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Tuesday
Nov042014

How *cognitive* adaptation relates to mitigating a polluted science communication environment

I've been corresponding with a friend whom I -- & many others -- regard as an extraordinary climate-science communicator (& whose skills in this regard are matched by the depth of her civic virtue). In addition to how she manages to communicate so successfully, we have been discussing my view of  how big an impact her efforts, if they could be enlarged in scale, could be expected to have in reducing public conflict over climate change.  My position is complicated; and I'm not nearly as good a science communicator as she is! But I thought I'd share my best efforts so that the 14 billion readers of this blog might also tell me how to improve my communication of this point, and of course whether it is a point that merits wider communication.

I don't disagree w/ anything you are saying about how to engage people whose cultural identities are threatened by information on global warming.  On the contrary, I think there is a tremendous amount to be learned from your example about how to counteract this dynamic in settings in which educators and others are helping people understand the basic mechanisms of climate change and the weight of the scientific evidence on its causes & consequences.

What I'm less sure about is the connection between promoting comprehension in those settings & promoting more constructive engagement with climate science in our national political life.  

Essentially, the science communication environment has become polluted with antagonistic cultural meanings that transform "positions" on global warming into badges of membership in & loyalty to competing cultural groups. Those meanings effectively disable the faculties that diverse citizens use, very successfully most of the time, to align their own decisionmaking (personal & collective) with the best available evidence.  

I see you as implementing, as it were, a kind of cognitive adaptation strategy.  By proving to suspicious listeners that you harbor no hostility to their identities, you create conditions in which people do what they normally do with their reason--use it to make sense of complex things &, even more important, to reliably recognize what’s known by science.

Again, I view that as enormously important-- & will say more in a moment about why.

But the fact remains that what you are doing doesn't actually repair the polluted science communication environment.  

You are making it possible for people to reason within that environment when you yourself are presenting information to them.  But when you finish, the antagonistic meanings that make global-warming positions into symbols of membership in opposing cultural groups persist in the world in which those people live.  

Those meanings will certainly continue to shape the perceptions of those you didn’t get a chance to talk to-- who outnumber those you did by orders of magnitude.  

But even more important, those meanings are also likely to continue shaping how the people you did talk to engage the climate issue in democratic political life. That's because the positions people adopt on climate change in that realm aren’t caused by any deficit in their understanding of how climate works; on the contrary, they are a consequence of just how keenly perceptive they are of what stances on global warming express about people's group identities.

Observational studies support this: individuals who display the highest degree of science comprehension generally & climate science comprehension in particular are the most culturally polarized over whether human-caused climate change is even occurring.  That question, on a survey & in our political life, measures who they are--whose side they are on--not what they know.

My surmise, then, is that even though the people you have communicated with have genuinely learned something--& likely now enjoy a comprehension level that puts them at the very top of the scale for public "climate literacy”-- they'll continue to orient themselves toward the issue of global warming in a way that evinces their group identity.

That means, among other things, that someone who otherwise possesses the requisite sorts of values & the formidable degree of intelligence that these citizens appropriately look for in selecting congressional representatives is unlikely to enjoy a very long career in national politics if that person decides to make addressing the risks of climate change one of his or her priorities. 

That would be the equivalent of the obtuse Presidential candidate who decides to highlight his support for gun control in advertisements in West Virginia because a pollster has just handed him a survey showing that a majority of its residents favor it.  He doesn't get that what stances on gun control say is much more important to citizens than what restrictions on guns would do.  For West Virginianians, the decision of a candidate to make gun control one of his key positions "says a lot about who you are and who you aren't"--and the only message his ads  will succeed in communicating is that "he's not one of us.'' (If only someone had told him!)

As long as the positions that people--ordinary citizens or politicians--adopt on climate change convey "who they are," the issue will continue to polarize culturally diverse groups, no matter how much their members know about the dangers of failing to address global warming.

