not part of their tribe.

I suppose that in my quest to improve policy and understanding I should be trying to fit in better – lose the beard, learn to play golf, start using “impact” as a verb. But I probably couldn’t pull it off even if I tried. And as a result there will always be a large group of people who will never be moved by any evidence I present.


Blind Voter-Candidate Matchmaking Site to Reduce Partisan Bias in Voter Perception?

I'm eager to hear your reactions to Elect Your Match!, a website that would blindly match voters to presidential candidates based on the similarity of their responses to a series of policy statements. The voters and candidates respond to the same series of statements on a scale of slightly/moderately/strongly disagree or agree. The statements are candidate generated: they each submit five statements on separate issues, and respond to their own and their opponents’ statements on the same scale as voters, indicating whether they slightly/moderately/strongly disagree or agree with each one. The statements would not mention candidate or party identity. In choosing these statements, candidates define the primary policy issues at stake in their campaign.

There are sites making very good efforts along these lines (mentioned in the article), providing thorough information and showing visitors how candidates relate to their stance issue-by-issue, as well as generating a match based on any range of issues the visitor selects. Elect Your Match! would simplify these models to route visitors through one short standardized questionnaire that sets forth the primary election issues, defined by the candidates themselves, and only recommending one comprehensive best-matching candidate. Simplifying the site's primary interface to give only one comprehensive match based on a preset agenda might make it easier and more appealing for those less engaged in politics, who may not have a sense of what issues are most important to them or to the election. In order for the site to provide a single candidate match based on a preset agenda, it is important that the candidates to themselves set the agenda defining the issues and provide their own responses, as opposed to a third-party determining the issues and rating the candidates’ positions. 

In addition to informing voters, a site like this could work to reduce partisan identity biasing voters' perceptions of candidates. I.e., Studies suggest that voters overestimate the extent that the positions of candidates sharing their partisan identity match their own policy preferences. In other words, voters erroneously “see their favorite candidates’ stands as closer to their own and opposing candidates’ stands as more dissimilar than they actually were.” Larry M. Bartels, The Irrational Electorate, The Wilson Quarterly (Autumn 2008). Or that voters more readily learn information about candidates that is congenial to their partisan identity, and discount facts that are not. Jennifer Jerit & Jason Barabas, Partisan Perceptual Bias and the Information Environment, Presented at the 2011 annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association.

I’m curious about how a this advances the goals of the CCP: On one hand, it informs voters as to the candidate that really best matches their own outlook, and aims to minimize partisan identity-based bias in evaluating candidates. On the other hand, one seeking to advance the goals of CCP might desire a means for promoting more interpersonal deliberation (that could perhaps do more to update viewpoints and build consensus around polarizing issues in the election)(See also Bruce Ackerman & James Fishkin, Deliberation Day (2004)). As is suggested in the article, the site might have a deliberative component that allows interested visitors to browse more deeply than the primary questionnaire, to enter issue-specific segments of the site that would prompt them to interact with or respond to statements presenting arguments on either side of the issue. Perhaps these issue-specific segments could host an ongoing conversation posting visitors’ comments and responses to arguments on either side of the issue.


Cultural cognition & expert assessments of technological innovation

There's a great blog post by Justin Fox over at the Harvard Business Review's HBR Blog.

Fox argues that cultural cognition dynamics are likely to influence not only public perceptions of risk but also market-related assessments and decisionmaking within groups one might expect to be more focused on money and data than on meaning.

As illustration, he offers an amusing (for the reader) account of the reception afforded a recent column of his on expert assessments of technological innovation in the internet era.

I wrote a post here at on whether the Internet era has been a time of world-changing innovation or a relative disappointment. It was inspired by comments from author Neal Stephenson, who espoused the latter view in a Q&A at MIT. His words reminded me of similar arguments by economist Tyler Cowen (if I had enough brain cells to remember that Internet megainvestor Peter Thiel had been saying similarthings, I would have included him, too). So I wrote a piece juxtaposing the Stephenson/Cowen view with the work of MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson, who has been amassing evidence that a digitization-fueled economic revolution is in fact beginning to happen.

