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Wednesday
Feb182015

On becoming part of a polluted science communication environment while studying it....

From a correspondent, cc'ing me

Dear National Geographic Forum,
 
 
I am an engineer who, in addition to engineering-related courses, also studied geology, geophysics and even a little astronomy at the undergraduate and graduate level. In short, a big fan of science and rational thought, especialy applied science like engineering.
 
I firmly believe in climate change but find that the claim that it is "human-made" is total rubbish.  
Rather I think the human-made claim is driven by "tribalism", just like Professor Dan Kahan of Yale Law School ascribes to the "barber in a rural town in South Carolina". (And seriously, good he be any more elitist and patronizing? North vs. South, City Mouse vs. Country Mouse, Perfesser of Law vs. Barber, etc.)
 
In fact, the tribal forces at work on researchers and politicians are much more pronounced. 
It's not just about losing customers, it's about fame, glory, popularity and - most important - money.  
Think Oscars, think Nobel Prizes, think tapping into the hundreds of millions of dollars (billions?) out there for the taking.
 
All you have to do is run the same flawed computer programs, fiddle with the data when necessary, and confirm, affirm, re-affirm The Consensus.
 
And, if that isn't enough enticement, you also get to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude when talking about "Skeptics".  I mean, it's no accident that your article states "How to convert the skeptics?"
 
Maybe you should take a look in the mirror.
 
When you liken the more than half of Americans who don't believe the Earth is warming because humans are burning fossil fuels to "loopy... flat-Earthers" you are reinforcing tribalism.
 
Sincerely,
 
My response

Thanks, ***. 

I'm going to put aside "who is right" on climate change and also how the sorts of influences I study bear on the production of climate science or any other form of science. One can't reliably draw any inferences from studies of how dynamics like identity-protective cognition affect public opinion, on the one hand, to how the same dynamics affect the expert judgments of scientists or any other group of professionals (like judges, say!), on the other.  If one wants to figure out if the conclusions of expert decisionmakers are being biased by identity-protective cogntion or comparable dynamics, then one has to perform valid studies on samples of the experts in question as they apply their professional judgment to the types of problems for which it is suited.

But I agree with the science-communication points you are raising here.

I don't think it is useful at all to characterize as "anti-science" the 50% of US general population who, using exactly the same forms of reasoning as those who conclude that best evidence supports belief in AGW, conclude that the best evidence doesn't support it. 

On the contrary, I think the dynamics that generate these sorts of characterizations are exactly what prevent culturally diverse citizens from converging, as they usually do, on what science knows. 

Some papers that address these points; happy to receive the benefit of any comments (including critical ones) you have on them:

Kahan, D.M. What is the "Science of Science communication"? J. Sci. Comm. (in press). 

Kahan D.M. Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem. Advances in Political Psychology (in press). 

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

I often find my and my collaborators' research cited -- by both "left" & "right" (those are crude ways to characterize the relevant cultural groups, but they are good enough here) -- to "explain" why the "other side" is dogmatic, anti-science, stupid, etc.   

That sort of misinterpretation of our findings is part of exactly the phenomenon we are studying: the forces that drive people to misconstrue empirical evidence in patterns congenial to their cultural outlooks.

Indeed, for a study of how people misconstrue evidence relating to the open-mindedness & critical reasoning capacities of those who disagree w/ them on contested science issues, take a look at Kahan, D.M. Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection, Judgment and Decision Making 8, 407-424 (2013).  The most demoralizing thing is that this tendency is most pronounced in individuals with highest proficiency in critical reasoning.... 

Makes me wonder sometimes whether there's any point in trying to use empirical evidence to fix this problem.

But it takes only about 15 seconds to conclude that of course that would be the wrong conclusion to draw.

Because for one thing, any scholar who gets the benefit of being supported by a liberal democratic society to do scientific research would have to be a moral cretin not to recognize that he or she owes that society's members whatever he or she can contribute to protecting their science communication environment from the sort of toxins that deprive liberal democratic citizens of the benefits of all the scientific knowledge their way of life makes possible.

There is one more thing I want to be sure I express my agreement with:  I don't doubt for a second that I myself, in the course of trying to address these matters, will blunder, either as a result of being subject to the same dynamics I'm studying or to simple failings in judgment or powers of expression.  And as a result, I'll end up conveying, contrary to my own intentions and ambitions, the very sort of partisan meanings that I believe must be purged from the science communication environment.

I don't resent being told when that happens; I am chastened, but grateful. 

Take care. 

--Dan

p.s.

It's in people's self-interest to form beliefs that connect rather than estrange them from those whose good opinion they depend on (economically, emotionally, and otherwise).  As a result, we should expect individuals' cultural outlooks to have a very substantial impact on their climate change risk perceptions.

At the same time, the beliefs that the typical member of the public forms about climate change will likely have an impact on how she gets along with people she interacts with in her daily life. A Hierarchical Individualist in Oklahoma City who proclaims that he thinks that climate change is a serious and real risk might well be shunned by his coworkers at a local oil refinery; the same might be true for an Egalitarian Communitarian English professor in New York City who reveals to colleagues that she thinks that “scientific consensus” on climate change is a “hoax.” They can both misrepresent their positions, of course, but only at the cost of having to endure the anxiety of living a lie, not to mention the risk that they’ll slip up and reveal their true convictions. Given how much they depend on others for support—material and emotional—and how little impact their beliefs have on what society does to protect the phys-ical environment, they are better off when they form perceptions of climate change risk that minimize this danger of community estrangement.

In contrast, what an ordinary individual believes and says about climate change can have a huge impact on her interactions with her peers. If a professor on the faculty of a liberal university in Cambridge Massachusetts starts saying "cliamte change is ridiculous," he or she can count on being ostracized and vilified by others in the academic community. If the barber in some town in South Carolina's 4th congressional district insists to his  friends & neighbors that they really should believe the NAS on climate change, he will probably find himself twiddling his thumbs rather than cutting hair.

 

* * *

At the same time, the beliefs that the typical member of the public forms about climate change will likely have an impact on how she gets along with people she interacts with in her daily life. A Hierarchical Individualist in Oklahoma City who proclaims that he thinks that climate change is a serious and real risk might well be shunned by his coworkers at a local oil refinery; the same might be true for an Egalitarian Communitarian English professor in New York City who reveals to colleagues that she thinks that “scientific consensus” on climate change is a “hoax.” They can both misrepresent their positions, of course, but only at the cost of having to endure the anxiety of living a lie, not to mention the risk that they’ll slip up and reveal their true convictions. Given how much they depend on others for support—material and emotional—and how little impact their beliefs have on what society does to protect the phys-ical environment, they are better off when they form perceptions of climate change risk that minimize this danger of community estrangement.

 

Tuesday
Feb172015

Science of Science Communication 2.0, Session 6.1: Communicating climate science, part 1

It's time for session 6 of virtual "Science of Science Communication 2.0" (time for real-space version in about 4 hrs)! Reading list here

Reactions?


Friday
Feb132015

"Let's shame them!": part and parcel of the dangerous seat-of-the-pants, evidence-free style of risk communication we are using to protect universal vaccination in US

A thoughtful correspondent asked me what I thought of proposals to "shame" parents who don't vaccinate their children.  I'm against doing that. Actually, I'm not opposed to "shaming" when it makes sense; but I am opposed to doing anything in public policy that disregards the best evidence we have on the challenges we face and the best strategies for combatting them. Here is what I had to say about why shaming parents who don't vaccinate should be viewed as falling into that category:

I myself don't see any value in shaming here.

The conflict-entrepreneur, anti-vax organizers deserve ridicule and are awful people etc. But denouncing or shaming them actually only gives them exactly what they want -- more attention, which in turn does make more members of the public agitated and confused. 

This is known as the “rope-a-dope” strategy. Many vaccine advocates are falling for it big time and are doing more harm than good by falsely overstating the impact of the small fringe of society that is anti-vaccine.

In addition, shaming individual parents risks chilling anxious individuals who aren't militant or political but just confused from trying to get answers to their questions from their drs or neighbors etc. 

No one could think that’s good for public health. Thoughtful and reflective people can actually help those parents see that vaccination makes sense for their kids and for society as a whole--but only if those parents seek out their counsel.

Finally, shaming risks undermining the social norms most worthy of protection here.

One is the general confidence that parents indisputably have (as manifested in maintenance of the public-health goal of 90%+ vaccination rates for over a decade) in vaccine safety. The main source of information that people use to assess risk is the attitude of other ordinary people as evinced by their behavior.

What we definitely don't want, then, is to give people a false impression that fear of and resistance to vaccines are widespread or growing. The incessantly repeated, demonstrably false assertion that vaccination rates are falling & exemptions rising in the US does exactly that: it causes people to misperceive how much confidence US parents have in vaccination -- to misperceive how high our vaccination rates are & have been for well over a decade.

The other is reciprocal cooperation.  People contribute to public goods when they perceive others are -- but don't when they perceive others aren't, in which case contributing makes one feel like a sucker.  Herd immunity is a public good. In fact, studies show that giving people the impression that others are refusing to vaccinate diminishes their own intention to vaccinate.

I'd worry that the spectacle of orchestrated shaming -- b/c the premise for it is falling vaccine rates, etc. -- could reinforce these norm-eroding effects. 

Instead, we should want parents and the public generally to know, as Moms Who Vax wisely emphasize, that “the vast, vast majority of” parents do recognize that vaccines are critical for their kids welfare.  

Those parents have better things to do than march around asserting the obvious, so it is easy to lose the benefit that their behavior and confidence can contribute to the norms that promote universal vaccination.  

Let's follow the lead of MWX and and raise the profile of the behavior and attitude of those ordinary parents.

We should also take the money and attention that would otherwise be devoted to pointless and likely self-defeating shaming campaigns (ones coordinated by commercial marketing firms poised to carry out this questionable strategy) and direct it to research into developing screening instruments that can help identify vaccine-hesitant parents and targeted risk counseling for them.

The scientists doing this research aren't nearly as loud, nearly as self-promoting, as the advocates who are overstating anxiety about vaccines and the need for unresponsive policies like "shaming campaigns."

So like MWV, we should be trying to remedy this inattention by hearalding what these researchers are up to, and helping those dedicated to perfecting our universal vaccination regime to make sure that these researchers are adequately supported in their efforts.

