follow CCP

Recent blog entries
popular papers

Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing

What Is the "Science of Science Communication"?

Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem

Ideology, Motivated Cognition, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study

'Ideology' or 'Situation Sense'? An Experimental Investigation of Motivated Reasoning and Professional Judgment

A Risky Science Communication Environment for Vaccines

Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government

Making Climate Science Communication Evidence-based—All the Way Down 

Neutral Principles, Motivated Cognition, and Some Problems for Constitutional Law 

Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus

The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Science Literacy and Climate Change

"They Saw a Protest": Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction 

Geoengineering and the Science Communication Environment: a Cross-Cultural Experiment

Fixing the Communications Failure

Why We Are Poles Apart on Climate Change

The Cognitively Illiberal State 

Who Fears the HPV Vaccine, Who Doesn't, and Why? An Experimental Study

Cultural Cognition of the Risks and Benefits of Nanotechnology

Whose Eyes Are You Going to Believe? An Empirical Examination of Scott v. Harris

Cultural Cognition and Public Policy

Culture, Cognition, and Consent: Who Perceives What, and Why, in "Acquaintance Rape" Cases

Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition: Explaining the White Male Effect

Fear of Democracy: A Cultural Evaluation of Sunstein on Risk

Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk


Going to be in Oxford area week of Nov. 20? If so, come to Clarendon lectures!

One of my summer projects--preparing these lectures:


How age and political outlooks *interact* in formation of policy positions

So what’s going on here?

The answer isn’t that older people are more conservative than younger ones. Graphically, that would look something like this:

This is a well established pattern. Scholars have advanced two explanations for it. The “personality theory” (PT) holds that various psychological influences cause people to become more conservative as they age (e.g., Cornelis et al. 2009).

The “cohort theory” (CT), in contrast, holds that people tend to form political outlooks that reflect the ideological climate that existed when they were coming of age (late teens to early 20s, basically), & stick with those outlooks over the remainder of their lives (e.g., Ghitza & Gelman 2014; Desilver 2014).   

On the CT account, today’s older conservatives, many of whom became “political grownups” in the Reagan years, are no less conservative than they were when they were younger. At some point, too, we should expect to see an association between age and liberalism as a result of the maturing  of today’s younger liberals, many of whom formed their political outlooks during the Clinton era.

I generally find CT more convincing.

Get your raw data here! But in any event, the patterns featured in the first graphic above don’t convey information about how political outlooks differ in relation to age. Rather they reflect how much more likely older people are than younger ones to form a political-outlook-consistent position on various policies conditional on a shared political outlook.

Thus, a 65 yr. old “conservative Republican” (a “4” and a “6”, respectively, on the five-point ideology measure and seven-point party-identification measure that were combined to form the political-outlook scale) is 13 percentage points (± 8 pct points, LC = 0.95) more likely to oppose “universal healthcare” than a 25 yr. old “conservative Republican.”  The former is also 15 percentage points more likely than the latter (± 9 pct points) to be against use of carbon-emission limits to combat global warming.

What’s more, the same sort of intensification of outlook-consistent preferences shows up for liberals on at least some policies.   E.g., a 65 yr. old “liberal Democrat” (“2” and “2” on the outlook scale’s component items) is 11 percentage points (± 6) to support stricter gun control laws.

So the question is, Why are older citizens either more conservative or more liberal in the intensity of their outlook-consistent policy positions than are younger ones?

Maybe someone has already observed this pattern and presented evidence to support his or her answer to the question I’m asking.  Please let me know if you are familiar with such work!

Meanwhile, here are a couple of conjectures:

1.  Cultural identity vs.  policy. Normally we think that labels like “conservative” and “liberal,” as well as identification with one or the other of the two major political parties, imply a set of policy positions. But maybe that assumption is less supportable for recent generations. Maybe younger people view these sorts of designations as the ones that cohere best with their cultural style, even if their policy positions aren’t completely orthodox in relation to them. 

2.  Measurement drift.  Scales like the one I constructed are supposed to be using observable indicators—here, how people characterize themselves in political terms—to indirectly measure an unobserved, unobservable characteristic—here, their political predispositions.  Such a strategy, however, assumes that the indicators have the same relationship to the unobserved characteristic across the entire population whose dispositions one is trying to measure.  Maybe the labels “conservative” and “liberal,” “Republican” and “Democrat,” don’t mean what they used to and thus supply less reliable guidance on what younger people’s policy positions are.

 Frankly, I don’t find either of these explanations very convincing.

So I’m again asking the 14 billion readers of this blog to share the benefit of their insight and intelligence, in this case by weighing in with their own explanations—and also with ways to carry out empirical tests that would give us reason to view one hypothesis as more likely to be true than some alternative one.

Well? What do you think?


Cornelis, I., Van Hiel, A., Roets, A. & Kossowska, M. Age Differences in Conservatism: Evidence on the Mediating Effects of Personality and Cognitive Style. Journal of Personality 77, 51-88 (2009).

