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Mitigation & adaptation: Two remedies for a polluted science communication environment

One of the “models” or metaphors I use to try to structure my thinking about (and testing of conjectures on) public conflict over decision-relevant science attributes that problem to a “polluted science communication environment.”  This picture helps not only to sharpen one’s understanding of what the "science communication problem" consists in and what its causes are but also the identity and logic of remedies for it.

1. The science communication environment. People need to recognize as known by science many more things than they could understand or corroborate for themselves. They generally do this by immersing themselves in affinity groups—ones whose members share their basic outlooks on life, and whom they thus get along with and understand, and whose members can be relied upon to concentrate and transmit valid scientific insights (e.g., “bring your baby to the pediatrician—and not the faith healer!—if he or she becomes listless and develops a fever!”).  These diverse networks of certification, then, can be thought of as the “science communication environment” in which culturally diverse citizens, exercising ordinary science intelligence, rationally apprehend what is known to science in a pluralistic society.

2.  A polluted science communication environment. This system for (rationally!) figuring out “who knows what about what” breaks down, though, when risks or like policy-facts become entangled in contentious cultural meanings that transform them, in effect, into badges of membership in and loyalty to opposing groups (“your pediatrician advised you to give your daughter the HPV vaccine? Honey, you need to get a new doctor!”). At that point, the psychic stake that individuals have in maintaining their standing in their group will unconsciously motivate them to adopt modes of engaging information that more reliably connect them to their groups' position than to the best available scientific evidence.  These antagonistic cultural meanings are a form of pollution or contamination of ordinary citizens’ science communication environment that disables (quite literally!) the rational faculties by which individuals reliably apprehend collective knowledge.

3.  Two remedial strategies. We can think of two strategies for responding to a polluted science communication environment.  One is to try to decontaminate it by disentangling toxic meanings from cultural identities, and by adopting processes that prevent such entanglements from occurring in the first place. 

Call this the mitigation strategy.  We can think of “value affirmation,” “cultural source credibility,” “narrative framing” and like mechanisms as instances of it.  There are others too, including systemic or institutional responses aimed at forecasting and avoiding the entanglement of decision-relevant science in antagonistic meanings.

A second strategy is adaptation.  These are devices that counteract the consequences of a contaminated science communication environment not by dispelling it but rather by strengthening the cognitive processes that are disabled by it—or that activate alternative, complimentary cognitive processes that help to compensate for such disablement. 

Again, there are a variety of examples. E.g., satire uses humor to lure individuals into engaged reflection with evidence that might otherwise trigger identity-defensive resistance.  Self-affirmation is similarly thought to furnish a buffer against the anxiety associated with critically re-examining beliefs that have come to symbolize allegiance to one or another opposing cultural style. 

Or consider curiosity. Curiosity is the motivation to experience the pleasure of discovering something new and surprising. In this state (I conjecture), the defensive processes that block open-minded engagement with valid evidence that challenges existing identity-congruent beliefs are silenced.

We could thus see efforts to cultivate curiosity as a character disposition or to concentrate engagement with decision-relevant science in locations (e.g., museums or science-entertainment media) that predictably excite curiosity as a way to neutralize the detrimental impact of the entanglement of risks and other policy-relevant facts with antagonistic cultural meanings.

I’m sure there are more devices and techniques that operate this way—that is operate to rehabilitate disabled faculties or activate alternatives within a polluted science communication environment.  One of the aims of the science of science communication, as a "new political science," should be to identify and learn how to deploy them.

4. Pragmatic "scicomm environmental protection."  Just as mitigation and adaptation are not mutually exclusive strategies for responding to threats to the natural environment, so I would argue that mitigation and adaptation of the sort I’ve just described are not mutually exclusive responses to a polluted science communication environment.  We should be empirically investigating both as part of the program to identify the most reliable means of repelling the threat that a polluted science communication environment poses to the Liberal Republic of Science.

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Reader Comments (12)

Hi Dan.

I'm liking the extension of this metaphor. It seems pretty powerful and cohesive. If it were up to me, we'd use metaphors like this everywhere, haha...

It does, however, really hinge on one's agreement about your definition of contamination/pollution. Just as with other forms of pollution, you know people may very well get hung up on defining what constitutes "pollution" in the first place. Some may simply not be 'aware' of it (and I imagine your efforts here are similar to raising awareness of poor air quality or etc), but others will argue that a little bit of smog is fine, doesn't harm most of us, hell, is even the price we agree to pay living our currently lifestyle. How many ppm constitute a toxic vs. tolerable level of culturally antagonistic messaging floating around? You or I might shoot for an ideal 0.000, but what do you say to those who argue that point?

