Modeling Facts, Culture and Cognition in the Gun Debate

In this article we defend our contention that culture is prior to facts in resolving the gun debate. The basis for this position, simply put, is that culture is prior to facts in human cognition. Through an overlapping set of psychological and social mechanisms, individuals adopt the factual beliefs that are dominant among persons who share their cultural orientations. Far from being updated in light of new evidence, beliefs so formed operate as an evidentiary filter, inducing individuals to dismiss any contrary evidence as unreliable, particularly when that evidence is proffered by individuals of an opposing cultural affiliation. So even accepting – which we do – that individuals care about both what guns do and what guns mean, it’s idle to hope that consensus based on empirical research can settle the gun debate: individuals simply won’t perceive any such consensus to exist so long as cultural conflict over the meaning of guns persists.

We fill out the details of this claim – and the extensive research in social psychology on which it rests – by developing a series of models that simulate the formation and transmission of belief. Section 2 will present the Factual Enlightenment Model, which shows how persuasive empirical proof can indeed generate societal consensus on a disputed issue. Section 3 will present the Cultural Cognition Model, which shows how various social and psychological mechanisms can generate beliefs that are uniform within and polarized across distinct cultural orientations. Section 4 develops a model – Truth vs. Culture – that shows that cultural cognition constrains factual enlightenment when these two dynamics of belief-formation and transmission are pitted against one another. And finally, in section, we develop a Breakthrough Politics Model, which shows how persuasive empirical proof can dispel culturally influenced states of false belief once policy options are invested with social meanings that make them compatible with diverse cultural orientations.

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