Desilver, D., The politics of American generations: How age affects attitudes and voting behavior. Pew Research Center (2014), available at 

 Ghitza, Y. & Gelman, A. The great society, Reagan’s revolution, and generations of presidential voting. Working paper  (2014), available at 



Forecasting risk perceptions—are we there yet? (Lecture summary plus slides)

No one is afraid of this GM mosquito--because he has been egineered to have a comforting blue color!So as the Twitter-ban saga played out, I made my way to Washington to address the National Academy of Sciences & International Life Sciences Institute. The topic was public perceptions of novel- or emerging-technology risks (slides here).

I told the audience that I had 7 points to make: three about why the Science of Science Communications isn’t “there yet” on risk-perception forecasting; and 4 more about how it might get closer by empirically investigating public reactions to gene drive and related forms of biotech.

I told them I was going to defer the 7 points, though, and simply describe three studies first. This format has really grown on me in the last year or so, despite its violation of the principle that one should start with one’s core thesis to orient the audience & motivate exposition.

The first study was the one reported in “They Saw a Protest.” In that study, we investigated how subjects, playing the role of jury members, would evaluate disputed facts in a case in which demonstrators were suing the police for breaking up a political protest. We found that the subjects conformed their perceptions of the demonstrators’ behavior to the subjects’ positive or negative cultural predispositions toward the demonstrators’ cause (anti-abortion in one condition; anti— don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy for military service, in the other).  This effect was consistent with the dynamic of identity-protective cognition,  which refers to the tendency of people to selectively credit and discredit evidence in patterns that reflect and reinforce their group commitments.

The second study related to a novel form of applied science: nanotechnology. In “Cultural Cognition of Nanotechnology Risks and Benefits,” the subjects were randomly assigned to either a “no information” condition, in which they simply assessed the risks and benefits of nanotechnology; or a “balanced information” condition, in which they made their assessments after first reading a balanced set of statements on nanotechnology risks and benefits.

The responses of subjects in the “no information” condition were pure noise. That shouldn’t surprise anyone: 80% of the subjects said they either knew nothing or very little about nanotechnology.

In the “balanced information” condition, in contrast, the subjects’ split into factions consistent with the their cultural predispositions toward environmental and technological risks generally. As in “They Saw a Protest,” this effect suggested the biased assimilation of factual information functions as a form of identity protection.

The third study concerned the HPV vaccine: “Whose Afraid of the HPV vaccine and Why.”  As in both “They Saw a Protest” and “Cultural Cognition of Nanotechnology Risks and Benefits,” subjects of opposing cultural outlooks polarized over the significance of balanced information.  However, an even more potent influence was the position of “culturally identifiable” public health experts—pictured individuals who pretest subjects perceived to be subscribing to opposing cultural outlooks. We had predicted that identity-protective cognition would produce this effect: subjects’ tacit identification of the cultural outlooks of the experts, we had surmised, would cue the subjects on which position was consistent, and which inconsistent, with the one that predominates in their cultural group.

Against the background of these studies, I started in on the 7 points:

1. “Not there yet”: Culture conflict  affects science but is not about science. The same mechanism—identity-protective reasoning—explains the result in all three studies. Yet the first of them--“They Saw a Protest”—had nothing to do with science. This ought to make us skeptical of science-specific explanations—low science literacy, distrust of scientists, misinformation about science, etc.--of public conflicts over decision-relevant science. What’s needed are studies that examine how science becomes entangled in more general forms of cultural status competition.

2. “Not there yet”: Beware survey artifact. Everyone remembers last year’s wild celebration of three decades of studies predicting how the public will react to nanotechnology as a “novel,” “emerging” source of risk. As the number of consumer goods that incorporate nanotechnology approaches 2000, 80% of the public still admit they have heard nothing or little about this form of applied science. The results we see in lab studies and surveys are classic public-opinion-study artifacts: they tell us only how subjects will react when polled or exposed to experimental manipulations, not how they are assessing information in the real world. Rather than continuing to do studies that lack external validity, we should be using our experience with nanotechnology to figure out why nothing of interest happened to public opinion over this period of time.

3. “Not there yet”: Beware exogenous politicization.  Here is one thing we have arguably learned: that no public conflict over any application of science is “inherently” contentious; something external and contingent has to happen to invest a scientific issue with the sort of antagonistic social meanings that transform positions on the issue into badges of membership in and loyalty to one or another cultural group. The opposing public reactions to the HPV vaccine and the HBV vaccine powerfully illustrate this point.  When we study (genuinely) novel and emerging sources of technological risk, then, we should be trying to identify the sorts of influences that could have this kind of impact on it.

4. “Making it the rest of the way”: Avoid “hyping” (or contributing to same in media). Ringing the societal alarm bell on the basis of survey-artifactual findings of “public concern” (studies of GM food risk perceptions are great examples of this) is not only misleading but potentially dangerous: because how others like them react is an important cue members of the public use to gauge risk, studies that overstate public concerns can create fear, which then feeds on itself—a central lesson of the “social amplification of risk.”

