“The currency in this democratic project is not knowledge, but trust. When trust is won and values…”

Saturday, September 3rd, 2016

“The currency in this democratic project is not knowledge, but trust. When trust is won and values affirmed, desired interpretations of facts and information follow.”

Robert R. M. Verchick in Culture, Cognition, and Climate

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Cultural Cognitive dualism as an adaptive resource in a polluted science communication environment … a fragment

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Cultural Cognitive dualism as an adaptive resource in a polluted science communication environment … a fragment:

The antagonistic cultural meanings that transform positions on scientific issues into badges of cultural identity are a toxin that disables the normally reliable reasoning faculties that people use to align themselves with what’s known by science.

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npr: Back in the 1960s, the U.S. started vaccinating kids for…

Friday, May 8th, 2015


Back in the 1960s, the U.S. started vaccinating kids for measles. As expected, children stopped getting measles.

But something else happened.

Childhood deaths from all infectious diseases plummeted. Even deaths from diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea were cut by half.

“So it’s really been a mystery — why do children stop dying at such high rates from all these different infections following introduction of the measles vaccine,” says Michael Mina, a postdoc in biology at Princeton University and a medical student at Emory University.

Scientists Crack A 50-Year-Old Mystery About The Measles Vaccine

Photo credit: Photofusion/UIG via Getty Images

This is why shaming people for being anti-vaccination (or even making vaccination compulsory beyond a certain degree of coercion) is a bad idea. People have their own reasons for choosing not to vaccinate. And yeah, they’re mostly bad reasons, but risk assessment is hard, and people are error-prone when it comes to certain types of risk assessment, so it happens.

But if you push them, you provoke a reaction (it might even be usefully analogized to an immune response, come to think of it). You make them raise barriers. You make it so their belief that they should not vaccinate their kids goes from being just a case of being error-prone and under-informed and getting this tricky case of risk-assessment wrong, to making it so their membership in the persecuted class of antivaxxers has become an aspect of their identity.

And then we’re screwed. Because when new evidence (like this) comes along that makes the case for vaccination even more compelling, such that even garden-variety poor-risk-assessors might be swayed to get the decision right, the members of the self-identified antivaxxer class won’t be persuaded, because identity protection gets in the way.

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“There is not political conflict over vaccines in the U.S. But yes, there are some people who…”

Saturday, February 7th, 2015

“There is not political conflict over vaccines in the U.S. But yes, there are some people who mistakenly think there is, and others, on left & right, who are trying hard to create the same. Through their combined efforts, they might very well pull vaccines into the cultural status conflict in which climate change, HPV vaccine, fracking, nuclear power, guns etc. all reside”

Dan Kahan

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Risk perception, political views, and understanding of…

Saturday, February 7th, 2015

Risk perception, political views, and understanding of science

Most of the time people’s political views don’t stop them from appreciating and taking advantage of scientific knowledge. In isolated cases, though, public policy questions become tangled up with group identity in a way that interferes with that process, which kind of sucks.

These graphs illustrate how that works. More after the cut.

The graphs are from “Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem” (link is to the full paper; also summarized briefly here), by Dan Kahan of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project.

They’re based on a survey of a representative sample of 2,000 US residents. For all 10 graphs, the left axis measures respondents’ perception of risk, from no perceived risk at the bottom to extremely high risk at the top.

In the lefthand graphs, risk perception is plotted against political ideology, with a regression line showing how strongly the two variables are correlated.

In the righthand graphs, risk perception is plotted against something called “Ordinary Science Intelligence” (OSI), which is a measurement of general scientific knowledge, quantitative reasoning skills, and the ability to reassess preexisting belief based on available information. Plots are shown for two groups: those more ideologically liberal than average (the blue bar) and those more ideologically conservative than average (the red bar).

From the graphs you can see that people of different political beliefs have dramatically different views on the risk of global warming and private gun ownership (as well as fracking, which is covered in the paper but which I didn’t include here, and underground storage of nuclear waste, which isn’t covered in the paper but which other work by Kahan shows has an opposite polarity, in which it is the more liberal members of the population whose ideology predicts views that diverge from science).

Interestingly, for these specific topics, knowing more about science (as measured by OSI) doesn’t make people better at conforming their views to those of scientists. Instead, it makes them better at conforming their views to those of their cultural group. If you look at the righthand graphs for these polarized topics, the distance between the liberal and conservative positions increases with OSI.

But those topics are anomalies. Advocates on both sides have infused these topics with antagonistic cultural meanings, which makes it so ordinary citizens have to choose between recognizing what is known to science and being who they are. Faced with that choice, most people choose the position that protects their group identity. As Kahan explains, it’s rational for them to do so — because in that situation, recognizing and expressing the view of scientists would be personally costly in ways that expressing the group view (while being wrong on the science) isn’t.

For the other three topics shown in the graphs (radio waves from cell phones, genetically modified food, and childhood vaccination), there is little or none of this ideological entanglement. In each of those cases the public is good at identifying and benefiting from scientific knowledge, and membership in left or right political ideologies doesn’t interfere with that process.

This is a good thing. When people can accurately assess what science says about risks, they make better decisions. The antagonistic cultural meanings that interfere with that process are, in Kahan’s view, a form of pollution — pollution of the science communication environment.