And, as always, I find myself wondering who the actors are... who can we expect and/or encourage to be in charge of mitigation/adaptation strategies? Any thoughts? I see some parallels here with the environmental pollution example but I don't know if I like where that comparison goes...

October 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJen

"In this state (I conjecture), the defensive processes that block open-minded engagement with valid evidence that challenges existing identity-congruent beliefs are silenced."

If someone is motivated to use information for the purpose of confirming biases, it seems to me, genuine curiosity is lacking.

You describe the mechanism as motivated reason existing and then being silenced by curiosity. I don't think it would work that way. Curiosity would be the initial state that would prevent motivated reasoning from starting in the first place. Motivated reasoning excludes the development of genuine curiosity.

Alternately, I think, if people commit to a process of open-minded engagement and dialog, they can begin to recognize and work on their tendency towards motivated reasoning in context, and begin to dismantle and/or control for that tendency. The point of focus, then, would not be the scientific or otherwise politicized subject at hand, but the problem of motivated reasoning - in a "meta-cognitive" fashion, if you will - and how it plays out in that politicized context.

October 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan, one of the problems with your comparisons is feedback in a time horizon that humans operate in. For example, taking a sick child to the doctor occurs frequently in a social group of mothers with young children and the efficacy of the treatement is also quickly determined in comparison to climate change. Tebaldi and Knutti in their Royal Society Proceedings publication stated that it would take between 90 and 120 years to determine if a 100 year prediction in CC was correct.

Another problem, with the AR5 final draft, the range of possible outcomes has expanded. The very likely range now includes the policy prescription of changing from mostly adaptation to mostly mitigation about year 2100, not 2050 or before. The problem is that if the doctor prescribes a medicine, the feedback usually occurs in a very limited regime. This is not true for CC where the regime in AR5 has increased on the low side. So, if persons really do know many more things than they could understand or corroborate for themselves in science, then by your definition, the discussion is not poisoned, it simply reflects the state of knowledge of CC.

The good news is that there should be some way to measure this. It will probably be along cultural lines. I would propose you repeat the study you did with the scientists. But this time, after identification, you have a matrix where they discuss as very likely two values, 1.7C and 4.5C for 2XCO2 ECS. The scientists would start with the iconical 3C, and then discuss as your other study the proposed information. My question to you is that with these values in the scientific range, but have such a large impact on potential policy, how do you determine if it is a poisoned atmosphere or it is what should be expected from the science? IIRC you had an excellent blog about the running of rats and how one person continued looking elsewhere. At this point how would I know whether we are like that one person, or are we those who were content running and re-running the rats without actual understanding?

October 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

Similar to Jen's point. What if the solution - removing "polluting" cultural entanglements - means removing the wish to take strong action at all?

If the wish to take ANY kind of strong action on climate change is considered "polluting", "toxic" because it creates political controversy, and partisan disagreement with those who want to take very little action...

...then doesn't the removal of "polluting" cultural meanings mean the removal of any suggestion of strong action?

October 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNeil Stenhouse

"then doesn't the removal of "polluting" cultural meanings mean the removal of any suggestion of strong action?"

Not necessarily.

I've had several discussions on vehemently pro-action sites where they bemoaned the difficulty in getting free-market libertarian/right-wingers to consider any plan that would involve taking action on climate, because of such political antagonisms, and asked for ideas about how to express their message in a way that could get them on board - so I proposed a couple.

The first option is that everybody who believes that CO2 emissions will lead to the end of the world should take an immediate pledge to give up using fossil fuels - they will choose not to purchase fossil fuel, fossil energy, or anything made with or transported by fossil fuels. Since they were also telling me that about 50% of the population believe and want government to take action, they should certainly have the numbers to make a difference. The first difference would be the direct result - if half the population stop using fossil fuel, emissions would immediately drop. This would lead to two economic effects: the price of fossil fuels would drop, rendering them non-profitable, and the price of renewable energy and products made with it would skyrocket, which would encourage energy businesses to leap onto the bandwagon to take advantage of it, and the profits they made would fund the development of the technology, generation capacity, and infrastructure needed. Eventually, as the market became saturated, prices would drop and the rest of the population would move over too. You get the energy companies on side, since there would be vast profits to be made from going green (and of course they have all the expertise and contacts in energy distribution, so they'd be ideally positioned). And the free-market types and libertarians couldn't say a word, since this would be an application of free-market mechanisms that would require no coercion, no taxes, no legislation, no regulation - nothing but free people freely choosing what to do with their own money. And you wouldn't have to persuade or change the mind of a single sceptic to do it.

