Dan Kahan on scientific communication

Dan Kahan from Yale University is currently visiting the UK and gave a talk at the University of Nottingham yesterday.  He’s well known for his work on risk perception and in particular the idea of “Cultural cognition”, on which he runs an active blog.  He has already posted up his overview of the talk, and the slides he used.

For those who have looked at his blog and his papers, the theme of the talk was quite familiar, but I found being present at the talk made things a lot clearer. He’s a very enthusiastic and energetic speaker, moving around the room, right up to the audience (he returns the compliment by describing Nottingham as “vibrant and bustling”).

He started with some remarks on the privilege of academic freedom, and then showed a graph of the strong left-right split on the assessment of climate change risk (which apparently gives much the same result for all climate-related questions).

He talked about the “public irrationality thesis”, the idea that the public tends to think quickly and emotionally, rather than slowly and logically as scientists do. If this was correct, then you’d expect public opinion to agree more with mainstream climate science opinion as science literacy and numeracy increased; but in fact this is not the case – there is a (very slight) negative correlation between climate change concern and science literacy (a result that was jumped on with delight by some climate sceptics).

His alternative hypothesis is “cultural cognition” – that there is a correlation with the individual’s way of thinking, in particular where they fit in a two-dimensional grid with hierarchist <-> egalitarian on one axis and individualist <-> communitarian on the other. In this diagram, people in the egalitarian, communitarian quadrant are more concerned about climate change, while those in the  hierarchist, individualistic corner are less concerned.

He was refreshingly non-partisan – emphasizing that it’s not a question of right and wrong or “pro-science” and “anti-science”, illustrating this with the case of nuclear power, which is the opposite way round in terms of agreement/disagreement with the mainstream scientific assessment. He also pointed out that most other issues don’t show such a divide, including water fluoridation and even GMOs.

There was a lot more in the talk – see his blog write-up – and it seemed he could have gone on for much longer if he hadn’t run out of time.

Of course it would be quite easy to question a lot of this. His results are from the US, and there is an impression that the partisan divide is less clear in the UK. What about people in the egalitarian individualist corner? Does it make sense to regard individualists as behaving as a group anyway? What about the various high-profile climate sceptics who have changed their minds, such as Anthony Watts and Patrick Moore?

Update 21 Feb:

A few days after his talk at Nottingham, Dan Kahan gave a similar but not identical talk at Cardiff. In his blog post on this talk, he includes an interesting figure that he didn’t show in the Nottingham talk:

This shows the cultural cognition effect: the HI group tend to be less concerned about climate change, while the CE group are more concerned. But it also shows that the CC effect is much stronger in the CE people than in the HIs: the green graph is more skewed to the right than the black graph is to the left. This relates to my question above – individualists are, more or less by definition, less inclined towards group-like behaviour than communitarians.

From another Kahan talk on the web, here’s a graph that shows the difference between the two groups even more clearly:

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8 thoughts on “Dan Kahan on scientific communication

  1. The implications of economic sacrifices demanded by the UN vis a vis, the Kyoto Protocol which if we recall was set up, astonishingly, in 1997, came to political debate in the US well ahead of its time. The South were appeased by (a) the promise of technology transfer (b) the lure of selling carbon credits (c) the construct of ‘differentiated responsibilities. The West harbours significant scepticism and opposition to Kyoto-like measures but these have been polarized the earliest in the US. For instance, Canada and Australia have currently conservative governments that will play the climate game.

    What Kahan is noticing is, among other things, a consequence of the historical evolution of the climate debate in the United States. I’m not sure how much cognition plays a role in this.

    Political polarization about supposed scientific subjects is an enormous safety valve, folks like Kahan would no doubt love to take apart and destroy. People of all political persuasions would no doubt love to translate their pet prejudices as originating directly from scientific evidence, a tendency which is cruelly defeated by their opponents’ irrational ‘anti-science’ tendencies.

  2. What Kahan is noticing is, among other things, a consequence of the historical evolution of the climate debate in the United States. I’m not sure how much cognition plays a role in this.