This is why it concerns me to see people squaring off across the ideological divide over the childhood vaccination issue. Until now, childhood vaccination has been pretty uncontroversial. True, there were a few (a very few) people who engaged in misguided advocacy, but only a small number of parents had concerns that caused them to delay or skip vaccination. And while those numbers have increased, they’re still small.

Even a small number of parents who resist vaccinating is problematic. But vilifying those parents and pushing for compulsory vaccination is a really bad idea, because it will lead to more polarization and and an increase in antagonistic cultural meanings around the issue. Similarly, when politicians publicly stake out a position of citing scientific uncertainty and defending parent’s “right to decide”, they are stoking antagonistic cultural meanings in a way that will inevitably lead to lower vaccination rates and more preventable disease. That’s a shitty thing to do.

Don’t pollute the science communication environment.

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Vilifying Parents Who Don’t Vaccinate Their Kids Is Counterproductive

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

Vilifying Parents Who Don’t Vaccinate Their Kids Is Counterproductive:

The ongoing measles outbreak in the U.S., which has spread to 14 states, has provoked a rising vilification of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. …

This piece does a good job of articulating something I’ve been thinking about lately in response to various vaccination-related news stories and opinion pieces. The thing it doesn’t do is to go into detail about the connection between pernicious identity-protection mechanisms and rejection of science.

Basically, there’s compelling data that shows that generally speaking, people from across the ideological spectrum do a good job of identifying what scientists actually think. It’s only when the holding of one position or another on a science-relevant question becomes tangled up in one’s group identity that scientific information gets rejected. And this has real negative consequences for society.

When public discussion on TV, in newspapers, and online in places like Tumblr portrays antivax sentiment as being ideologically linked, as being associated with particular core values and identities, it has a negative effect. Yeah, it feels good, or at least satisfyingly righteous, for me when I rag on someone like Jenny McCarthy, linking her views to a set of traits I reject. But to the extent my remarks actually reach people who hold views like that, all I’m accomplishing is reinforcing the connection in their minds between their identity and the holding of a view that contradicts what scientists actually say. And with that connection reinforced, they will subconsciously tend to misinterpret the actual position of scientists in ways that support their group identity.

It’s not limited to conservatives or liberals or tree-huggers or libertarians. It’s a basic element of how people relate to the world.

The answer is to resist the pollution of the information environment by these antagonistic linkages between peoples’ identities and their perception of public-policy-relevant science. I don’t expect that idea to resonate on Tumblr; this place is all about expressing outrage without concern for whether or not it does any good. The expression of the outrage is itself a good, in the minds of many.

In this particular case, though, it’s not. People from across the ideological spectrum generally know that vaccination is a good idea, and the number who are ignorant about that is small (though consequential). Keeping that number from growing requires actually understanding what sorts of messaging work in educating people, and what sorts have the opposite effect. When people start using it as a club to beat up on their ideological opponents, they do real harm to that effort.

More at the Cultural Cognition Project. Dan Kahan is awesome.

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Got facts? The boring, ignorant, anti-liberal, science-communication-environment polluting “who is more anti-science” game

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

Got facts? The boring, ignorant, anti-liberal, science-communication-environment polluting “who is more anti-science” game:

It’s surely only a matter of time before a passionate (and incorrect) post asserting a causal link between the Disneyland measles outbreak and pockets of anti-vaccination sentiment comes through my dash. In an attempt to inoculate anyone who follows me against the contagion, please consider reading what Dan Kahan has to say on the subject.

Thank you in advance for your effort to be more critically thoughtful.

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“Is politically motivated reasoning rational?” A fragment …

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

“Is politically motivated reasoning rational?” A fragment …:

Heh. In which man-crush Prof. Dan Kahan violates Betteridge’s Law, because it turns out that the answer is yeah, believing wacky untrue things (like, climate change is a conspiracy, or GMOs are more dangerous than non-GMO foodstuffs, or ghosts/angels/Jesus are real entities with whom we can meaningfully interact) can sometimes confer benefits in terms of group identity and in-group status that outweighs any cost of being wrong about something so unimportant in the individual scheme of things.

I think it’s actually kind of cool that our brains have evolved the ability to do that, to believe untrue things, and go to some length to retain those beliefs in the face of conflicting evidence, at least when it’s in our individual interest to do so. It’s like our brain has a little Lizzy inside it, one who has no problem sending inconvenient truths packing like so many Lady Catherines.

I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.

You tell them, Lizzy. Screw them and their scientific consensus.

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Friday, July 18th, 2014

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“To go against the dominant thinking of your friends, of most of the people you see every day, is…”

Monday, July 7th, 2014

“To go against the dominant thinking of your friends, of most of the people you see every day, is perhaps the most difficult act of heroism you can perform.”

Theodore H. White, 20th century American journalist (via whats-out-there)

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“We live in a nation with 3.2×10^8 people—so you can find large, in absolute terms, numbers of people…”

Monday, June 9th, 2014

We live in a nation with 3.2×10^8 people—so you can find large, in absolute terms, numbers of people who believe anything (e.g., that “contrails” are some sort of mind-controlling gas being sprayed by the CIA etc.).

People who believe those weird-ass things might have similar views on politics (I have no idea, frankly, whether people who are anti-vax hold similar political outlooks).

But it is a logical fallacy to infer that therefore people who hold those views on politics generally believe in whatever weird things these small fringe groups believe in.

Dan Kahan, Got facts? The boring, ignorant, anti-liberal, science-communication-environment polluting “who is more anti-science” game

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