Thursday
Feb122015

Turbulence and shifting gusts of hot air: the forecast for perceptions of "scientific consensus" in response to NAS geoengineering reports

They aren’t the first National Academy of Sciences Reports to call for stepping up research on geoengineering, but the ones the Academy issued Tuesday are definitely raising both the volume and intensity of this recommendation.

In response, I predict an interesting counter-reaction by many of the advocacy groups involved in promoting graeater public engagement with climate science. 

A prominent if not dominant stance among such groups, I’m guessing, will be to dismiss geoengineering as impractical, dangerous, futile, etc.

And impolitic as well: triggering an outcome referred to as "moral hazard" (an inapt label, given the established meaning of this term in economics), talk of geoengineering, it is asserted, will lull people into believing climate change can be met w/o significant changes in their lifestyle, thereby dissipating the groundswell of popular support (?!) for restrictions on use of carbon-emitting greenhouse gasses.

I’m guessing that we'll see this reaction, first, because that’s already how many climate-policy advocates have reacted whenever anyone mentions geoengineering.

And I’m guessing this is what we'll see, second, b/c such a reaction would be in keeping with dynamics of cultural cognition generally and with studies of geoengineering and perceptions of “scientific consensus” in particular.

Just the day before yesterday (we take seriously our commitment to our 14 billion regular blog subscribers to be as topical as possible!), CCP’s study "Geoengineering and Climate Change Polarization: Testing a Two-Channel Model of Science Communication" was published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

It reports the results of a two-nation—US and England—experiment that found that subjects who learned of scientist’ call for research into geoengineering were in fact less cultural polarized in their subsequent assessment of the strength of the evidence of human-caused climate change than were subjects who first learned of scientists’ ‘call for more carbon emission limits. 

The latter were in fact more polarized than subjects in a control group, who considered the evidence of human-caused climate change without any information on carbon-emission limit or geoengineering-research proposals.

This finding was consistent with the hypothesis that learning that geoengineering, a pro-technology response, was being given serious consideration would reduce the defensive biases of citizens culturally predisposed to discount evidence of human-caused climate change insofar as accepting it implies limits on markets, commerce, and industry—activities that individuals with this cultural orientation value, symbolically as well as materially.

Contrary to the often-asserted "moral hazard" claim, telling people about geoengineering research did not reduce concern about climate change risks. 

On the contrary, the subjects who learned about the proposal for such research were more concerned, presumably because the ones most prone to skepticism reacted much more open-mindedly to evidence of global warming.

The second study that predicts that many climate-change policy advocates will react dismissively to the NAS (and Royal Society) recommendations to research geoengineering is the CCP study on cultural cognition of scientific consensus.

That one found that individuals tend to credit or discredit representations of scientific consensus on risk and related facts in a selective pattern that reflects their cultural worldviews. 

Egalitarian, communitarian individuals credit the expertise of scientists who assert that climate change and nuclear power pose huge environmental risks and dismiss the expertise of scientists—ones with exactly the same credentials—who assert otherwise.

The pattern is reversed in hierarchic, individualistic subjects.

If that's how people process information about "scientific consensus" in the real world, than people with these opposing outlooks will end up forming opposingly skewed understandings of what scientific consensus is on these and other issues. And in fact, that’s what surveys show to be the case.

So here we can expect egalitarian communitarians—who readily perceive scientific consensus in favor of human-caused climate change—to dispute that there is "really" scientific consensus in favor of investigating the contribution geoengineering can make to counteracting climate-change risks.

They’ll either dismiss the NAS and Royal Society reports or construe them as saying the opposite of what they say (that more research is indeed warranted) because the suggestion that one response to climate change is more innovation, more technology—not less of all of those things—disappoints their cultural worldview, which is exactly what motivates a good many of them to exhuberantly embrace evidence of climate change.

Geoengineering is “liposuction,” when what capitalism really needs to do is go on a “diet,” as one commentator poetically put it.

Identity-protective reasoning doesn't discriminate on the basis worldview.  

Its reason-eviscerating effects are symmetric across the ideological spectrum.  We are all vulnerable.  

And the reactions to geoengineering might help us to see that; or it might not, precisely because it's in the nature of the disease to discern its effects only in those who belong to an opposing cultural group and never in the members of one's own....

Anyway, that’s my prediction about how people will react to the new NAS reports.

Guess we'll find out.    

Wednesday
Feb112015

"What is the 'science of science communication'?" (new paper)

A short essay that tries to tie some bigger themes together...

Tuesday
Feb102015

Science of Science Communication 2.0, Session 5.1: the (mis)communication of vaccine-risk perception

It's been a while -- at least 45 mins -- since I've written about vaccine-risk perception and communication.  Well, conveniently, today's session -- #5 -- of  Science of Science Communication course ver 2.0 happens to be on this very topic.  To get the "virtual class" discussion going (real-space class is starting in 60 mins!), consider this case study, which was appended to this week's reading list:

Case Study: Vaccine Risk Communication

1. The Wakefield affair. In 1998, the medical journal the Lancet published a study by a team of researchers led by Andrew Wakefield that purported to establish a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. Although the study was attacked almost immediately and ultimately was retracted by the journal, the Wakefield paper stoked considerable public anxiety in the U.K., where vaccination rates declined and the incidence of various childhood diseases increased.

2. U.S. Vaccine Risk Anxiety. The U.S. has experienced several pertussis or whooping cough epidemics in recent years as well as recurrent outbreaks of measles, a disease that was deemed eliminated in the U.S. in 2000.  These developments are widely attributed to the growing influence of anti-vaccination groups, high-profile members of which include political figures like Robert Kennedy, Jr. and the Hollywood celebrity Jenny McCarthy, which continue to disseminate the Wakefield study, supplemented with a wide variety of other materials that misrepresent vaccine safety.

Chronicling the misinformation efforts of the activists, public health professionals and journalists warn of a “growing crisis of public confidence” in childhood vaccines. More and more “mainstream parents” are availing themselves of permissive “moral” and “religious” exemptions to universal vaccination, these concerned observers report.  The resulting “erosion in vaccination rates,” a physician who has assumed a high-profile role as an opponent of anti-vaccine activists, national vaccination rates are at risk of dipping below the threshold necessary to preserve herd immunity.

3. The PUAA plan. “Progressives United Against Anti-Science” (PUAA) is a public interest group.  Combatting the anti-vaccine movement is one of its three missions. The other two are correcting the misinformation of climate change deniers and challenging efforts to add the teaching of “creation science” or “intelligent design” to public school curricula.

PUAA has formulated a two-prong plan to counteract the spread of vaccine refusal in the U.S. The first is a multi-million “social marketing campaign” consisting of high-exposure public service announcements, which would variously rebut misinformation about the risks posed by vaccines and seek to excite disapprobation toward parents who decline vaccination for endangering the public health generally.  The second prong of the PUAA plan would involve the promotion of state referenda to repeal “non-medical” exemptions to universal vaccination policies.

To fund its plan, PUAA is seeking a $500 million grant from the General Welfare Foundation (GWF). GWF is among the largest philanthropic NGOs in the U.S.  Promotion of public health is one of its primary interests.

PUAA  has also reached out to both the CDC and the American Medical Association. Because of the CDC’s and AMA’s important institutional roles in the public health establishment, PUAA believes, with good reason, that their communication of support for its plan would significantly increase the prospect of it obtaining funding from GWF.

4.  Issues. Should GWF fund the PUAA plan?  Should the CDC and AMA convey their approval?  Is there enough information to answer these questions?  If not, what additional information would be useful?

Monday
Feb092015

Let it be? Measuring partisan reactions to existing mandatory vaccination laws

In the last week or so, I’ve done somewhere between 2 and 406 blog posts on vaccine risk perceptions (I am indeed bored beyond description; I feel obliged to reciprocate, though, the admirable efforts of others who are trying to shield public discourse from the harm associated with fact-free assertions in this area).

The upshot is that, contrary to the empirically uniformed and reckless blathering of “news” reporters and commentators (not all reporters or commentators are engaged in this behavior!), there is no meaningful public conflict over vaccine safety.

Not only have U.S. vaccination rates held steady at over 90%--the public health target—for all recommended childhood immunizations for over a decade.

But there is also overwhelming consensus in the general population, and within every recognizable political and cultural subsegment of it, that vaccines are safe and make a vital contribution to public health.

But these are characterizations of public risk perceptions

Someone could—a commentator responding to one of my earlier posts did—reasonably ask about whether consensus on vaccine safety translates into consensus in favor of mandatory vaccination laws.

All U.S. states have such laws, requiring vaccination for mumps, measles, and rubella, along with various other childhood diseases, as a condition of school enrollment.  All have so-called “medical exemptions,” for children who have a condition that would make vaccination unsafe, and most “religious” and some “moral” exemptions as well.

Can we say that the same state of consensus exists on this public health regulatory regime?

I’ll show you some data in a sec.

But because this post exceeds what the 14 billion regular readers of this blog know is my usually strictly enforced limit of 250 words, I'll start with this helpful and succinct summary of my own interpretation of them:

1.  Yes, the same consensus supports the current state of the law on mandatory vaccination in the U.S.

2.  However, pursuing legislation to change the status quo—either by eliminating religious or moral exemptions or by eliminating mandatory vaccination laws —risks polarizing the public along familiar political/cultural lines.

3.  Launching childhood vaccines into the reason-eviscerating maelstrom of cultural status conflict that now characterizes issues like climate change, gun control, and the HPV vaccine would itself put this important aspect of our public health system in serious jeopardy. Accordingly, anyone who is considering initiating a campaign to change existing mandatory vaccination laws should (if they care about public health as opposed to making money by being employed to organize such a campaign; marketing and like consulting firms have a huge conflict of interest here) very carefully weigh the risk of that outcome against whatever benefits they might be hoping for in pursuing this course. 

Okay. Here is the evidence.

1. Members of the nationally representative sample that participated in the CCP Vaccine Risk Perceptions and Ad Hoc Risk Communication study were asked what they thought of mandatory vaccination policies.

They responded to a series of questions, which are described in full in the Report,, after first being supplied information (also described there) that was materially identical to the information I supplied above about how those policies work and about the varying forms of exemptions that states permit.  The questions were varied randomly in order.

