Cultural “fact polarization” trumps cultural “value” polarization — a fragment

Working on this.  Rest “tomorrow.”

1. The new politics of “fact polarization”

Polarization over questions of fact is one of the signature features of contemporary democratic political life.  Citizens divided over the relative weight of “liberty” and “equality” are less sharply divided today over the justice of progressive taxation (Moore 2015) than over the evidence that human  CO2 emissions are driving up global temperatures (Frankovic 2015).  Democrats and Republicans argue less strenuously about whether states should be permitted to require the “reading of the Lord’s prayer” in school than whether permitting citizens to carry concealed handguns in public increases homicide rates—by multiplying the number of firearms in society—or instead decreases them by equipping law-abiding citizens to protect themselves from predation (Newport 2015).

Members of cultural groups that confer status to women for their mastery of domestic roles love their daughters as much as members of those who celebrate the world of commerce and public affairs as status-conferring arenas for men and women alike (Luker 1984). Yet the two cannot agree about the consequences of universally immunizing middle-school girls against the human papilloma virus: does that policy promote the girls’ health by protecting them later in life from an extremely prevalent sexually  transmitted disease linked to cervical cancer; or endanger them by lulling them into unprotected sex right now, thereby increasing their risks of becoming pregnant and of contracting other, even more deadly STDs (Kahan, Braman, Cohen, Gastil & Slovic 2010)?

These are admittedly complex questions.  But they are empirical ones. Values can’t supply the answers; only evidence can. The evidence that is relevant to any one of these factual issues, moreover, is completely distinct from the evidence relevant to any of the others.  There is simply no logical reason, in sum, for positions on these and various other policy-relevant facts (the safety of deep geologic isolation of nuclear wastes, the deterrent impact of the death penalty, the efficacy of invasive forms of surveillance to combat terrorism, etc.) to cluster at all, much less to form packages of beliefs that so strongly unite citizens of shared cultural commitments and so persistently divide citizens of opposing ones.

But there is a psychological explanation for today’s politics of “fact polarization.”  Or at least a very strong candidate explanation, the emergence of which has supplied an energizing focus for research and debate in the decision sciences over the course of the last decade. . . .


Frankovic, K. Most republicans do not think humans are causing climate change. YouGov. (2015).

General Social Survey (2014).

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).
Luker, K. Abortion and the politics of motherhood (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984).
Moore, P. Most Republicans back a flat tax. YouGov. (May. 22, 2015).
Newport, F. Majority Say More Concealed Weapons Would Make U.S. Safer. Gallup (Oct. 20, 2015).

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