That means we need a science communication environment mitigation strategy.  We need to staunch the "us-vs.-them" sources of pollution, which emanate from both sides.  We need to detoxify that environment, so that reasoning people & their representatives don't face the sorts of conditions that in fact make it perfectly rational for them to form climate-change positions that express who they are instead of what they know.

As I said, I don't think creating conditions in which people can learn & comprehend is sufficient to do that.

Nevertheless, creating such conditions is vitally important.  

It is vitally important, first, because it has intrinsic value: people who want to be able to know what is known by science should be enabled to know that.  Science communicators who virtuously respond to this need should learn how to do what you do.

Second, doing what you do is vital because even amidst the toxic conditions that stifle constructive national policymaking on climate change, many people will need to make consequential decisions that should be informed by the best available evidence.

No matter what happens at the national level, e.g., people will have to make collective decisions about how to adapt  to climate change--not cognitively but physically.  

They'll have to decide individually, too, how to make all manner of adjustments in their private affairs to reflect  a changing climate. Think, e.g., of farmers in the midwest who, despite "not believing" in human-caused climate change, are in fact very interested to hear about the latest climate modeling forecasts of the USDA & EPA (also the work that firms are doing to create genetically modified crops that will fare better in changed climate conditions).

Communicators need to know how to convey this information to these actors, too -- and can learn something from you about how to do it.

Third, what you are doing is vital because it is making us smarter about how science communication works.

Again, I don't think that the success you are achieving in helping individuals to learn about climate science by itself offsets the dynamics that make climate change polarizing, and that stifle exploitation of our scientific knowledge in national policymaking.  

But you are showing in one very important setting how to disentangle the question "who are you, whose side are you on?" from "what do we know about how the world works?"  

By systematically studying how you & other communicators (particularly educators) are able to achieve this effect, we can learn a tremendous amount about the dynamics of "disentanglement" generally & thus figure out more quickly what sorts of things we should do to reproduce that effect in our politics

In sum, the work you do not only fills me with admiration & awe. It also fills me with hope & excitement, and with a sense of motivation & direction in my own research, my highest aspiration for which is that it will contribute to formation of a science-communication culture that embodies your skill & knowledge.

But I do think that the benefit we can get from learning how to do what you do will depend on getting a lot of other people to recognize that improving popular comprehension of climate science won't in itself do much to resolve the cultural conflict over global warming.

On the contrary, we need to decontaminate our science communication environment of antagonistic cultural meanings so that we can get the benefit of what you & others are doing to help citizens comprehend what science knows.

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Reader Comments (13)

The challenge of science communication reminds me of maps like this:

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/11/04/3588386/facebook-environment-energy-chatter/

...with familiar geographic patterns that we will see again on the news tonight.

The NYT kind of leads our expectations with this piece:
http://op-talk.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/11/03/why-do-we-still-care-about-the-confederate-flag/

Though I think James Webb, former senator from Virginia, was most illuminating in 2004, in a piece saved from the WSJ:
http://www.artistascitizen.org/Atlas/WSJ_Webb.pdf

The early American history component of cultural cognition might be in this book:
http://www.amazon.com/Albions-Seed-British-Folkways-Cultural/dp/0195069056/
(A deep and amazing book that did more to explain America, and the issue of climate change, to me than any other.)

Also good is Colin Woodard's book:
http://www.npr.org/2013/11/11/244527860/forget-the-50-states-u-s-is-really-11-nations-says-author
which adds the essential detail of the Dutch mercantile culture in New Amsterdam.

Ultimately, two ideas of culture banging into each other, one based on materialism and one on honor? The educated, materialistic culture described by Thorstein Veblen vs. the honor bound, traditional culture inspired by Andrew Jackson?

The great thing, if you have a very, very high SAT score and are strongly motivated by money, is that you can use one culture against the other. Just to use an example, not to single anyone out, let's say you're Lloyd Blankfein -- you grow up in a working class family in public housing in Brooklyn, zoom through NYC public school as a brilliant student, attend Harvard and Harvard Law, rise through the ranks at Goldman Sachs, and assume the leadership of the bank, becoming responsible not only for your own growing wealth but that of the shareholders and partners.

