Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Cultural Cognition of Climate Change

A new paper coming out of Yale's Cultural Cognition project (led by Professor Dan Kahan) is getting some blogger buzz. Unfortunately, it's for all the wrong reasons.

Folks are seizing on the finding that more scientifically-literate respondents are less likely to believe that Global Warming represents a serious threat. This is true, but overstated -- the difference between high- and low-literacy respondents is extremely small. Kahan et al use it to refute the presumption that greater scientific education is likely to cause the average person's views on global warming to converge on the scientific consensus on the matter, but that's all.

Rather, the real action is that increased scientific-literacy increases the divergence in opinions on the matter amongst members of groups whose narratives predispose them to look with more favor on the scientific-consensus about climate change (that it is dangerous) versus those whose cultural narratives instruct them to view that consensus skeptically. Over the course of several experiments, Kahan et al have divided persons along two axes -- hierarchical/egalitarian, and individualist/communitarian. Persons with egalitarian, communitarian outlooks -- hypothesized to be favorable to believing claims of dangerous climate change -- were more likely to say climate change is dangerous, and this belief rose moderately as scientific literacy increased. Persons with hierarchical, individualist outlooks -- forecast to be skeptical of climate change data -- were accordingly less likely to view it as dangerous, and this risk-assessment dipped sharply as scientific-literacy increased (that the hierarchical, individualist risk assessment fell by considerably more than the egalitarian, communitarian one rose is what accounts for the small negative association between levels of scientific literacy and belief in the dangers of global warming). This is the main conclusion of the paper -- not about how scientific literacy impacts one's assessment of climate change risk (at least not directly), but whether scientific-literacy diminishes the salience of one's prior social narratives. And the answer was not only, "no", it was "no, increased scientific literacy enhances the polarizing impact of these priors."

This finding is part of a larger set of conclusions formed through the Cultural Cognition project's research -- to wit, that increased information does not create consensus amongst politically polarized groups (by directing everyone to the "right" outcome), but rather fosters divergence as each side is able to access bits of fact and information that help them create a coherent narrative that binds together their preferred value priors with experiential data. Discussing other research by Professor Kahan and his cohors, I wrote:
Providing additional facts and information doesn’t cause policy convergence, it causes policy polarization. The reason is that most fact patterns contain narratives, inferences, and interpretations which plausibly can be deployed to support diverse policy positions. Facts, alone, can never by themselves tell us anything about fundamentally value-based policy judgments, even under ideal deliberative conditions. People accordingly interpret the information they receive in manners which support their prior dispositions, only now they feel more comfortable in these beliefs because they have “facts” to back them up. Given this latent ambiguity, there is no incentive to agree, and lots of psychological incentives to latch on to friendly fact stories in order to preserve ones preexisting beliefs.

So persons already predisposed to believe in global climate change, upon gaining more information, have more access to bundles of facts and arguments that help buttress and amplify that belief. But persons predisposed to disbelieve in climate change, in turn, also have more access to arguments and facts that support that worldview as they become more informed. Presumably, less-informed voters -- while still likely to adhere to their predispositions, are more likely to stake a more relatively moderate path, as they have fewer narrative resources at their disposal to explain away counterarguments (and thus are more likely to admit some level of doubt in their beliefs).

There might be, in other words, an intractable barrier facing fact-based democratic policy-making in situations where the underlying policy question is normatively polarizing. The presumption was always that greater education -- greater grasp on the facts -- would overcome these divides as people discovered what the best policy option is. But Kahan's work has thrown a serious wrench in this presumption -- as it turns out, normative interpretation governs factual interpretation, not the other way around. At best, we could hope that direct experience might modify norms (if New York does end up under two feet of water, that might convince some climate change skeptics). But that's pretty drastic, and doesn't give us that much hope for normal policy disputes.


jay said...

Relatedly, see "The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science" -- http://motherjones.com/print/106166

John said...

The weirdest aspect of the climate change debate is that catastrophic climate change is entirely normal on the Earth. It is only the past 5000 years that have enjoyed an unusual climatic stability. All of the geological records show that the earth is a terrifying place where countries can change from being balmy havens to being buried under a hundred metres of ice in a couple of centuries. Had the past 5000 years not been so stable this would have been obvious.

Curiously no-one, not the eco warriors or the climate deniers want to confront this truth. See Is global warming a threat because of overpopulation?.

OwlJulie said...

So, it really is as though we ARE shades of red and blue on that diagram. I wonder if it was a decision or if we were born that way? ;)
Finally, I feel we are on a road to finding a way to talk to each other. The first step is to understand where the other is coming from, and now we have started a BASIC understanding of where our dividing belief system originates. This may be what is behind the conservatives calling the democrats 'communists'; indeed, we are communal in that we care more about the entire population than the good of the top 1%. I have more to learn on this topic! How exciting!