By an overwhelming margin, the survey participants indicated that they favor existing laws

Specifically, 75% (± 5% at a 0.95 level of confidence) indicated agreed that they “support leaving existing laws on childhood vaccinations as they are.” 

What’s more, this was by far the dominant response across political lines:

The responses to this "let it be" item reflect exactly the same pattern that characterizes the general public’s responses to the study’s vaccine risk-perception items.

Indeed, I myself do not see the response to this item as measuring anything different from what the risk-benefit items measure.

Known as the “affect heuristic,” there is a strong tendency of people to form overall pro- or con- attitudes toward putative risk sources.  Rather than a consequence of their assessment of evidence about those putative risks, their affective orientations are likely to shape how they interpret evidence and form beliefs (Slovic, Peters, Finucane & MacGregor 2005; Loewenstein, Weber, Hsee & Welch 2001).

One can ask them different questions and elicit responses that reflect people’s affective orientations toward one or another risk.

But that’s really all that one is doing with any of these questions: eliciting a generic pro-con attitude.  It is in fact a mistake—one that non-scholarly opinion pollsters invite all the time to get attention or to try to manipulate public impressions of the public’s view on one or another policy issue—to try to take the wording of particular items at face value or to purport to draw inferences from one or another as opposed to all the items considered as a group.

The reactions of members of the public to childhood vaccines displays all the signatures of the affect heuristic.

Moreover, their affective orientation happens to be very positive in the vast bulk of the U.S. population.  The CCP Report estimated that approximately 80% of the population shares it.

Like the risk-benefit questions generally, the CCP study "let it be" item on existing mandatory vaccine laws elicited a positive response of around 80%.

Like the risk-benefit items, there was not much in the way of systematic variance in the "let it be" item—that is, the reasons why somewhere around 20% or 25% of the population didn’t support existing laws did not admit of meaningful explanation by individual demographic or cultural or political characteristics.

Maybe these are the same 20% or so of the population who indicated that “space aliens” or “time travelers” were involved in the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 last summer.  No idea.

2.  There is an important “however,” however.

Study participants were also asked to consider items relating to specific proposals to alter existing mandatory vaccination laws.

Their responses to these did not evince support consensus for change of any sort.  Indeed, it revealed the striking absence of any particular consensus:

What's more, variance in the participants’ response did reflect differences in the participants’ political outlooks.  Consider this Figure, which uses a multivariate model to estimate the impact of partisan differences, including identifying as a member of the Tea Party, on the responses to the reform items:

The figure illustrates how much more or less an average "liberal Democrat," "Conservative Republican, non--Tea Party member, or  "Conservative Republican, Tea Party member" is to agree with the indicated reform than is the "average" member of the population--and hence how likely each of the former prototypical partisans is to disagree with each of the others.

These differences are modest in relation to those, say, on climate change.  But they aren’t trivial.

Now what to make of this?

Well, if you are thinking there’s some inconsistency between the participants’ responses to these “change the status quo” items and their responses to the “let it be” item, I agree!

My view is that the “change the status quo” items are not measuring the same thing as the "let it be” item. 

Psychometrically speaking, "change the status quo" items don’t “scale” with the “let it be” item or the general battery of risk-benefit items. That’s is, they don’t display the sort of covariance that one would expect if the items were measures of a common latent or unobserved disposition.

It makes more sense to view the "change the status quo" iems as measuring (in a noisy and attenuated form, particularly in relation, to say, climate change) the general attitudes that subjects of varying political outlooks have toward governmental regulations generally.

My view is that most people generally just don’t give much thought to vaccine laws, which (with the exception of the HPV vaccine; I’ll come back to that) have not been a matter of political contestation in American life.

So if one asks members of the public what they think of universal vaccination laws, they express the same warm fuzzy feeling of contentment and gratitude that characterizes their views toward childhood vaccines generally.  These are the sensibilities, I'm confident, that for over a decade in US has lead 90%+ of parents to get all recommended childhood vaccinations for their kids.

Survey questions about changing those law, starts to trigger affective resonances that relate to peoples’ cultural identities.  Like bad survey questions, those questions aren't measuring what people in society are talking about; but they are measuring something: who they are, culturally or politically speaking.

3.  That's an outcome that ought to cause a sense of tremendous apprehension in anyone who actually values the contribution that childhood vaccines make to public health in this country.

The entanglement of issues of risk with antagonistic cultural meanings is precisely what drives polarization on issues like gun control and climate change, where people’s positions are understood to be badges of membership in and loyalty to opposing groups (Kahan 2015, 2012).

This was exactly the dynamic that generated polarization over the HPV vaccine, the only universally recommended vaccine that isn’t part of the schedule of mandatory, school-enrollment vaccinations across the U.S. states (Kahan et al. 2010).

I’ve written extensively, in this blog and elsewhere (Kahan 2013), about the sad career of the HPV vaccine.

But the basic point is that the HPV vaccine suffered this fate b/c its manufacture, Merck, decided to initiate a controversy-inviting nationwide legislative campaign to add the vaccine to the schedule of required vaccinations that states make a condition of school enrollment.

The company did so through what was initially a covert lobbying campaign that featured Governor “Oops” among others—the disclosure of which amplified the controversy the manufacturer was hoping to sidestep when it thrust the vaccine into the political process.

Merck didn’t have to do this. In the normal course, public health administrators, who are largely insulated from politics, would have almost certainly added the vaccine to their states’ requirements, as they had just finished doing for the HBV (hepatitis-b) vaccine, another STD immunization that was made mandatory for adolescents and then infants.

But the manufacture didn’t want to wait, because in extra time it would have taken to get such approval for a boys & girls vaccine added to the state mandatory lists by administrative action, a competitor, GlaxoSmithKline, would have obtained approval for a rival HPV vaccine and been able to compete for lucrative contracts with state school systems.

The risk that launching the HPV vaccine into the political process would disrupt people's ability to assess the risks and benefits of it was clear at the outset.

But Merck (for pefectly predictable, understandable reasons) decided to take a gamble, motivated by its desire to achieve a decisive commercial advantage in marketing the vaccine.

The company lost. 

We all did.

Should we take a similar gamble by taking action that would place childhood vaccinations into the cross-hairs of partisan politics? 

The CCP Report, which reported data similar to what I’ve just presented, discusses the considerations.  I don’t see any point trying to reformulate the conclusion stated there:

In striking contrast to responses to the other items in the survey, the ones soliciting participants’ positions on proposals to restrict non-medical exemptions were characterized by disagreement. Not only did these items tend to divide the respondents. They divided them on political and cultural lines....

[T]hese results supply reason for circumspection on the issue of exemptions. The power of these items to divide groups already conspicuously arrayed against each other on contested science issues raises the possibility that real-world proposals to restrict universal immunization exemptions could do the same. The study’s experimental component, which found that exposure to the “anti-science” op-ed intensified these divisions, reinforces this concern....

Anyone who dismisses the existence or seriousness of unfounded fears of childhood vaccines would be behaving foolishly. Skilled journalists and others have vividly documented enclaves of concerted resistance to universal immunization programs. Experienced practitioners furnish credible reports of higher numbers of parents seeking counsel and assurance of vaccine safety. And valid measures of vaccination coverage and childhood disease outbreaks confirm that the incidence of such outbreaks is higher in the enclaves in which vaccine coverage falls dangerously short of the high rates of vaccination prevailing at the national level (Atwell et al. 2013; Glanz et al. 2013; Omer et al. 2008).

At the same time, only someone insufficiently attuned to the insights and methods of the science of science communication would infer that this threat to public health warrants a large-scale, sweeping “education” or “marketing” campaign aimed at parents generally or at the public at large. The potentially negative consequences of such a campaign would not be limited to the waste of furnishing assurances of safety to large numbers of people who are in no need of it. High-profile, emphatic assurances of safety themselves tend to generate concern. A broad scale and indiscriminant campaign to communicate vaccine safety—particularly if understood to be motivated by a general decline in vaccination rates—could also furnish a cue that cooperation with universal immunizations programs is low, potentially undermining reciprocal motivations to contribute to the public good of herd immunity. Lastly, such a campaign would create an advocacy climate ripe for the introduction of cultural partisanship and recrimination of the sort known to disable citizens’ capacity to recognize valid decision-relevant science generally .....

The right response to dynamics productive of excess concern over risk is empirically informed risk communication strategiestailored to those specific dynamics. Relevant dynamics in this setting include not only those that motivate enclaves of resistance to universal immunization but also those that figure in the concerns of individual parents seeking counsel, as they ought to, from their families’ pediatricians. Risk communication strategies specifically responsive to those dynamics should be formulated—and they should be tested, both in the course of their development and in their administration, so that those engaged in carrying them out can be confident that they are taking steps that are likely to work and can calibrate their approach as they learn more (Sadaf et al. 2013; Opel et al. 2012).

Again, preliminary research of this sort has commended. Perfection of behavioral-prediction profiles of the sort featured in Opel et al. (2011a, 2011b, 2013b) would not only enable researchers to extend understanding of the sources and consequences of genuine vaccine hesitancy but also to test focused risk-communication strategies on appropriate message recipients.  If made sufficiently precise, screening protocols of this sort would also enable practitioners to accurately identify parents in need of counseling public health officials to identify regions where the extent of hesitancy warrants intervention.

The public health establishment should exercise leadership to make health professionals and other concerned individuals and groups appreciate the distinction between targeted strategies of this sort and the ad hoc forms of risk communication that were the focus of this study.  They should help such groups understand in addition that support for the former does not justify either encouragement or tolerance of the latter.

But anyway, you've got the data now.  Draw your own inferences -- from them, and not from the feral risk communication system that we rely on in this country to the detriment of our public health ....

References

Cultural Cognition Project Lab. Vaccine Risk Perceptions and Ad Hoc Risk Communication: An Emprical Analysis. CCP Risk Studies Report No. 17

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

Kahan, D., Braman, D., Cohen, G., Gastil, J. & Slovic, P. Who fears the HPV vaccine, who doesn’t, and why? An experimental study of the mechanisms of cultural cognition. Law Human Behav 34, 501-516 (2010).

Kahan, D.M. A risky science communication environment for vaccines. Science 342, 53-54 (2013).

Kahan, D.M. Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem. Advances in Political Psychology 3 (2015).

