Don’t be a science miscommunicator’s dope (or dodo)

I’ve blogged about how the NRA uses the expressive “rope-a-dope” tactic to lure gun-control proponents into a style of advocacy that intenstifies cultural antagonism and thus deepens public resistance to engaging sound empirical evidence.

But the same tactic is used–the same trap laid–by enemies of constructive public engagement with decision-relevant science in other areas. Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos is a brilliant, and brilliantly entertaining, demonstration of the dynamic at work in the evolution debate.

The CCP Vaccine Risk Perception and Ad Hoc Risk Communication report warns risk communicators to avoid the “rope-a-dope” trap when engaging propagators of vaccine misinformation:

4. Risk communicators and advocates should be wary of the expressive “rope-a-dope” trap.

Cultural contestation over risks or other facts that admit of scientific inquiry is inherently disruptive of the processes by which ordinary citizens come to know what is known to science (Bolsen & Druckman 2013; Kahan 2013a). When positions become conspicuously identified with membership in identity-defining affinity groups, diverse individuals will not only be exposed disproportionately to information that reflects the position that predominates in their groups. They will also experience psychic pressures that motivate them to use their critical reasoning dispositions to persist in those positions in the face of contrary evidence (Kahan, Peters et al. 2013). For this reason, polarization will be even more intense among members of these groups whose science comprehension capacities are greatest (Kahan 2013b; Kahan, Peters et al. 2012). Because these individuals understandably play a key role in certifying what is known to science within their groups, their divisions will even more deeply entrench other group members’ commitment to the position that predominates among their peers.

Groups intent on promoting cultural polarization can actually use this dynamic to their advantage. By engaging in provocative, culturally partisan and indeed often purely symbolic attacks on positions they disagree with, interest groups can provoke their opponents into denouncing them and their positions in terms that are similarly partisan, recriminatory, and contemptuous. The spectacle of dramatic conflict is what transmits to ordinary citizens—most of whom are largely uninterested in politics and lacking strong partisan sensibilities (Zaller 1992)—that the issue in question is one on which competing positions are badges of group membership and loyalty. That signal benefits the sponsors of group conflict. Indeed, the influence that open conflict exerts on members of the opposing groups will be much stronger than any influence the sponsors of such conflict could have generated by acting alone, not to mention much stronger than the content of the arguments that either side is making.

Vaccine-risk communicators should be wary of this trap, which has been used effectively against advocates of climate science (Pielke 2013) and gun control (Kahan 2013c). Responding to misinformation necessarily elevates the profile of the misinformers. It also creates a deliberative atmosphere in which culturally partisan advocates (some out of innocent exuberance, but others out of a motivation to assimilate vaccine-risk communication into a broader portfolio of publicly arousing issues) will predictably resort to divisive attacks, ones akin, say, to those that inform the “anti-science” trope.

Conspicuous instances of conflict among groups whose members are associated with competing styles and who resort to culturally assaultive idioms are what generates in the minds of ordinary members of the public the impression that disputed positions are aligned with membership in competing groups. It was likely because so many parents of diverse outlooks learned of the HPV vaccine from exchanges like these—as opposed to exchanges with pediatricians or other health experts—that that that vaccine triggered a volume of controversy experienced by no other universal childhood or adolescent vaccine, including the HBV vaccine, which also protects people from a sexually transmitted disease and which is widely included in the schedule of vaccinations required for school enrollment in the vast majority of states (Kahan 2013a).

Steering childhood vaccines clear of the risk of this disorienting form of conflict certainly does not mean that misinformation should routinely be ignored. But it does mean that risk communicators should make a careful assessment of the need to respond, and where there is such a need how to present corrective information in a manner that is free of resonances that convey cultural partisanship.


Bolsen, T., Druckman, J. & Cook, F.L. The Effects of the Politicization of Science on Public Support for Emergent Technologies. Institute for Policy Research Northwestern University Working Paper Series (2013).

Kahan, D.M. A Risky Science Communication Environment for Vaccines. Science 342, 53-54 (2013a).

Kahan, D.M. Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection. Judgment and Decision Making 8, 407-424 (2013b).

Kahan, D.M. The NRA’s “Expressive-Rope-a-Dope-Trick”. in Cultural Cognition Project Blog (Sept. 3, 2013c).

Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Dawson, E. & Slovic, P. Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self Government. Cultural Cognition Project Working Paper No. 116 (2013).

Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change 2, 732-735 (2012).

Pielke, R. Have the climate sceptics really won? Guardian (May 24, 2013).

Zaller, J.R. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, England, 1992).

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