    What Kahan is noticing is that the climate change debate fits with a pattern that applies to other polarized issues – and specifically to other polarized issues related to science.

    He lays out an extensive argument about how the phenomenon is related to cognition. You shouldn’t expect to be able to understand it if you haven’t read it.

  3. What if I want to be polarized in matters of climate change and not just a puppet of my own cognitive processes?

    Where am I on Kahan’s graph?

    Before I got into the climate debate, I identified with issues that would with one side of Kahan’s graph. With climate, I am on the other side.

    His theory cannot explain people like me for more than reasons as the above. It is a stupid, dehumanizing theory.

    Look at this ridiculous graph: http://www.culturalcognition.net/storage/normalnotnormal.png?__SQUARESPACE_CACHEVERSION=1392926298302

    Kahan’s theories are valid -only if- climate science = medical x-rays.

    Who in their right mind believes this to be true?

  4. Shub, he’s making the point that X-rays and climate are different. For most science topics, like X-rays, there is not much political divide, and worry goes down as science knowledge increases. But for climate, there’s a strong political divide, and this difference increases as science knowledge increases.

    I don’t think he claims his CC theory explains life, the universe and everything. Also, he says he’s interested in people like us who don’t fit!

    But you raise an interesting point, which I’m sure he’s come across before – his ideas are unpalatable because of the implicit suggestion that we don’t think issues through objectively and rationally.

  5. Paul
    Look at the core Kahan argument:

    “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.”

    What he’s saying is,
    [1]You or I have acquired a position owing to our affinity to an identity group
    [2]You or I will use our critical reasoning dispositions to persist in this position

    I don’t think either argument is true.

  6. What if I want to be polarized in matters of climate change and not just a puppet of my own cognitive processes?

    Where am I on Kahan’s graph?

    .

    First, I don’t think that Kahan would argue that there aren’t some exceptions to the larger pattern. He has been asked about “outliers” in the past and there have been discussions of such on his blog. You can look through past posts if you’re interested.

    Second, I think that your notion of being a “puppet” to your cognitive processes is a rather odd distortion. We all employ cognitive processes. They don’t exist as some externalized entity that controls us – they are integrated into how we reason. Our reasoning is affected by cognitive attributes (such as creating meaning through models and pattern-finding) and psychological attributes (such as wanting to be right, wanting to be liked, wanting to be part of a group, wanting to create an identity by distinguishing the “other.”)

    Third, by what means do you think without cognitive processes?

    Before I got into the climate debate, I identified with issues that would with one side of Kahan’s graph. With climate, I am on the other side.

    Again – neither his data nor his theory support a contention that there wouldn’t be outliers. The idea that you, or some other relatively small # of people, being outliers, would invalidate his thesis is, ironically, an example of motivated reasoning, IMO.

    His theory cannot explain people like me for more than reasons as the above.

    His theory doesn’t have to explain “people like you.” His theory only needs to explain the patterns in the data.

    It is a stupid, dehumanizing theory.

    I find it neither stupid nor dehumanizing. You seem to be confusing fact with opinion.

  7. Joshua
    You need to try harder to show it is me and not Kahan who’s dichotomizing our opinions and the thinking processes behind them.

    Climate science and its findings are political, as far as the IPCC/UNFCCC/Kyoto is concerned. Climate science divorced from these elements is exactly like medical x-rays. The public is concerned with the former, and not the latter.

    Why should a politically loaded topic like climate science and its implications be depoliticized? It is a dangerous thing to ask for.

    Apart from the above, I can understand the element of reflexive support or opposition to fixed and politicized positions based on one’s biases, that Kahan is talking about. What I am questioning is the all climate science discussion is terminally politicized by all participants involved, even at the deliberative, longer timescales the debate has actually stretched on. I find it insulting toward the scientists and all participants in the climate debate. It promotes examining people’s motives rather than their arguments.

    The fact that people of all possible intellectual persuasion and integrity can marshall their own set of facts to support their arguments should inform Kahan that such politically convenient, biased mental functioning is possible precisely because ‘the science’ is noisy. The array of findings is diverse and does not bend enough to a single direction.

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