Loewenstein, G.F., Weber, E.U., Hsee, C.K. & Welch, N. Risk as feelings. Psychological Bulletin 127, 267-287 (2001).

Slovic, P., Peters, E., Finucane, M.L. & MacGregor, D.G. Affect, Risk, and Decision Making. Health Psychology 24, S35-S40 (2005).

 

 

 

 

Thursday
Feb052015

What does Christie know that the rest of us don't? My guess is nothing (or even less that that actually)

Doing his part to increase the quality of the public debate over the public's non-debate over vaccine safety, NJ Gov'r  Chris Christie delivered a gift to empirically unencumbered pundits by indicating his support (momentarily, at least) for "parental choice" on childhood immunizations.  

News stories the next day were filled with authoritative-sounding insight on what Christie's stance tells us about partisan divisions on universal vaccination.  Most explained  that Christie was trying to "appease" the Republican Party's Tea Party wing.

But there is another possibility: Christie was just making a fool of himself.

Why do I say that?

Well, to start, there is tremendous public support for universal vaccination across all demographic, cultural, religious and other lines in the U.S.

Yes, there are some people who are "anti-vax."  They are outliers in all of the groups that play a recognizable role in contested political life in the U.S.

The media is filled with stories about "growing parental" resentment and "plummeting vaccination" rates.  But those stories are based on the failure of fact checkers to do what they are paid to do.

True, the blogosphere is filled with (contradictory and even comically self-contradictory accounts) of how being "anti-vax" proves this or that cultural or poltical group is "anti-science." The only "polls" those are based on are the ones that fact-free commentators perform on themselves, or possibly the people they meet when they go shopping at whole foods.

But if Christie said he thinks that there should "parental choice," surely that must mean that in fact some significant fraction of the Republican party is anti-vax, right?!  Likely it's those stupid, evil, anti-science Tea Party members!  He must be trying to curry favor with them!

Maybe.  

Or maybe he is just a bonehead.

To test these competing hypotheses, I decided to ... look at some actual evidence!

Based on data from the CCP Vaccine Risk Perceptions and Ad Hoc Risk Communication Report,
the figure illustrates the relationship between partisanship (measured with a scale that combines measures of liberal-conservative ideology and political-party identification) and the perceived benefits and risks of vaccines taking survey respondents' Tea Party membership into account.

Because only around 1% of the relatively liberal, Democratic respondents identified as "Tea Party members," I compared TP and non-TP members only among the relatively conservative, Republican members of the sample, of whom 30% identified as belonging to the TP (where does one sign up, btw? where are the meetings held? seriously!).

Well ... Eighty-four percent of the relative liberal, Democratic respondents and 78% of the conservative, Republican ones agreed that vaccine benefits outweigh their risks.  Boy, that's going to be a real wedge issue in the 2016 election, don't you think?

But wait-- the TP members!  A paltry 74% of them think vaccine benefits outweigh the risks! 

Look, in case you are tempted to try to squeeze a "culture conflict" out of the differences in how overwhelmingly pro-vaccine these groups of citizens are, here's graphic that shows the partisan breakdown on climate change, taking TP membership into account, in this same sample.

See the difference?

No? Well, then check out difference between what a polluted science communication environment and an unpolluted one looks like.

And if that doesn't work, then check out what happened when Glen Beck peed himself with excitement over the size of the difference in the science literacy scores of TP members (the same ones featured here) & the rest of the population.

So either 

(1) the brilliant and brilliantly advised Christie made a super shrewd move in appealing to those particular TP members who are out of step with 3/4 of their fellow TP members, and with the same proportion of non-TP conserv/repubs, thereby yanking the rug out from steam-rolling front-runner Jeb Bush, who is obviously being advised by rank amatures on this issue;

or

(2) Christie is a bonehead.

Call me a "contrarian" (someone did the other day for suggesting that it is actually useful to look at data when trying to interpret public opinion on science issues), but I pick bonehead.


Wednesday
Feb042015

What do polluted & nonpolluted science communication environments *look* like? & how about childhood vaccines?....

This is a common theme on this blog.  Maybe it's the only theme, in fact.

Risk perceptions that display the pathology of identity-protective cognition are pathological, both in being rare and in being inimical to public welfare.

We need to get that.

We  need to to learn how to distinguish risk perceptions that evince this pathology from ones that don't.

We need to use evidence-based methods to identify the dynamics that cause some risk issues, none of which is bound to become this way, to take on the characteristics of this pathology.

And we need to recognize our responsibility to use the knowlege we have of these dynamics to minimize the risk that any particular form of science will become infected with the pathology's reason-effacing characteristics.

Because if we don't do all these things, then we will experience many many avoidable instances of this pathology.  And for that, we'll have only ourselves to blame.

 


These data, btw, come from Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem.

Tuesday
Feb032015

Science of Science Communication 2.0, Session 4.1: Trust in/of science 

I swear this was a huge coincidence but this week's session -- #4 -- in Science of Science Communication course ver 2.0 is ... trust in/of science!

The reading packet, distributed about about a week ago, had excerpts from 2009 Pew Report.

But for sure, live version of the class-- happening in few hrs -- will be focusing on 2015 version. Reason is less b/c of substance of 2015 Report (which is pretty much identical to 2009) than b/c of Pew's disappointing decision to hype the 2015 version in a manner that exploited popular misconceptions about declining status & authority of science in U.S. society.  Why that misconception exists and how various actors use it were among the major themes of the assigned readings!

But since I've now said so much about that, I'll just post some questions & open th floor to the "virtual class" participants to have their say.

But before I do, let me just note that next week the topic is -- (mis)communication of perceptions of vaccine-risk perceptions! We are nothing if not topical in this class!

  1. Do the NSF Indicators’ “public science attitude” items measure “trust” in science or of scientists?

  2. Is the Fiske/Dupree study consistent with the public opinion survey results reflected in the NSF Indicators?

  3. Is the Fiske/Dupree experiment internally valid? Externally?

  4. Did the media appropriately characterize the Fiske/Dupree sudy? If not, why not?

  5. Does Gauchat’s study support the inference that individuals who identify themselves as “conservative” are distrustful of science?   Is the study internally and externally valid?

  6. Did the media appropriately characterize the findings of the Gauchat study? If not, why not?

  7. Does the Jelen & Lockett study support any inferences about the relationship between religiosity and political partisanship, on the one hand, and trust in/of science? Is the study internally and externally valid?

  8. Does disbelief in evolution evince distrust in or of scientists?  Is acceptance of evolution a valid measure of “trust” in or of science? How are these last two questions related?

  9. What explains the perception that there is distrust in or of science, either in the public generally or among particular segments of it?  Does the Kahan study suggest an answer? Is that study valid, internally and externally?

  10. Are conflicts over who trusts or distrusts science something to worry about? Do they affect the quality of the science communication enviornment?

Saturday
Jan312015

Weekend update: Pew's disappointing use of invalid survey methods on GM food risk perceptions

So here’s a follow-up on “grading of Pew's public attitudes toward science report”--& why I awarded it a “C-” in promoting informed public discussion, notwithistanding its earning an “A” in scholarly content (the data separated from the Center’s commentary, particularly the press materials it issued).

This follow-up says a bit more about the unscholarly way Pew handled public opinion on GM food risks.

Some background points:

1. It’s really easy for people to form misimpressions about “public opinion.”

Why? Because, for one thing, figuring out what “people” (who actually usually can’t usefully be analyzed w/o breaking down into groups) “think” about anything is not anything anyone can directly observe; like lots of other complicated processes, it is something we have to try to draw inferences about on the basis of things that we can observe but that are only correlates or proxies of it.

For another, none of us is in the position via our personal, causal observations to collect a valid sample of the sorts of observable correlates or proxies.  We have very limited exposure, reflecting the partiality of our own social networks and experiences, to the ways in which “the public” reveals what it thinks.  And it is in fact a feature of human psychology to overgeneralize from imperfect samples like that & make mistakes as a result.

2. One of the things many many many many people are mistaken about as a result of these difficulties is “public opinion” on GM food risks.  The media is filled with accounts of how anxious people are about GM foods.  That’s just not so: people consume them like mad (70% to 80% of the food for sale in a US supermarket contains GMOs). 

Social science researchers know this & have been engaged in really interesting investigations to explain why this is so, since clearly things could be otherwise: there are environmental risks that irrationally scare the shit out of members of the US public generally (e.g., nuclear waste disposal). Moreover, European public opinion is politically polarized on GM foods, much the way the US is on, say, climate change.  So why not here (Peters et al. 2007; Finucane, M.L. & Holup 2005; Gaskell, Bauer, Durant & Allum 1999)? Fascinating puzzle!

That isn’t to say there isn’t controversy about GM foods in American society. There is: in some sectors of science; in politics, where efforts to regulate GM foods are advanced with persistence by interest groups (organic food companies, small farmers, entrepreneurial environmental groups) & opposed with massive investments by agribusiness; and in very specialized forms of public discourse, mainly on the internet.

Indeed, the misimpression that GM foods are a matter of general public concern exists mainly among people who inhabit these domains, & is fueled both by the vulnerability of those inside them to generalize inappropriately from their own limited experience and by the echo-chamber quality of these enclaves of thought.

3.  The point of empirical public opinion research is to correct the predictable mistakes that arise from dynamics like these.

One way empirical researchers have to tried to do this in the case of GM foods is by showing that in fact members of the public have no idea what GM foods are. 

They fail miserably if you measure their knowledge of GMOs

They also say all kinds of silly things about GM foods that clearly aren’t true: e.g., that they scrupulously avoid eating them and that they believe GM foods are already heavily regulated and subject to labeling requirements (e.g., Hallman et al. 2013).

That people are answering questions in a manner that doesn’t correspond to reality shows that the survey questions themselves are invalid. They are not measuring what people in the world think—b/c people in the world aren’t thinking anything at all about GM foods; they are just eating them. 

The only things the questions are measuring—the only thing they are modeling—is how people react to being asked questions they don’t understand. 

This was a major theme, in fact, of the National Academy of Science’s recent conference on science communication & GMOs.  So was the need to try to get this information across to the public, to correct t the pervasive misimpression that GM foods are in fact a source of public division in the U.S.

So what did Pew do?  It issued survey items that serious social science researchers know are invalid and promoted the results in exactly the way that fosters the misimpression those researchers are trying to correct!