My second option was rather less radical, but somewhat complicated, and involved the development of financial derivatives whose value depended on the market assessment of future climate outcomes. You could issue a bond that paid out at a handsome rate on the day a certain climate outcome came to pass, and would be voided at some fixed date if it did not. So for example, you can issue a bond that pays out 5% above inflation on face value if the sea level rises past one metre, or is voided in 2100. Sceptics and believers would sell bonds to one another until each was able to balance the risks and benefits, the market price would approach a point reflecting our collective judgement of the right price, and as time passed and more was learnt, it would converge on either a high value or zero, depending on who is right. Then money for mitigation could be raised, carbon taxes charged, polluters fined and so forth in climate bonds, which would guarantee that the ultimate costs would be paid by those who turned out to be wrong. The great thing about it is that neither side can complain, because as far as the sceptics are concerned they're paying the fines and taxes in worthless paper, and as far as the believers are concerned the sceptics are selectively being made to pay for the damage they're doing in contracts that will one day be worth a fortune.

Both of these are pure free-market approaches for taking action. They fund it themselves, they set prices fairly by the market mechanism, they do not force anyone to do anything they don't want to, and they arrange things so it is in everyone's best interests to take the correct action.

And guess what? They hated them.

Nobody wanted to know. They argued. They said they weren't necessary. They said they'd allow people to profit from tragedy. They said it would only encourage big business. They said that nobody would participate, that nobody would want to pay the costs. They were still wedded to their big-government, high-tax, coercive regulation solutions, almost as if the means were their actual end. Despite asking for ideas on how to get free-market types on board and talking, they wanted this to be through free-market types accepting socialist big-government solutions, not by them proposing free-market solutions. They didn't want a dialogue, or a solution, they wanted to win the argument.

And thus is the state of the politically motivated debate today. It's not about action on climate, it's about where the power and money goes.

Of course, I just substituted my own toxic cultural meanings, but pointing in the other direction, and I found that the advocates for action were just as obstructive and argumentative against it as we are against the solutions of the left. However, in my case since I don't actually think its an urgent enough problem to be worth solving, I simply shrugged and moved on. I had made my point.

October 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Shameless plug...

Our own Joshua has written an understatedly moving defence of free-speech principles as they apply to climate comments:

I recommend it to anyone interested in such questions, including but not limited to aspiring drafters of Constitutions for liberal republics of science. :-)

November 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrad Keyes


Could you please link us to these discussions you tantalisingly mention? I'm very curious to see the reactions incited by your ideas!

November 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrad Keyes

Hey Brad -

Imagine my surprise to read your comment here.

I've checked with Dan in the past, and he doesn't seem particularly concerned about "off topic" comments, so I'm going to respond to your comment from Wotts' crib over here (since Wotts has closed the comments). Possibly poor form, but then again, people not interested can simply not pay attention.

"In my online experience, there is only one real meaning of good faith questioner: “someone who raises objections I have an easy comeback for.” And there is only one real meaning of troll: “someone whose argument I can’t rebutt.”"

I think that's a bit strong. In my experience, the meaning of "troll" can vary quite a bit. I don't think it often means "someone whose argument I can't rebut," because in my experience people who throw the label troll around never think that there's an argument then can't rebut - the reason being that they never take opposing viewpoints seriously or try to really integrate valid points into their own thinking.

I find that it generally means, rather simply, "people who are expressing a viewpoint that I'm not in agreement with." I'm sure that we have both noticed that almost invariably, people call comments "off-topic" only when they express opposing views. "Thread-jacking" is generally applied subjectively as well, as is the complaint that comments that are called "painful" to read or that comments have been made with the intent to "distract." What is or isn't an "ad hom" is similarly, IMO, almost always a very selectively applied characterization.

Where we probably differ along these lines is that I also think that "appeal to authority" is similarly, almost invariably, selectively defined. In reality, it generally seems to me to mean "valuing expert opinion with which I don't agree."

In fact, almost the entire language of the debate is arbitrarily used, IMO (in the sense of subjectively defined). Who is a "skeptic?" Who is a "realist?" The use of poorly and arbitrarily defined terms leads us back, IMO, to the dramatic evidence of just how much "motivated reasoning" underlies these "debates." The basic thread of characterizing those who we disagree with suggest to me the underlying "motivations" related to identification.