The big problem with Brooklyn, especially in its present-day incarnation, is that left to their own devices, the good people of Brooklyn might be inclined to more redistribution than you like. What can be done? (Even your own Brooklyn-based senator might not stop these other Brooklynites.) Send your donations west! Go until you start to see creation museums. Then you can start to breathe easy! The same culture that launched the Whiskey Rebellion against George Washington's taxes in 1791, only a few years into the existence of the US, isn't going to hassle you for a rise in the capital gains tax.
What would your political giving look like? Maybe this:
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/16/opinion/edsall-the-political-monetary-complex.html

Some of this dynamic is getting a little rocky -- Eric Cantor, BFF of Goldman, did get booted out by a Tea Party candidate, and the focus in the Republican party may be shifting even farther right, and to oil and gas interests. But still, in practical terms, the aims of the finance industry (full of physicists, and not necessarily climate deniers) is about money first, so boosting the fortunes of red state politicians has often been a priority. Climate policy and science communication be damned.

Though, my favorite detail recently is that the Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard is among the signers of the letter calling on the university to divest.
http://www.harvardfacultydivest.com/

November 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Reiss

I'm curious about who your interlocutor is.

Relatedly, there's an interesting article about Katherine Hayhoe:

http://www.scilogs.com/guest_blog/climate-change-communication-taking-the-temperature-part-11-with-dr-katharine-hayhoe/

In particular:

In my communication, now, I begin with the values that I share with whomever I am talking to. These values may focus on something as simple as wondering where our water will be coming from in 20 years; worrying about the local economy; caring for our children; or our desire to live out the faith that is central to who we are. I emphasize how important these values are, and what they mean to me personally.

I commented on that excerpt on another blog - along with noting Bob Inglis' approach to communicating about climate change,.

--------

I think it is really difficult if you’re trying to ascertain who has what values. IMO, “values” get translated into the common vernacular as “positions.” For example, a libertarian might say to me that they are different from me in that they “value” a government that is only large enough to perform tasks that are necessary – whereas my “value” is to rely on a nanny state to resolve any of our problems. But they’ve misinterpreted my values because they’re reverse engineering from my “position.

In reality, I think I have the same value as the one they’ve identified for themselves – but I might have a different “position” on, say, whether a black cop that risks his life to protect the safety of a store owner should then have a legal right to not be disallowed to shop in that store on the basis of his race. I’ve recently heard libertarians argue that travel bans for people who have been to ebola-affected countries is consistent with a “value” of limited government – yet I think it would be an authoritarian overreach on the part of government.

[...]

As with Bob Inglis – people will reverse engineer from someone’s position to impose values onto them – which makes trying to find shared values a bit of a Sisyphean task.

[...]

...the approach of expanding outward from shared values is a rather superficial structural change. That effectiveness of that kind of an approach, IMO, only works to the extent that the battle lines are not already set in concrete. Perhaps [Hayhoe and Inglis'] approach doesn’t reinforce existing ramparts as much as identity-aggressive tactics like calling someone a “denier,” but neither does it take anyone off their existing path.

November 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua:

I'll see if I can entice the interlocutor into a guest post; it woudl be interesting for others to know whta that person thinks.

The issues you raise about "values" & communication are interesting & difficult.

I don't disagree w/ you; indeed, we might be pretty close to the same place.

I'm inclined to distinguish 2 *kinds* of science communication here & the role of values or communicatin of value affinity has in them.

The first has to do with communicating *content* of science under conditions in which the subject of the conversation is about "what do we know." There I think values can help to achieve disentanglement.

The seocnd has to do with communication "who are you, whose side are you on." I think then the attempt to use value-affinity as means of *changing* someone's positoin is likely to have limited impact, particularly where the participants in conversation *know* that the position in question signifies membership in group. One outlier doesn't change the meaning of the position as a marker of identity. Something more fundamental is needed than a good conversation about the science w/ a smart person who shares your values.