Pew asked members of their general public sample, “Do you think it is generally safe or unsafe to eat genetically modified foods?” 

Thirty-seven percent answered “generally safe,” 57% “generally UNsafe” and 6% “don’t know/Refused.”

Eighty-eight percent of the "scientist" (AAAS member) sample, in contrast, answered "generally safe."

Pew trumpted this 51% difference, making it the major attention-grabber in their media promotional materials and Report Commentary.

This is simply pathetic. 

As an elite scholarly research operation, Pew knows that this survey item did not measure any sort of opinion that exists in the U.S. public. Pew researchers know that members of the public don't know anything about GM foods.  They know the behavior of members of the public in purchasing and consuming tons of food containing GM foods proves their is no meaningful level of concern about the risks of GM foods! 

Indeed, Pew had to know that the responses to their own survey reflected simple confusion on the part of their survey respondents.

Pew couldn't possibly have failed to recognize that because (as eagle-eye blog reader @MW pointed out) another question Pew posed to the respondents was whether “When you are food shopping, how often, if ever, do you LOOK TO SEE if the products are genetically modified?” 

Fifty-percent answered “always or sometimes.” 

This is patently ridiculous, of course, since there is nothing to see in the labels of foods in US grocery stores that indicates whether they contain GMOs. 

This is the sort of question—like the ones that show that the US public believes that there already is GM food labeling in the US, and is generally satisfied with “existing” information on them (Hallman et al. 2013)—that researchers use to show that survey items on GM food risks are not valid: these items are eliciting confusion from people who have no idea what they are being asked.

And here’s another thing: immediately before asking these two questions, Pew used an introductory prompt that stated “Scientists can change the genes in some food crops and farm animals to make them grow faster or bigger and be more resistant to bugs, weeds, and disease.”

That’s a statement that it is quite reasonable to imagine will generate a sense of fear or anxiety in survey takers.  So no surprise that they when one then asks them, “Oh are you worried about this,” and “do you (wisely, of course) check to see if this weird scary thing has been done to your food?!” people answer “oh, yes!”

Even more disturbing, the questeion immediately before that was whether people are worried about pesticides – a topic that will predictably raise risk apprehension level generally and bias upward respondents' perceptions of other putative risk sources in subsequent questions (e.g., Han, Lerner & Keltner 2007).

Sigh.

Bad pollsters use invalid questions on matters of public policy all the time.

They ask members of the American public whether they “support” or “oppose” this or that policy or law that it is clear most Americans have never heard of.  They then report the responses in a manner that implies that the public actually has a view on these things.

Half the respondents in a general population survey won't know-- or even have good enough luck to guess-- the answer to the multiple-choice question "how long is the term of a U.S. Senator?" Only 1/3 of them can name their congressional Representative, and only 1/4 of whom can name both of their Senators.

Are we really supposed to take seriously, then, a poll that tells us 55% of them have an opinion on the “NSA’s telephonic metadata collection policy”?!

Good social science researchers are highly critical of this sort of sensationalist misrepresentation of what is really going on in public discourse (Krosnick, Malhorta & Mittal 2014; Bishop 2005; Shuman 1998).

Pew has been appropriately critical of the use of invalid survey items in the past too, particularly when the practice is resorted by policy advocates, who routinely construct survey items to create the opinion that there is “majority support” for issues people have never heard of (Kohut 2010). 

So why, then, would Pew engage in what certainly looks like exactly this sort of practice here?

* * *

A last point.

Some very sensible correspondents on Twitter (a dreadful forum for meaningful conversation) wondered whether an item like Pew’s, while admittedly invalid as a measure of what members of the public are actually thinking now, might be a good sort of “simulation” of how they might respond if they learned more.

That’s a reasonable question, for sure.

But I think the answer is no

If a major segment of the US public were to become aware of GM foods—what they are, what the evidence is on their risks and benefits—the conditions in which they did so would be rich with informational cues and influences (the identity, e.g., of the messengers, what their peers are saying etc) of the sort that we know have a huge impact on formation of risk perceptions.

It’s just silly to think that the experience of getting telephone call from a faceless pollster asking strange questions about matters on has never considered before can be treated as giving us insight into the reactions such conditions would be likely to produce.

We could try to experimentally simulate what those conditions might be like; indeed, we could try to simulate alternative versions of them, and try to anticipate what effect they might have on opinion formation.

But the idea that the experience of a respondent in a simple opinion survey like Pew’s is a valid model of that process is absurd.  Indeed, that’s one of the things that experimental simulations of how people react to new technologies have shown us.

It's also what real-world experience teaches: just ask the interest groups who sponsored defeated referenda in states they targeted after polls showed 80% support for labeling.

But in any case, if that’s what Pew thought it was doing—simulating how people would think about GM food risks if they were to start thinking of them—they should have said so.  Then people would not have formed a misimpression about what the question was measuring.

Instead, Pew said only that they had done a survey that documents a “gap” between what members of the public think about GM food risks and scientists do.

Their survey items on GM food risks do no such thing.

And that they would claim otherwise, and reinforce rather than correct public misimpressions, is hugely disappointing.

Refs

Bishop, G.F. The illusion of public opinion : fact and artifact in American public opinion polls (Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 2005).

Finucane, M.L. & Holup, J.L. Psychosocial and cultural factors affecting the perceived risk of genetically modified food: an overview of the literature. Soc Sci Med 60, 1603-1612 (2005). 

Gaskell, G., Bauer, M.W., Durant, J. & Allum, N.C. Worlds apart? The reception of genetically modified foods in Europe and the US. Science 285, 384-387 (1999).

Hallman, W., Cuite, C. & Morin, X. Public Perceptions of Labeling Genetically Modified Foods. Rutgers School of Environ. Sci. Working Paper 2013-2001, available at http://humeco.rutgers.edu/documents_PDF/news/GMlabelingperceptions.pdf.

Han, S., Lerner, J.S. & Keltner, D. Feelings and Consumer Decision Making: The Appraisal-Tendency Framework. J Consum Psychol 17, 158-168 (2007).

Kohut, A. Views on climate change: What the polls show. N.Y. Times A22 (June 13, 2010), available at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/14/opinion/l14climate.html?_r=0

Lerner, J.S., Han, S. & Keltner, D. Feelings and Consumer Decision Making: Extending the Appraisal-Tendency Framework. J Consum Psychol 17, 181-187 (2007).

Krosnick, J.A., Malhotra, N. & Mittal, U. Public Misunderstanding of Political Facts: How Question Wording Affected Estimates of Partisan Differences in Birtherism. Public Opin Quart 78, 147-165 (2014).

Peters, H.P., Lang, J.T., Sawicka, M. & Hallman, W.K. Culture and technological innovation: Impact of institutional trust and appreciation of nature on attitudes towards food biotechnology in the USA and Germany. Int J Public Opin R 19, 191-220 (2007).

Shuman, H. Interpreting the Poll Results Better. Public Perspective 1, 87-88 (1998).

 

Friday
Jan302015

Grading the 2015 version of Pew study of public attitudes toward science

So everybody knows that the Pew Research Center released a cool study yesterday on public attitudes toward science & on differences between public & scientists (or at least AAAS members; it’s worth noting that AAAS membership isn't limited to scientists per se).

It was a follow up to Pew’s classic 2009 study of the same -- & it makes just as huge and valuable a contribution to scholarly understanding as that one, in my view.

Lots of people have said lots of things already & will say even more. But here are a few thoughts:

1. Pew does great work in measuring US public attitudes toward science & scientists.  They ask questions that it is sensible to believe measure general public regard for the enterprise of science, and keep track over time.

When one adds their findings to those collected by the National Science Foundation and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which conducts General Social Survey, source of most of the NSF's annual "Science Indicator" measures, one can really form a good view of how the US public feels about science.  

People should ignore all the bogus studies that administer strange questions to M turk workers -- there are tons of those & they always report really weird, sensational findings.  

Who needs data? It's obvious!2.  This report, like the 2009 one, shows that Americans basically love science.  By overwhelming margins, they report admiration for scientists and positive appraisals of what scientists do.  This is consistent with what the NSF Science Indicators, which are released every year, show too.

3.  Still, there is almost this weird reluctance in the Center's press release and commentary to accept or clearly articulate this conclusion!

It's common wisdom that public disputes over science stem from a “creeping anti-science” sensibility in American society.

Scholars who actually study public attitudes toward science, however, know that that view is unsupported by any convincing, valid data.  Indeed, the Pew and NSF Indicator reports show that there is overwhelming trust-- across all demographic, political, and other types of cultural groups (religious & nonreligious, e.g.).  

The 2009 Report helped to try to correct the “common wisdom” in this regard.

But the 2015 Report seems committed to avoiding any confrontation with this view. Instead, by employing a strategy of silence, inapt juxtaposition, and emphasis of irrelevant data, the Center commentary seems committed to consoling those who hold this fundamentally mistaken understanding of the sources of public conflict over science.

mmmmmmm... science ....It's almost as if Pew feels disappointed to pop the balloon of self-reinforcing popular misunderstanding on this issue with the needle of its own data.

4. Consider the "gap" between scientists & public on evolution.  

Yes, it's there.

But it is well established that public opinion responses to the question “do you believe in human evolution” have zero connection to what people know about either evolutionary science or science in general. 

It's also perfectly clear that this "gap" in public and scientific understandings has nothing to do with public respect for scientists.  

The 2009 Pew Report made that clear, actually, reporting data showing that those who said they "disbelieved in" evolution as well as those who said they "did" both had highly positive views of science's contribution to society.

The Report and Alan Leshner’s commentary for the 2009 Report both emphasized that there was no meaningful differences in that regard between people who said science sometimes conflicts w/ their religious views & those who said it doesn't.

Nothing at all has changed--nothing. But is there anything comparable in this yr's report? Nope!

Leshner himself did write a very thoughtful commentary in Science. 

He's still championing respect for and respectful dialogue with diverse memers of the public: good for him; he's a real science-of-science-communication honey badger!

But even he seemed to think that getting his message across required indulging the "creeping anti-science" meme, warning that "the public's perceptions of scientific expertise and trustworthiness" risk being "compromised whenever information confronts people's personal, personal, or religious views"-- conclusions that actually seem completely contrary to the data presented in both 2009 and 2015.