If I had to place a bet in this intellectual race, it would be on Brynjolfsson. I've seen the Internet utterly transform my industry (the media), and I imagine there's lots more transforming to come. But I don't have any special knowledge on the topic, and I do think the burden of proof lies with those who argue that economic metamorphosis is upon us. So I wrote the piece in a tone that I thought was neutral, laced with a few sprinklings of show-me skepticism.

When the comments began to roll in on, though, a good number of them took me to task for being a brain-dead, technology-hating Luddite. And why not? There's a long history of journalists at legacy media organizations writing boneheaded things about the Internets being an abomination and/or flash in the pan (one recent example being this screed by Harper's publisher John McArthur). Something about my word choices and my job title led some readers to lump me in with the forces of regression, and react accordingly.

When I saw that had republished my post, I cringed. Surely the technoutopians there would tear the piece to nanoshreds. But they didn't. Most of the commenters instead jumped straight into an outrage-free discussion of innovation past and present.

That's probably because, if there is one person in the world whom readers consider a "knowledgeable member of their cultural community," it is Neal Stephenson. This is the man who described virtual reality before it was even virtual, after all. I'm guessing that readers were conditioned by the sight of Neal Stephenson's name at the beginning of my post to consider his arguments with an open mind. Here at, where we don't require readers to have read the entire Baroque Cycle before they are allowed to comment, Stephenson was just some guy saying things they disagreed with.

Fox's assessment of the tendency of people to credit arguments of experts with whom they have a cultural affinity is consistent with our HPV study. But what's really cool is that the reaction of the readers shows how a group that might be culturally predisposed to reject a particular message will actually give it open-minded consideration when they see that it originates (or at least has received respectful and serious attention) from someone with whom they identify.

Anyway, I'm psyched to learn that Fox sees our methods and framework as relevant to the market-related phenomena he writes on -- not only because it's cool to think that cultural cognition can shed light on those things but also because I really loved his Myth of the Rational Market. Was tied (with The Clockwork Universe) for best book I read all of last yr!


A "frame" likely to generate consensus that climate change is not happening (and/or that geoengineering is safe)

Interesting piece, my guess is that this idea could actually end polarization over climate change -- by furnishing egalitarians and hierarchs alike strong emotional motivation to deny there's any danger after all! 

Also, although the author maintains that engineering humans is "safer" than geoengineering, my guess is that people would see geoengineering itself as less risky when they consider it in relation to "human engineering" than when they consider it on its own  -- precisely b/c human engineering is pretty much the creepiest thing that anyone can imagine.

Which isn't to say the author's argument is wrong on the merits!



More religion & CRT--where's ideology & CRT?!

Science this week published an article that finds low CRT predicts religiosity & that backs this finding up w/ experimental data:

It's a really excellent study. The experiments were ingenious. It should be pointed out, though, that this finding corroborates another excellent one, Shenhav, A., Rand, D.G. & Greene, J.D. Divine intuition: Cognitive style influences belief in God. Journal of Experimental Psychology (2011), advance online doi:10.1037/a0025391.

I'm waiting, patiently, for someone to publish some data on correlation between CRT & liberal-conservative ideology. As I've noted before, data that CCP has collected suggests that there is virtually none -- or that there are weak offsetting correlations between different cultural dimensions of conservatism (hierarchy & individualism).

The reason I'm waiting is that such data would contribute a lot to the increasing interest in the relationship between ideology & quality/style of cognitive processing (the Republic Brain hypothesis or "RBH," let's call it). Shane Frederick's CRT scale & Numeracy (which incorporates CRT) are the only validated indicators of the disposition to use systematic or System 2 reasoning as opposed to heuristic or system 1. So it would, of course, be super useful to see what the CTR verdict is on whether conservatives & liberals differ in processing.

Being patient while waiting is becoming more difficult. I've got to believe that such evidence is already in hand; given the interest in the RB hypothesis, surely someone (likely multiple people) have thought to try to test it w/ the CRT measure. It would be sad to discover that the reason the data haven't been reported is that they don't fit the hypothesis -- that is, don't show that liberals are more "systematic" or System-2 disposed in their thinking. 

Actually, I suppose I have data in hand, but at least I've blogged on them!

Oh-- if I'm wrong to think that this is a matter on which no one has yet presented data, please tell me and I'll happily acknowledge my error & share the relevant references w/ other curious people.