5.  “Making it the rest of the way”: Furnish social proof, not just facts. Again, individual members of the public, lacking the time and expertise to make sense of scientific evidence on matters of consequence to their lives, use the behavior and attitudes of socially competent actors to draw inferences about what is known to science.   Images of such actors evincing confidence in decision-relevant science through their words or actions—not more scientific information—is thus the best way to help citizens align their own behavior with the best possible evidence.

6.  “Making it the rest of the way”: Investigate locally, with field-study methods. Field work should now be the main focus of research of public risk perceptions and science communication.  Studying real decisionmaking in action minimizes the risk of survey artifact.  Moreover, because lab studies are usually low in operational validity, field studies are necessary to determine how the interventions supported externally valid lab studies can be reproduced in the real world.  

 7.  “Making it the rest of the way”: Prefer administrative to political risk-perception management authorities. Administrative proceedings are easier to protect from exogenous politicization than are democratic law-making ones. Again, compare the relative public acceptability of the HPV vaccine to the HBV vaccine.  Conducted correctly, administrative proceedings can still be made responsive, in a confidence-enhancing way, to local stakeholders, whose confidence in decision-relevant science is a prerequisite to its public legitimacy.

* * *

Talk done in less than 30 mins! 


Sunday reading -- & listening: the "backfire effect"

There's been some interesting discussion in the "comments" field (here, e.g.) on whether factual corrections "backfire," thereby entrenching mistaken beliefs that are ideologically congenial.

So here are a couple more logs for the fire on that.

1st, an interview of Brendan Nyhan, who speculates on whether his own studies suggesting a backfire effect might be wrong ("Walking back the backfire effect"). His willingness to question his own work displays admirable scholarly chracter.

2d, a new empirical study:

I haven't yet read it closely -- hope to later today -- but am curious to see what others think of it.


"Uninhabitable Earth" ... Good #scicomm? 

This article in New York magazine--


--has attracted a lot of critical attention, particularly from climate scientists, who have attacked many of its claims as unsupported by the best available evidence. But at least some commentators think the "alarmism" the story conveys is needed to galvanize public opinion.

So what do the 14 billion regular readers of this blog think? Is the article good science communication?

Also, let's try this: in addition to stating your view, identify what you think is the best argument on the other side.   



Thanks to 14 billion speaking as 1, is free once more!

Besieged by 14 billion frustrated, angry posts, Twitter relented & lifted the ban on tweets linking to www.cultural (an episode that now ranks 3d on the list of strangest thing ever to happen to the site on the internet; see one & two).

On net, this was a super positive experience: the aggravation associated with the loss of 2 days of access for site-related tweets was more than offset by the gratification I experienced upon witnessing this widespread, public-spirited & generous support.

I’m not sure yet whether I owe any particular person $1000 (if I do, he or she should speak up!), but I do owe a much larger quantity of gratitude to many  people.  The way to repay them, I think, is to be sure I follow their example the next time I happen upon someone who is being treated in an arbitrary & capricious way.

Oh, last thing: if a twitter robot was the agent of the temporary ban on links, I want him or her to know that I haven’t changed my position on robots.  All of us – naturally & artificially intelligent —learn from our mistakes!

Small sample of supportive tweets


#freeculturalcognition ... imprisoned in twitter wonderland

For some ill-specified reason, Twitter has decided that this site is too "dangerous" for Twitter users to visit (maybe they are concerned NiV will box their ears).

As a result, it has barred msgs w/ links to  If the unmodified URL is linked in a tweet, the tweet isn't posted:


If a tiny URL is used, the msg makes it through, but clicking on the link directs readers, first, to a scary warning page & then, if one persists, a tiny URL page that identifies the site as a spam source & refuses to resolve the address:

As you can see, the tiny URL page declares that the site has been "blacklisted" by SURBL.  But SURBL in fact gives a clean bill of health:

SURBL has a procedure for getting off its blacklist, but since my site isn't actually on the company's blacklist, it won't disclose to me what those procedures are.... Also, I've checked dozens of other "blacklist" compilers, all of which give the same healthy diagnosis for this site (see below).

Needless to say, I've tried to contact twitter by filling out a "form" that exists for erroneous blacklisting. But when I do that, I get an email that tells me the company can't respond to individual requests & has "closed" the case.

I've tried various "workarounds," only one of which seems effective: linking to the cultural cognition site's squarespace address:  I suspect twitter will catch on to this. But in any case, it is a manifestly inferior substitute for links to the URL, which users of the site--unaware of this weird situation-- will continue to try to use when they are moved to link to site content in their own tweets.

So ... what to do?

Obviously, any advice anyone has about additional ways to free the site will be much appreciated.

But if any of the 14 billion regular subscribers to this site wants to do even more, I'm willing to supply a reward of an "I ❤ Popper/citizen of the Liberal Republic of Science t-shirt" and also $1,000 (seriously!) to anyone who can actually manage to get through to twitter & get them to remove the ban (documentation of steps taken & their causal effect in getting ban lifted must be supplied so I can verify that the reward-seeking intervenor's efforts are the ones that genuinely liberated

Also, twitter users might choose to post protest messages by using the trademarked #freeculturalcogntion hashtag in their tweets.