5. Same w/ the “gap” on climate change.  

It's clear that climate change opinions don't measure either science comprehension, knowledge of climate science in particular, or respect for or attitudes toward science.  

In 2009, Pew wanted people to see, too, that public conflict over climate change did not originate in any disagreement about the value of science or trustworthiness of scientists. It emphasized that both climate-change "believing" & "disblieving" members of the public had the same positive views in this regard.

Not so in the 2015 report, where the "gap" on climate change is repeatedly used to qualify the finding that the public has high regard for science. (Interesting that only 87% of AAAS members indicated they "believe in" AGW; I'm sure they understand the evidence for AGW and even use the evidence "at work.")

What makes this all the more strange is that the 2015 Report recognizes that the public's disagreement over AGW mirrors a public disagreement over what scientific consensus is on this issue (a phenomenon that can be attributed to ideologically biased assessments of evidence on both issues).  

In other words accepters and nonacepters alike believe "science is on their side" -- much the way that nations at war believe that God is....

For sure, the debate is alarming and contrary to enlightened democratic decisionmaking.  

But if anyone thinks the source of the debate is lack of science comprehension on the part of the public or lack of public confidence and trust in science, they are themselves ignoring all the best evidence we have on these issues!

Pew's job is to help remedy this widespread form of science-of-science-communication illiteracy.

6. The data reported on public attitudes on GM foods is super disappointing.  

Social scientists know that surveying the public on issues that it has never heard of generates absolutely meaningless results.

GM food risks are in that category. 

Consider:

American consumers’ knowledge and awareness of GM foods are low. More than half (54%) say they know very little or nothing at all about genetically modified foods, and one in four (25%) say they have never heard of them.

Before introducing the idea of GM foods, the survey participants were asked simply ”What information would you like to see on food labels that is not already on there?” In response, most said that no additional information was needed on food labels. Only 7% of respondents raised GM food labeling on their own. . . .

Only about a quarter (26%) of Americans realize that current regulations do not require GM products to be labeled.

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

Americans don't fear GM foods; they eat them.

No meaningful inferences whatsoever can be drawn from the "gap" in attitudes between members of public & scientists on this issue.  

Very un-Pew-like to play to common misunderstandings about this by treating the “gap” between public and scientists on GM as supporting any meaningful inferences about anything.

6.  Also very out of character is Pew's calling attention to minute changes in the overwhelming levels of support for science reflected in particular items:

I'm sure they were just trying to throw a bone to all those who "just know" -- b/c it's so obvious-- that we are living in the "age of denial." But if the latter seize on these changes as meaningful, they'll only be making fools of themselves. 

For perspective, here are comparable data, collected over time, from NSF Indicators (click on them for larger displays).  


That anyone can see in these sort of data evidence for a "creeping anti-science" sensibility in the general US population or any segment of it is astonishing -- something that itself merits investigation by public opinion researchers, like the excellent ones who work for Pew!

But the bottom line is, the job of those researchers isn't to feed these sorts of persistent public misimpressions; it's to correct them!

* * *

How would I grade the Pew Study, then?

“A” for scholarly content.”

“C -” for contribution to informed public understanding.

Overall: “B.”

Thursday
Jan292015

Science of Science Communication 2.0, Session 3.1: Science comprehension: who knows what about what—and how?

Okay, this is "session 3" post for virtual "Science of Science Communication 2.0."  The real space version got snowed out!  

But the discussion I was hoping for (based on these readings) was mainly one on how group affinities contribute to transmission of scientific knowledge.  

"Cultural cognition" is normally associated with idea that such affinities distort such transmission.  

But my hunch is that cultural cognition is in fact integral to citizens' reliable apprehension of what is known to science; that the sorts of pathologies that we see in which people with different cultural identities use their reason to form and persist in opposing views on risks and related facts is a consequence of a polluted science communication environment that disables the normally reliable reasoning strategies people use (including observation of what others who know what's what about what are doing and saying) to figure out what is known...

But I admit to being uncertain about this!  Indeed, I readily admit to being uncertain about everything, including the things I am most confident that I think I understand; certainly I am committed (I hope able) to revise anything I blelieve on the basis of any valid evidence I encounter.

But here I am not even as confident as I'd like to be about the state of the evidence on my conjecture -- that cultural cognition is not a bias, but is integral to the normal process by which diverse people usually converge on the best evidence.  And so I was & remain eager for reflections by others!

Below are the questions I posed to motivate student reading & orient discussion for this session.  Next session, in which we'll be doing "double time" to make up for lost class, will feature trust in/of science...

  1. What is the relationship between the sort of critical reasoning proficiency featured by Baron’s “actively open-minded thinking” and Dewey’s understanding of “scientific thinking”?
  2.  

  3. Is critical reasoning proficiency essential for science comprehension on the part of a non-scientist, either in her capacity as personal decisionmaker, member of civil society, or democratic citizen?
  4.  

  5. Are conflicts over policy-relevant science plausibly attributable to deficits in critical reasoning proficiency?
  6.  

  7. Does the effective use of scientific knowledge by non-scientists—in the various capacities in which their decisions should (by their own lights) be informed by it—depend on their being able to comprehend what it is that science knows?
  8.  

  9. Is it possible for citizens to reliably recognize who knows what is known by science without being able to comprehend what it is those individuals know?  If so, how? Does their ability to do that depend on their possessing the sort of reasoning proficiency emphasized by either Baron or Dewey? If not, what does it depend on?
  10.  

  11. How does Popper’s understanding of the transmission of scientific knowledge relate to Miller’s, Dewey’s, and Baron’s?
  12.  

  13. Do group affinities—ones founded on common outlooks and values—promote transmission of scientific knowledge or inhibit it?  In either case, how?
Wednesday
Jan282015

There is pervasive cultural consensus on the value of childhood vaccines in the U.S.; so why do people *think* that being anti-vaccine reflects any particular cultural predisposition?

A reporter who was covering the current measles outbreak asked me a question about the connection between vaccine hesitancy—the reluctance of parents to get their kids vaccinated—and the contribution cultural or political predispositions make to vaccine risk perceptions. 

In the background of the question were a couple of facts that this reporter gets but that a lot other reporters and people generally don’t: first, that parents in the US along with rest of the general public in this country are overwhelmingly pro-vaccine; and second, that the people who belong to the small segment of the population that is anti-vaccine are big time outliers in all the social groups—cultural, political, religious and so forth—that make up our basic inventory of “who” people are.

Someone didn't get the memo ... click to see whoOn the first point, briefly: Despite the media din to the contrary, the US has enjoyed impressively high childhood  vaccine rates—over 90%, the public health target, for all the recommended universal vaccinations, including MMR—for going on 15 yrs.  The percentage of parents not getting their kids vaccinated has remained below 1% that entire time.

Fortunately, the Wakefield affair, which did have a significant impact on vaccine behavior in the UK (maybe other countries, too, but the truth is, many European countries have lower vaccine rates than they should have had for a long time), didn’t have a comparable effect in the US.

Vac rate trends? Ask the CDC...On the second: As documented in various places including the CCP  Vaccine Risk Perceptions and Ad Hoc Risk Communication study, there is no meaningful correlation between vaccine risk perceptions and the sorts of characteristics that usually indicate membership in one or another cultural group.  

The correlation between such risk perceptions and political outlooks, e.g., is close to nil.

What's the correlation between vaccine risk perceptions and political outlooks? Click & see for self

Likewise, contrary to the empirically uninformed, illiberal, counterproductive "anti-science trope," the cultural groups whose members are divided on climate change and evolution are in fact in overwhelming agreement that vaccine benefits outweigh their risks. 

Still, the reporter wanted to know, given all this, how come it appears to him and others that there is a correlation between anti-vaccine, or concerned about vaccine risks, and a cultural style that is, I guess, left-leaning in politics, anti-industry or –capitalist, highly “naturalist” etc.

What's the relationship between non-acceptance of global warming or human evolution and belief that vaccines are unsafe? Click for answerVery reasonable question.

What’s more, I don’t have an answer that I’m particularly confident in! 

I do have some conjectures, and so I thought I’d share them here & ask others what they thought.

Also, at about the time I was writing this email, Chris Mooney was addressing this same question in thoughtful essay that I encourage others to read—I think my views are pretty close to his!

My thoughts on this question:

I'm really not sure what to say, but my hunch is that there is a huge sampling bias risk here when we try to draw on own experience to figure out vaccine risk perceptions.  

It's clearly the case -- just no arguing w/ it, really! -- that the vast majority of people in US, including parents, are not hostile to but in fact very favorable disposed to childhood vaccinations.  This is true across all the sorts of cultural groups that normally come to mind when we think of risk issues like climate change etc. where there really are very deep & strong cultural divisions.

Yet some people are clearly anti-vaccine. If we see them, what are we to make of them?  

It's hardly a surprise that they will have integrated their views into their cultural understandings generally.  That is, there will be coherence, for them, in their positions on vaccines and their ones on various other issues.  

So if they happen, say, to be the kind of person who has an egalitarian, collectivist style & is anxious about environmental issues & suspicious of corporations and the like, then their positions on vaccines will likely be of a piece with that.

But then if we were to say to ourselves, -- "a ha! Being anti-vaccine coheres with being that sort of person!," we'd be making a mistake.  At a minimum, we'd be making a mistake b/c we'd be neglecting to consider all the people who share that person's cultural style -- and indeed hold the standard collection of risk perceptions that go along with it -- but who don't have anxieties about vaccines!  Those people would outnumber the anti-vaccine mom or moms we are talking about -- by orders of magnitude.

We'd also be at risk of making another mistake.  

That particular anti-vaccine group of moms you ran into -- they might not even be representative of all the other anti-vaccine folks.  Indeed, if you met them at whole foods (I have no idea if this applies to you, but you'll get the idea), then likely your sense of what the anti-vaccine people are like is undercounting all the anti-vaccine people who don't shop there.  They don't shop there b/c doing so would be contrary to their cultural style.  They might be very conservative -- maybe they are religious fundamentalists of one sort or another.  Those might be people you never happen to run into!  As a result, the people who are like that who are anti-vaccine will be missing from your mental census.

Of course, so will all the people "like that" who are not anti-vaccine.  They will, just as in the case of the moms at whole foods, outnumber the anti-vaccine members of their groups by orders of magnitude.  But possibly b/c they are more likely to encounter anti-vaccine types in the community in which they interact w/ people most of the time, they might also have a misimpression that anti-vaccine people actually are more likely to hold values like theirs!