"By the way, if I lost my patience with you the other day, it’s only because you seemed to be pre-emptively treating me as a trickster who would have no qualms about calling “criticism” “harassment” and vice versa. "

Well, I suppose that is understandable. But I was making, IMO, a legitimate point in that I felt you were arbitrarily defining the terms "cop[ping] flak" and "harassment." Just because I felt you were arbitrary in your delineation between harassment and criticism does not mean that I was calling you a "trickster," but pointing out my impression about your logic. We're all prone to "motivated" reasoning in these debates. I will say, however, that I certainly could have communicated my perspective in a less snarky and antagonistic manner.

So to tie that into your comment I excerpted above, after trying a couple of times to get you to engage on that issue, which was my point of entry, I gave up with a determination that you were not engaging in good faith. It was my sense that you understood the point I was making, but refusing to engage on that point.

Now I can't get into someone else's head, and I can't actually know whether someone is engaging in good faith or not, but you did clearly establish that you weren't going to answer my question. And I felt that your explanation of why you weren't going to - because you considered the question unanswerable - didn't hold water.

So, why am I discussing that here? I don't want to get bogged down into the "he said, he said," of that other discussion, but to try to distill the meaning w/r/t debate and discussions in the Liberal Republic of Science. I have information on your perspective and you now have information on mine.

So let this be a test, if you'd like to engage in an experiment. I have long contended in these threads that with good faith effort at understanding the mechanisms of motivated reasoning, and with an open acknowledgement of the influence of motivated reasoning as a proclivity and foundational attribute that is shared by us all, it might be possible to create a context for more effective communication (indeed, I suspect it is the only way to create a context for more effective communication in these sorts of debates). I have had some success, IMO, with John F. Pittman, in the sense of results that confirm my hypothesis (in a VERY non-empirical experimental structure). Given your reaction to my comment at Wotts', I am curious to see whether or not, under what I consider to be significantly more demanding test conditions than with JFP, you and I might be able to communicate more effectively by virtue of forefronting the influence of motivated reasoning.

November 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Thanks for your reply Joshua.

You shouldn't be surprised that I endorsed your comment—it was a very fine comment.

I'm all for the experiment you suggest, though I can tell you in advance that if you show me evidence of harassment, I'm not going to say ("arbitrarily" or otherwise) that it's "just criticism", because there's no way the two concepts could be confused. No amount of criticism equals harassment, no type of harassment equals criticism, "too much" criticism will never constitute harassment, a little harassment is not a form of criticism, etc. etc. ad nauseam.

But rather than have this out at Dan's place, we should adjourn to mine ( or another of your naming. I'm still working out how such a discussion will fit into the direction I want my blog to go in, as I only started it a couple of days ago. I'll get back to you when/if I've set up a page for our experiment.

Stay well!


November 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrad Keyes

Joshua, should I be flattered, alarmed, or just stay engaged? ;)

I have found most conversation is reasoned. It is listening (reading) that suffers. Even motivated speech can be understood from a good POV; often it is about emotional context. Risk is often a play of reason and desire for a person.

November 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman


Yes, I suppose you are right. I agree that listening (reading with an open mind) is what's most lacking in most of these discussions.

Flattered, alarmed, or just stay engaged? Good question, and one you'll have to answer.

November 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

One interesting, to me, item to add to our “polluted science communication environment” is the role of leadership. I have been looking at (Available online at J. Mod. Econ. Manag. 1 (2012), No. 1, 1-32)
LEADER VALUES AS PREDICTORS OF EMPLOYEE AFFECT AND WORK PASSION INTENTIONS. In it I am considering some of the other works we have discussed such as when and how a paradigm changes, such as a transition where a majority POV was overtaken by a minority view.

The other item that goes with it addresses the question in the tread "NOTHING TO SEE HERE JUST A COINCINDENCE". I was reading NRA mag the other day and I was once again impressed with the way the mag interlaced facts with the emotional content and re-enforcement.

Dan asks "How does this happen?" It reminds me of Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. It was not that heroin won, but that everything else lost out. I think part of the answer to Dan's question lies in the engagement or leadership process. Though technically a leader is not needed in a technical subject, the caution is without leadership will the important part lose out. Read the NRA mag and ask yourself, what is the mag providing, and how would you replace that.

November 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

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