This all has to do w/ my continuing puzzlement over the "knowing disbelief" phenomenon ....

November 8, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

So the question is how can we discuss "what we know" w/o having it morph into "who we are" - whether directly if I'm talking (as a "realist") with a "skeptic" Republican about what we know about climate change or a "realist" Republican (as an outlier) is talking to a "skeptic" Republican about what we know about climate change ?

Again, I think the frame should be to discussion common interests - as in what a variety of stakeholders who reside in the same community can do to address sea level rise.

The context should be non-hierarchical. Each stakeholder has an interest in, and an equal investment in, and an equal say in, policy outcomes. As participants, you don't have to agree with my views on climate change - you can project your identity into the science in whatever way that you want. But you have to accept that as an equally weighted stakeholder, you have to accommodate my views about climate change in order to achieve a consensus-based policy outcome. Just as I do yours. Our only way through is to identify common interests. Standing, fixed, behind my "position" will get me no closer to my realizing my own interests.

One thing I see often in the climate wars is that each side is basically convinced that the other side is sociopathic. They're both convinced that the other side is willing to sacrifice millions of starving children to achieve their ideological goals.

As often as I've seen such an operative conceptualization (keeping in mind that it's a mistake to try to generalize from the blogosphere, and just because someone accuses me of being sociopathic doesn't mean that they really think that I am), I've never met anyone in the real world that strikes me as being so indifferent to children suffering - no matter that I might disagree with them strongly about political issues.

So the envisioning of the "other" as sociopathic is, I think, pretty much a given as the result of identity-defence and identity-aggressive behaviors, but it’s possible to think that someone on the other “side” has sociopathic values and yet still share interests with me, nothwithstanding. I think it’s impossible to have a good faith convo based on shared values with someone who thinks (or is at least willing to argue) that my “values” include wanting (or being indifferent to) children starving in Africa – but I might be able to convince that person that we have shared interests in achieving policy outcomes (say, economic prosperity or access to energy) .


So I think that the pathway might be through establishing common interests. Identifying common values can certainly help, but they aren't as productive a mechanism as is identifying common interests.

November 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua--

I agree it is possible. Two places to study conjectures on how to do it: (a) highschool classrooms; & (b) SE Florida.

The best thing, I think, is to have roles we can inhabit & reasons for acting remote from the ones that are operative in nat'l political debate over climate

November 8, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

Yeah, I meant to write a hat tip..... "as in what a variety of stakeholders who reside in the same community [in Florida]can do to address sea level rise - but I forgot to put in the 'in Flordia"

Speaking of which, I was thinking about this article:

http://chronicle.com/article/Seeking-a-Climate-Change/149707/

All I can say is that I hope you'll remember the little people when you rule the world of climate change.

November 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"In reality, I think I have the same value as the one they’ve identified for themselves – but I might have a different “position” on, say, whether a black cop that risks his life to protect the safety of a store owner should then have a legal right to not be disallowed to shop in that store on the basis of his race. I’ve recently heard libertarians argue that travel bans for people who have been to ebola-affected countries is consistent with a “value” of limited government – yet I think it would be an authoritarian overreach on the part of government."

I agree that values and positions are different, and that it is hard to identify what values people hold from the positions they take on various problems. Although I do think that in coming to different positions this is often a reflection of holding different values - or at least, prioritising them differently. I think the problem you had with people misidentifying your values may be partly down to the tendency of people to characterise their opponent's position in the most awkward cases and least flattering terms, as a way to make their "error" clearer and make the moral choice between positions clear in their favour.

For the libertarian, the issue with the store owner is the freedom to trade, for all transactions between people to be by mutual and informed consent. Now I'm sure you have the same value - you would apply it in a person's choice of sexual partner, for example - but it's trumped in this case by the higher value of equality of treatment where there is no overriding justification for treating people differently. And likewise, most libertarians I know would be disgusted by the idea of refusing to trade with somebody simply because of their skin colour or nationality, but that is trumped by the higher value of not interfering with a person's choices except to prevent harm to others. They would be similarly disgusted by a customer's refusal to buy goods simply because they are produced in Israel, but would support their right to do so - you could no more force customers to trade equally than shopkeepers.

