“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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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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“We live in at least, I, live and participate in a parenting culture, an upper middle class, usually…”

Friday, February 6th, 2015

We live in at least, I, live and participate in a parenting culture, an upper middle class, usually white, well-educated parenting culture, that really encourages and supports fear and fearfulness.

Fear is understood as a sort of intelligence in this culture. Promoting fear in another parent or mother is seen as a kind of favor. If you don’t think somebody’s feeling afraid enough, your job is to scare them…

In general, not just within the parenting culture but in the culture at large, we’re kind of enthralled to fear right now. And you can see it in on national level ‚ we’re doing all kinds of immoral things, including torturing prisoners, because of our fear of terrorism, and other kind of national level fears. You can also listen to domestic space, you can see that we have laws that allow a person, for instance, to kill an unarmed teenager because they’re afraid of that teenager.

We need to have empathy for people’s fears. I don’t think that means we have to be permissive around how people treat their fears.

Eula Bliss, author of On Immunity: An Innoculation, as interviewed in How one vaccine skeptic became a vaccine supporter

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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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“Most people have neither the time nor the inclination to look up individual studies of whether, say,…”

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

“Most people have neither the time nor the inclination to look up individual studies of whether, say, global warming does in fact cause more hurricanes. The best we can do, most of the time, is heed the advice of those whose opinions we respect, be they better-informed friends, clueless-but-cocksure folks who seem credible because they share our general worldview, or actual experts.”

Journalist Hillary Rosner, from Pregnant Pause, on how her pregnancy has helped her better understand why climate-change denialism is so common.

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