Now one more really really important thing:  I actually am pretty convinced that most of the parents whose kids miss vaccinations are not part of any movement.  

The "movement" is there, but it is small & gets way more attention than it deserves precisely b/c it is loud, in people's faces, and really good at provoking hysterical denunciations of them.  

But more importantly, there's every reason to believe that most of the parents whose kids are not getting vaccinated don't belong to any movement at all.  These are parents who are just nervous, not agitated.

They aren't loud and obnoxious.

They aren't demonstrating or getting in anyone's face.  

 They are not wearing buttons saying "vaccines give kids autism! McCarthy for President   in '68 '16!"

And for that reason it's actually hard to find them--which is very unfortunate b/c almost certainly they could be reassured by a good public health professional trained to give them sensible, evidence-informed risk counseling.

The best work being done on vaccine hesitancy is the research to develop a screening instrument for new parents to identify which ones are likely to end up w/ kids who miss vaccination.  With that sort of instrument in hand, ongoing empirical research to develop an effective risk counseling protocol targeted at these very parents could be carried out much more effectively too.

Rather than propagating the misimpression that a “growing crisis of public confidence” among “a large and growing number” of “otherwise mainstream parents” has generated an “erosion in immunization rates”  in the U.S. (these are in fact demonstrably false claims), those who truly want to make universal vaccination in this country even more effective should be calling for more resources for the scientists doing this excellent and vital research.

It's fine to criticize the small cadre of attention seekers who are spreading misinformation about vaccines. They are a bunch of idiots & a menace etc.  

But engaging in relentless, self-important, attention-grabbing displays of denunciation in return is itself dangerous for the vaccine science communication envirionment, and distracts us from what's really needed: the development of valid, reliable methods that practioners can use to identify the much larger group of parents who are merely anxious and supply them with tailored risk counseling that would give them the same sense of relief & happiness that everyone else gets from knowing that their kids won't get the horrible disease that were our grandparents’, great grandparents’, great-great grandparents’ et al’s biggest nightmare.

Saturday
Jan242015

Weekend update: Are GM foods toxic for the science communication environment? Vice versa? (video lecture & slides)

The National Academy of Sciences Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences program has posted videos from its recent Public Engagement with Gentically Modified Organisms symposium.  It was a really great event with lots of interesting presentation and even more fascinating discussion and debate among the participants.

I gave a presentation on the first day: "Are GM foods toxic for the science communication environment? Vice versa?" (slides here).  Also was on a panel the last day with science communication genius Rick Borchelt,  director of the Office for Communications and Public Affairs Department of Energy; and with Helene Dillard, from UC Davis, and Molly Jahn, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, both of whom offered harrowing insights into the contentious atmosphere surrounding academic research on GMOs and the difficulties that poses for scientists who want to participate in public deliberations on the subject.

Strongly recommend you watch all the videos if you didn't get a chance to attend or watch live (or even if you did and the alternative is to, say, grade fall semester exams!)

Event highlight: Scheufele demonstrates "performative risk communication" by eating bowl of Frankenberry (he did get sick, but only b/c the cereal had been sitting around since 1973)

Friday
Jan232015

Should we care about the public's *climate science* literacy? What is "ordinary climate science intelligence" *for*?

A friend of mine posed this very appropriate, very basic,  very important question/challenge to me after reading the Measurement Problem:

One thing i was left wondering after reading the paper was "should we care about people's OCSI ["Ordinary Climate Science Intelligence"] scores"? does "climate science comprehension" matter for anything meaningful? should we invest (any) resources in trying to increase people's science comprehension in this arena? and if so, WHY? does it, for example, correlate with people's ability to meaningfully/productively engage in the sorts of collective decision-making and planning processes happening in southeast florida? or do you simply see it as a valid end, not a means to anything on the "confronting climate change" front? i'm not sure what your take is on this, exactly, as it seems at some points that you do advocate communicators learn how to do exactly this (improve comprehension), perhaps by looking to science teachers who have figured out effective strategies in other contexts (evolution); but at other points (i think) you say that climate sci comprehension has nothing/little to do with the cultural polarization that seems to inhibit any large-scale collective response to the issue (which, as you say, should come as little surprise). or perhaps both of these statements are true to your thinking, but then it's less clear why (for what purpose) you advocate the former (coming back to the question of, "what is climate science comprehension FOR in a culturally polarized world?"). 

My answer:

OSCI items & responsive curves-- click it! On Ordinary Climate Science Intelligence (OCSI) assessment scores: I think the scores are useful for exploring questions and testing hypotheses about why there is public conflict over climate change.

E.g., is the source of public conflict on this issue attributable to differences in comprehension of either the rudimentary mechanisms of this climage change? 

Or perhaps to their “unfamiliarity” with the evidence that climate scientists have compiled on the causes and consequences of it?

OCSI can help to answer those questions: because it shows that members of groups polarized over the existence of climate change and the contribution humans are making to it have comparable understandings (and misunderstandings) about those matters, it gives us less reason to credit those explanations than we’d have otherwise.

Indeed, OCSI helps us to see, too, that survey items that assess public “acceptance” of human-caused climate change simply aren’t measuring anything having to do with knowledge of climate science at all.  They have no correlation whatsoever to scores on a rudimentary climate literacy test and instead cohere with—behave exactly like other observable indicators of—their cultural identities.

As I explain in The Measurement Problem, OCSI was meant essentially to be a model of an assessment test, one designed to examine whether it is possible, with appropriately worded items, to disentangle (unconfound) cultural identity & knowledge when measuring how much people know about climate change.

But if we want to measure people's understandings of climate science, then I am sure it would be possible to do better than OCSI!

Your question, I take it, is actually more basic: given what we can see from OCSI, why should even want to measure how much people understand about climate science? Why should we care?

There's no answer, of course, that doesn’t presuppose some sort of normative goal.

The goal of most people who collecte data on the issues we are interested in is simply to "move the needle" of public opinion on "belief in" human-caused climate change.  For them, I guess the results of the paper suggest that they should "not care" whether anyone comprehends anything meaningful about climate change. Because what they “believe” about human-caused climate change turns out not to have anything to do with what they know.

Indeed, the paper shows that, if the goal is simply the instrumental one of generating public engagement with the issue of climate change, advocates should stop obssessively measuring and minutely analyzing the percentage of the public who say they believe in (accept) human-caused climate change

Again, what people say about that is measures only of their cultural identities—who they are.  Their response to “do you believe in human-caused climate change” questions not only don’t measure what they know.  They don’t even measure whether they are worried and concerned about climate change!

The consistently wrong answers most believes & skeptics give about the extent and nature of the dangers posed by climate change (e.g., that it will cause increases in skin cancer, or prevent plant photosynthesis) strongly suggest that believers and skeptics alike (in the general public at least) are very alarmed, as an emotional or affective matter, about the risks human-caused climate change poses.

What those who are trying to mobilize public opinion in this way should be trying to figure out is why their style of advocacy doesn’t tap into this reservoir of concern but instead reliably, predictably, inevitably triggers the identity-protective response that is reflected in the “No, I don’t, you asshole!” answer that 1/2 the US public gives when asked (over & over & over in polls that aren't advancing anyone's understanding of anything at this point) “do you believe in human-caused climate change?” 

But there are bunch of other goals one could have—I’d say, should have—besides the navel-gazing one of “needle moving.” All of them support developing an even better instrument for assessing what ordinary  people know about the science of climate change.

One is to help ordinary members of the public recognize information important to the decisions that they will make as citizens in self-governing communities the welfare of which will be affected by actions they take in relation to a changing climate.

Another would be to create communication materials that make it possible for the relatively small portion of the population who is genuinely curious about what we know about a changing climate to satisfy that interest.

Another would be to educate young people who might, if they are taught well and made excited by what they learn, become either climate scientists or adults who are genuinely curious about what we know and who, in any event, will become people who need to make decisions informed by the best evidence in their own private lives (as, say, property owners or business people; or farmers) or as citizens whose communities will be affected by climate change.

For all of those goals and related ones, then there will be value in having not an "OCSI" but a variety of them suited for the goal at hand.  

As I said in the paper, e.g., I think it is silly to measure whether citizens  know that the North Pole ice cap melting won't cause flooding; it's enough for them to know that melting ice sheets are creating a risk for people as a result of climate change.

They know that!

But if one's goal is to educate young people, "North Pole" might be a pretty good item -- which is to say, it might actually be contributing to measurement of the latent comprehension capacity that educators should be trying to instill.  So there are values in having OCSIs for these purposes that are actually tied to the sort of knowledge and comprehension capacities that it makes sense for those transmitting scientific information to focus on in the context in which they are operating.

The reason it would be nice to have on OCSI for the "curious consumer of science," too, is so that those who are part of the (truly amazing!) profession that is committed to serving him or her can figure out whether their efforts are working as well as they want.  

For all of these actors, there will be domain-specific “OCSIs” better than the experimental one featured in The Measurement Problem.  But I hope that the experimental OCSI can help those developing these practical, real-world OCSIs to see that they can and must “disentangle” identity and knowledge in constructing them. 

Well, those are my thoughts.  What do you think?

Wednesday
Jan212015

Science of Science Communication 2.0, Session 2.1: What is science literacy? And what is it for?

So yesterday was session 2 of the "real space" version of Science Science Communication course ver 2.0.  The topic was public "science literacy" or "comprehension" & whether the NSF Indicators and other standardized assessments are "measuring what counts."  The list of assigned readings are here.

Rather than summarize or sound off (again; I've done 738 posts on this topic since topic since this blog started in 1973), I thought I'd just post some questions & let you-- the 14 billion students who enrolled students in the "virtual" version of course (most of whom registered via Tamar Wilner's site) -- say what you think (& of course, ask and answer different questions if you like).

  1. How important is general scientific knowledge for a general member of the public? Does he or she have to understand particular bodies of science or be able to comprehend scientific evidence to be able reliably to identify and use of scientific knowledge in his or her personal life? In his or her role as a democratic citizen?

  2. Is the NSF science indicators battery a valid assessment of science literacy? What is the battery measuring exactly? And how reliably?