In the Ebola case, it depends on how high the risk to other people is, but I'd probably argue that the proper solution is to say that if by negligent or reckless behaviour a person spreads the infection to others, those others (or their families, if they die) can sue that person or their estate for damages, and to insist that people taking such risky actions should first prove they either have the resources to pay or hold insurance against the possibility. But that's based on my libertarian values of not interfering with a person's choices except to prevent harm to others. Some would argue that for many people the money isn't enough to compensate for catching Ebola, and they shouldn't be forced into such an exchange without their knowledge and against their will. Others will argue that in the majority of cases no harm will be done, and people shouldn't be inconvenienced or their freedom interfered with until the specific risk of harm becomes definitely known to exist.

In a sense, in arguing for freedom of movement, you're taking the libertarian position, and I suspect you are arguing there against conservatives. That one seems to be mixed up with the political issues around illegal immigration and border controls - most of those I see arguing for stronger border controls suspect Obama is refusing partly because of the political precedent it might set regarding border control generally. That suggests to me that these people are conservatives, since libertarians are generally in favour of free (legal) immigration, on economic grounds.

Sometimes people have different values, sometimes they have the same values but prioritise them differently. Sometimes people are inconsistent.

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

NiV -

I've read the explanations of the people who expressed their opinions on the subjects I discussed. I really don't need your explanation for their arguments. I don't know why you do that, repeatedly.

==> "or at least, prioritising them differently. "

Right. There's always a matter of "prioritization." Hence, we have, as an example, libertarians arguing in support authoritarian government action that restricts freedoms, to be implemented by politicians in a centralized government structure (and in basic contradiction to the advice of the historical evidence regarding the effectiveness of various actions, people study the issue in-depth, etc.). Libertarians who argue in support of term limits is another of my favored examples.

And yet, we have a well-known leader in the libertarian community say that really the arguments are about political expediency.

http://www.salon.com/2014/10/21/paul_vs_paul_ron_trashes_rands_politically_motivated_ebola_travel_ban/


My point is that what we often see - on both sides of many issues - is that the "prioritization" gives us oppositional "positions" arising out of similar values - in this case a limited government that acts when "necessary."

I don't think that it is largely a matter of different values. I think it is olften reverse-engineering from political orientation/ideological identification to result in different positions, that are then protected by an identity-defensive or aggressive assertion about differing "values."

And in my view, that prioritization takes place in ways that I think are often internally contradictory, as the result of motivated reasoning.

==> "In a sense, in arguing for freedom of movement, you're taking the libertarian position, and I suspect you are arguing there against conservatives."

No. Unrelated issue.

And as an aside, it's interesting to me that you seem to think that I should accept your description of the differences between a "libertarian" and a "conservative," over the self-description of the people I'm discussing the issues with. There are no true Scotsmen, eh?

==> "Sometimes people are inconsistent."

Yes. That was my point. And it's interesting to observe those inconsistencies.

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"I've read the explanations of the people who expressed their opinions on the subjects I discussed. I really don't need your explanation for their arguments. I don't know why you do that, repeatedly."

Because you always get it wrong?! ;-)

I like to think of it as "taking part in a conversation". Why mention it if you don't want anyone to respond? Or is it just me?

"Hence, we have, as an example, libertarians arguing in support authoritarian government action that restricts freedoms,..."

Where? You didn't mention any of those.

"I don't think that it is largely a matter of different values. I think it is olften reverse-engineering from political orientation/ideological identification to result in different positions, that are then protected by an identity-defensive or aggressive assertion about differing "values." "

I know you do. You think *everything* is caused by motivated reasoning.

"And as an aside, it's interesting to me that you seem to think that I should accept your description of the differences between a "libertarian" and a "conservative," over the self-description of the people I'm discussing the issues with. There are no true Scotsmen, eh?"

Not *MY* definition; *THE* definition. If a man tells you he's actually a dog, would you give him a bone? "Libertarian" does have a number of different flavours, but anything calling for restrictions on people's freedom of action for reasons not associated with preventing harm to others are NOT libertarians. I don't care what they call themselves. It's opposed to the meaning of the word. No True Scotsman is pure Polynesian, whatever she might say.

Sometimes words do get co-opted by politics and are redefined to mean the opposite of what they originally meant - the word 'liberal' comes to mind, for example - and you have to move with the times to avoid constant confusion and clarifications. But 'libertarianism' isn't popular enough to have yet done so.

There are some people on the libertarian left, and some on the libertarian right, who hold a mixture of libertarian and left/right views. Maybe there are some people who hold enough libertarian views to find it a useful label for themselves. But that doesn't make every view of a self-declared 'libertarian' a libertarian view. And it's usually you who is telling me off about treating groups as monolithic in their opinions...

The Ebola question is basically about how much danger to others is being imposed, and whether it passes the threshold needed to justify restrictions. It's like walking the streets with a gun with a wobbly trigger that keeps going off on its own and killing people. Does a few people killed justify detaining everybody with such a gun, until they at least know if the thing's loaded or not? Or would that be authoritarian overreach?

As I noted, the standard libertarian position in cases where there might be a risk but probably isn't is to allow the behaviour but to take precautions to enable those who do cause harm to be caught and to pay the penalty. People can then decide for themselves whether they're prepared to take the risk or not, and to set a price. It's the same response as for guns or poisons.

That there might be self-labelled 'libertarians' in favour of gun control or banning poisons wouldn't surprise me, but they're not being libertarians when they say so. The libertarian position would be against a ban. Likewise with potential Ebola carriers.

Killing people is a serious enough matter that I can understand why people would want to ban it. There's far worse abuses of power that governments carry out routinely, accepted by almost everyone, and if you're going to compromise with state power I can see why you might set the bar higher than that. But even so.

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

==> "I like to think of it as "taking part in a conversation". Why mention it if you don't want anyone to respond? Or is it just me?"

Not at all. But what's the point in telling my why people made the arguments that they've made when they've already told me why they made those arguments - and you wouldn't be in a position to know why they made those arguments anyway.

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Anyway, NiV, I'm happy to discuss these issues with you - but not when you presume to explain to me what the issues actually are, what people are actually arguing, how they should actually be categorized, etc. Express your opinions. State them as opinions. Engage with me. If I need you to explain something to me, I'll ask.

==> "And it's usually you who is telling me off about treating groups as monolithic in their opinions..."

I am saying that libertarians are not monolithic. You, on the other hand, are presuming to tell me what is or isn't a libertarian belief. I see this a lot in the interwebs. Conservatives telling me that other self-identified conservatives aren't really conservatives (I hear it about Kerry Emanuel all the time). Or libertarians telling me that other self-identified libertarians aren't really libertarians. And always, what they are saying is that someone who doesn't agree with them isn't a true Scotsman.

Pretty funny given that one of your arguments is that we should always question authority. By what authority do you claim the power to determine that someone else who identifies as a libertarian isn't actually a libertarian but instead they're a conservative?

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Forgot to mention it - but my favorite discussion of that type is when "realists" and "skeptics" argue back and forth about whether Muller is a "skeptic."

It's my favorite because is so completely obvious that all those arguing so assertively and with total certainty are defining terms in a completely self-serving, subjective manner.

For the most part, I'm a descriptivist - because I'm unimpressed with the self-assigned authority of prescriptivists.

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua-

I can't vouch for my memory (although it doesn't discriminate against people based on height or any other metric of stature) but I can assure I will never "rule" any such world. It's overdetermined, of course, but I have zero interest in the position.

November 12, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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