  3. What does Miller’s “civic science literacy” (CSL) measure? Are the elements of knowledge or the dispositions it measures essential for individuals to be able to recognize and use valid scientific knowledge in their lives?  What sort of evidence is there on that question?

  4. Is administering a public “science literacy” test to scientists a useful way to validate such a test?

  5. How does Miller’s CSL  relate to Dewey’s position that “scientific method” just “is thinking”? What might a measure of scientific literacy—or however one might characterize it—look like?  

 

 

Sunday
Jan182015

What does & doesn't count as valid evidence of "ideologically motivated reasoning" & "symmetry" of the same

A friend wrote to me posing a question, implicit in which are a bunch of issues about what counts as valid evidence of motivated reasoning & the symmetry of it across the left-right "spectrum" -- or cultural worldview spectra.  

I've addressed many of these issues, most more than once, in various posts.

 Indeed, I have on many occasions noted that almost everything I say is something I've said before, including that I've already noted on many occasions that everything I have to say is something I seem already to have said before. I think this is just sort of normal actually, when one is engaged in a sort "rolling conversation" w/ a fuzzy set of participants whose aim is reciprocal exchange of ideas for mutual enlightenment, & I should just stop talking about this.

That's the first time I've said that, but I'm sure not the last....  

But in any case, I thought I'd share this particular exchange. Maybe it will be clearer or more accessible than some of the others or simply increase the likelihood that someone who can get value from my views (very possibly by being able to see more clearly why he or she thinks I've made an error!) will find & get value out of these reflections on the nature of what sorts of study designs support inferences on "ideologically motivated reasoning" and asymmetry.

My friend:

I want to say that your research has found that more numerate people are more biased on both ends of the political spectrum, but my recollection is that what you find is actually that more numerate people do not believe more in the reality of climate change.  My question is: Have you looked at the interaction – e.g., done a median split on numeracy and then compared the polarization graphs between the numerate and innumerate?

Me:

I don't think what you've asked me to show you can support the inference that any particular form of reasoning proficiency ("science literacy," "numeracy," "cognitive reflection" etc.)  magnifies ideologically motivated reasoning "symmetrically" (let's say) with respect to ideology. 

But I'll show you what you asked to see first, before explaining why.

A. "Looking at" the magnification of polarization conditional on science comprehension

There are a variety of ways to graphically display what you are asking for--a view, essentially, of the differential in polarization at different levels of reasoning proficiency.

I think what I've done below -- splitting the "ideology" predictor & doing a lowess for each 1/2 of the sample separately in relationship to science comprehension -- is the best, or better in any case than splitting both continuous measures and giving you two pairs of %'s (for left-leaning & right-leaning at "below" & "above" avg); this way you get the information benefit of the continuous science-comprehension measure.

 

These are the same data from your slide 7.

With the lowess, one can see pretty readily that the gap between "left-" & "right-leaning" respondents gets progressively larger from -1 SD (16th percentile) to +1 SD (84th) on OSI_2.0 & then pretty much levels out.

(As you know, "OSI_2.0" is a 1-dimensional science-comprehension measure that consists of "science literacy," numeracy & cognitive reflection items. It was formed using a 2PL Item response theory model. For details, see 'Ordinary Science Intelligence': A Science Comprehension Measure for Use in the Study of Science Communication, with Notes on 'Belief in' Evolution and Climate Change.). 

B. But what are we looking at? 

So if one is trying to get the practical point across, this justifies saying things like, "polarization tends to increase, not abate, as individual with opposing political or cultural outlooks become more proficient in making sense of scientific information" etc.

But one can't on this basis infer that motivated reasoning is being magnified conditional on reasoning proficiency-- or as you put it, that "more numerate people are more biased on both ends of the political spectrum."

The question-- is human-caused climate change occurring?-- is a factual one that presumably has a correct answer. Thus, one "side" -- "liberals" or "conservatives" -- is presumably becoming more likely to get the correct answer as reasoning proficiency increases.

It is thus possible that motivated reasoning is increasing conditional on reasoning proficiency for the side that is becoming more likely to get the "wrong answer" but dissipating conditional on reasoning proficiency for the side that is becoming more likely to get the right answer!

That inference isn't logically compelled, of course.  If one is predisposed to believe something that happens to be true, then motivated reasoning will increase the likelihood of "getting the right answer."

But in that case, your getting the right answer won't prove you are smart; it will show only that you were lucky, at least on that particular issue.

The point, though, is that the evidence we are looking at above is equally consistent with the inference that motivated reasoning is being magnified by enhanced reasoning proficiency and the inference that ideologically motivated reasoning is "asymmetric" with respect to ideology. 

C. Observing what we really are trying to figure out

There is, I think, only one way to determine whether greater polarization conditional on greater reasoning proficiency is being caused by an ideologically symmetric (more or less) magnification of motivated reasoning: by looking at how people reason independently of whether they are getting the right answer.

What we need to see is how biased or unbiased the reasoning of those on both "sides" is as each side's members display greater reasoning proficiency.

I'll show you results from two studies that bear on this.

1. Motivated system 2 reasoning 

In the first (Kahan 2013), subjects evaluated "evidence" of the validity of the cognitive reflection test as a measure of "reflective & open-minded" reasoning. The experimental manipulation was the representation that those who score higher are more likely or instead less likely to accept evidence of human-caused global warming.

One might like to use a valid test of reflective reasoning (particularly an objective, performance based one like CRT, say, as opposed to the self-reporting ones like "need for cognition" that a fair number of researchers persist in using despite their dubious validity) to test the oft-asserted claim that "right-leaning" individuals are more "dogmatic" and "closed minded" etc. than "left-leaning" ones.

But if one is moved to selectively credit or discredit evidence of the validity of an open-mindedness test based on whether it supports the conclusion that those who share one's own ideology are "more open-minded and reflective" than are one's ideological opposites, one's own ideologically motivated reasoning will prevent one from being able to carry out such a test.

Indeed, if both "left-leaning" and "right-leaning" individuals display this effect, then we can conclude that both side are disposed to be unreflective & closed-minded in their thinking on this very issue.

That's what we see, of course:

If you can't make this out, click for enlarged version (and then by all means book an appointment with an optometrist!)

How likely subjects were to credit the evidence that the CRT was "valid" in this study was conditional on the interaction of experimental treatment and ideology: that is, the more conservative one becomes, the more likely one is to conclude the CRT is valid in the "believers score lower" condition and invalid in "skeptics score lower" one; vice versa as people become more liberal.

This inference doesn't depend on the CRT being an "open-mindedness" measure: the design would have worked just as well if the measure whose validity was being assessed was a fictional "open-mindedness" one.

Nevertheless, the effect observed is conditional on the subjects' CRT scores: the higher their score, the more likely they were to display this bias.

Accordingly, we can see that the form of critical-reasoning proficiency measured by CRT is indeed magnifying ideologically biased information processing.

2. Motivated numeracy

In the second study (Kahan et al. 2013), subjects performed a standard "covariance detection" problem.

The problem is diagnostic of a tendency to over-rely on heuristic reasoning of the sort that involves trying to infer causation from examining  the differential between the number of "got better" & "got worse" in only the fictional-study "treatment" condition.  That approach generates the wrong answer.  

As expected, in the control condition of our study (effectiveness of a new skin-rash treatment), there was a very strong correlation between correctly answering the problem and numeracy (indeed, one has to be at about the 90th percentile before there is even a 70% chance of getting it right).

But in the treatment condition of our study -- in which the outcome of a "gun control ban" experiment was manipulated-- subjects higher in numeracy were more likely to get the correct answer only if the data, properly interpreted, supported the position consistent with their own ideology.

So again, we see that critical reasoning is being used opportunistically: evidence is being assessed correctly depending on whether it supports an ideologically congenial outcome.

We see, too, that critical reasoning is magnifying this effect; subjects who are higher in numeracy are reliably summoning their greater proficiency to resist heuristic reasoning only when heuristic reasoning generates an uncongenial answer.

And finally, we are seeing that the effect is symmetric. Or in any case, we see it in both the left and right. (If you want to discuss whether it is "bigger" in the right, I'm happy to go into that; the answer is actually "no"-- although many people perceive that)!

3. Lesson: Manipulate motivating stake, measure "likelihood ratio"

Note that in both of these experiments, the "high proficiency" are "more polarized" than their "low proficiency" counterparts. They are "better," more reliable, in fitting the evidence to their ideological predispositions.

If this is how people process information in the world, then we will see, in an observational study, that those higher in proficiency are more polarized. We'll be able to infer, moreover, that this is the result of the magnification of biased information processing & not a result of one "side" getting the "right answer."

Indeed, the whole point of the experimental design was to unconfounding quality of reasoning from "right answer." This was done, in effect, by manipulating the motivational stake of the subjects to credit one and the same piece of evidence.

In Bayesian terms, we are demonstrating that subjects opportunistically adjust the likelihood ratio in response to an identity-protective motivation unrelated to assessing the truth-value weight of the new information (Kahan 2015).

This is a more general point: studies that purport to show "motivated reasoning" or "biased assimilation" by looking at the equivalent of "posterior probabilities" are almost always invalid. They are consistent with the inference that "one side is biased," or even that "neither side is," because differences in opinion after review of evidence is consistent with different priors or pre-treatment effects (consideration of the evidence in question or its equivalent) before the study. One should manipulate the stake the subjects have in the outcome & assess how that effects the likelihood ratio assigned to one and the same piece of evidence -- conceptually speaking (Kahan 2013).

References

Saturday
Jan172015

Weekend update: More on HPV vaccine disaster (Science of Science Communication 2.0, Session 1)

Tamar Wilner has a great "reaction paper" response to the Session 1 materials on the "HPV vaccine disaster."  She asks, provocatively, whether the "media ... manufacture[d] the HPV vaccine controversy" and then answers, moderately, "well, probably not" while flagging difficult issues for science-communication journalists about their role in covering science issues that become connected to cultural controversy.

Read Tamar's post for yourselves-- & comment, if you have anything to add.

I've posted my comment, both below, as a comment, and on the Session 1.1 post, and at Tamar's site.  I'm gonig to close comments here so that the discussion doesn't get too fractured.

Read the rest at Tamar Wilner's site!

Thursday
Jan152015

National Academy Conference on Science Communication & GMOs

This is where I am today.

Tune in via webcast!

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