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Geoengineering the science communication environment: the cultural plasticity of climate change risks part II

So … a couple of days ago I posted something on the topic of “geoengineering.”

I'm pretty fascinated by the advent of research and discussion of this new technology, which of course "refers to deliberate, large-scale manipulations of Earth’s environment designed to offset some of the harmful consequences of [greenhouse-gas induced] climate change."

For one thing, geoengineering presents a splendid, awe-inspiring pageant of human ingenuity. 

from 20/20science.orgConsider David Keith’s idea, presented in an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, of deploying a fleet of thermostatically self-regulating, mirror-coated, nanotechnology flying saucers, which would be programmed to assemble at the latitude and altitude appropriate to reflect back the precise amount of sun light necessary to offset the global heating associated with human-caused CO2 emissions.

The only thing needed to make this the coolest (as it were) technological invention ever would be the addition of a force of synthetic-biology engineered E. Coli pilots, who would be trained to operate the nanotechnology flying saucers while also performing complex mathematical calculations in aid of computationally intensive tasks (such as climate modeling or intricate sports-betting algorithms) back on the surface of the earth!

But another reason I find geoengineering so fascinating is its potential to invert the cultural meanings of climate change risk.

This is what I focused on in my last post

There I rehearsed the account that the “cultural theory of risk” gives for climate change conflict. “Hierarchical individualists” are (unconsciously) motivated to resist evidence of climate change because they perceive that societal acceptance of such evidence would justify restrictions on markets, commerce, and industry—activities they value, symbolically as well as materially.

“Egalitarian communitarians,” by the same logic, readily embrace the most dire climate-change forecasts because they perceive exactly the same thing but take delight at the prospect of radical limits on commerce, industry, and markets, which in their eyes are the source of myriad social inequities.

My point was that, if we accept this basic story (it’s too simple, even as an account of how cultural cognition works; but that’s in the nature of “models” & should give us pause only when the simplification detracts from rather than enhances our ability to predict and manage the dynamics of the phenomenon in question), then there’s no reason to view the valences of the cultural meanings attached to crediting climate change risk as fixed or immutable.  One could imagine a world in which crediting evidence of human-caused climate change and the risks it poses gratify hierarchical and individualistic sensibilities and threaten egalitarian communitarian ones.

Indeed, one could, in theory, make such a world with geoengineering.  Or make it simply by initiating a sufficiently serious and visible national discussion of it as one potential solution to the problems associated with global warming.

As I explained, geoengineering stands the cultural narrative associated with climate change on its head.  Ordinarily, the message of climate change advocacy is “game over!” & “told you so!”: your inquisitive, market-driven forms of manipulation of the environment to suit your selfish desires are killing us and now must end!

The message of the geoengineering, however, is “more of the same!” & “yes, we can!”: we’ve always managed to offset the environmental byproducts of commerce, industry, markets etc. with more commerce and market-fueled ingenuity (see the advent of modern sewage treatment as a means of overcoming "natural limits" on population density in big cities)—well, the time is here to do it again!

By making a culturally affirming meaning available to hierarch individualists, geoengineering reduces the psychic cost for them of engaging open-mindedly with evidence that human-caused climate change puts us in danger.

Of course, by attenuating the identity-affirming meaning that climate change now has for egalitarian communitarians—by suggesting that we needn’t go on a “diet” to counter the effects of our “planetary over-indulgence”; we have the option “atmospheric liposuction” at our disposal!—geoengineering could well expected to provoke a skeptical orientation in egalitarian communitarians, not only toward geoengineering but toward climate change science that implies the necessity and feasibility of conscious interventions to offset the impact of carbon emissions on the environment.

CCP did a study (to be published in Ann. Am. Acad. Pol. & Soc. Sci.) that tested these hypotheses.

In it, we instructed the subjects—nationally representative samples of 1500 US adults and 1500 English ones—to read a study on human-caused climate change.  A composite of real studies appearing  in Nature and Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, the study presented evidence that CO2  dissipates from the atmosphere much more sluggishly than scientists had previously anticipated.

As a result, the composite study concludes, phasing in strict CO2 limits (450-600 ppm) will have less beneficial impact than had previously been predicted.  Indeed, even if carbon emissions ended today, there’d still be substantial detrimental impacts—in the form of massive submersion of highly populated coastal regions due to continuing sea-level rise, and famine-inducing droughts in interior regions due to shifting weather patterns.

We then tested our subjects’ evaluation of the validity of the study.  For this purpose, we instructed them to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with statements such as “the scientists who did the study were biased,” “computer models like those relied on in the study are not a reliable basis for predicting the impact of  CO2 on the climate,” and “more studies must be done before policymakers rely on the findings” of the study etc.

The sorts of arguments that typically are advanced by climate skeptics, these items enabled us to form a “dismissiveness” scale that reflected how closed or open-minded the subjects were in assessing this evidence of climate change.

We found, not surprisingly, that subjects disposed toward hierarchical and individualistic values—in both the U.S. and the English samples—were highly dismissive, while ones disposed toward egalitarian and communitarian values were highly receptive to the evidence presented in the composite study.

But that was in a control condition in which the subjects, before reading the composite study and indicating their views of its validity, read a story about a city meeting on a traffic-light proposal, a matter completely unrelated to climate change.

There were two other experimental conditions.  In the “anti-pollution” condition, subjects read a news story that reported that expert scientists were demanding implementation of stricter carbon emissions to offset the deleterious effects of climate change. In the “geoengineering” condition, in contrast, the subjects read a news story that reported that expert scientists were calling for more research on geoengineering in responses to those same anticipated effects. 

Logically, the information in these news stories is no more related to the validity of the climate-science study that the subjects were subsequently asked to read and evaluate than was the information in the control-condition news story on traffic lights: either the evidence on carbon dissipation is valid or it isn’t; its validity doesn’t depend on what we are going to do if it is—restrict carbon emissions all the more or consider geoengineering; indeed, the evidence it is not valid, that issue is moot.

But psychologically, the cultural cognition thesis predicts that which condition the subjects were assigned to could matter. 

The subjects in the geoengineering condition were seeing climate change connected to cultural meanings—“more of the same” & “yes, we can!”—that are different from the usual “game over!” & “told you so!” ones, which the anti-pollution news story was geared to reinforcing.

Because the congeniality of the cultural meaning of information shapes how readily they engage with the content of it, we predicted that the hierarchical individualists in the geoengineering condition would respond much more open-mindedly to the information from the climate change study on carbon dissipation.

And that prediction turned out to be true. 

In addition, cultural polarization over the validity of the climate-change study was lower for both U.S. and English subjects in the geoengineering condition than in the anti-pollution condition, where polarization was actually larger for U.S. subjects than it was in the control.

But part of the reason that polarization was lower in the geoengineering condition was that egalitarian communitarians who read the geoengineering news story reacted less open-mindedly toward the climate-change study than their counterparts who first read the anti-pollution news story.

The egalitarian communitarians in the anti-pollution conditon saw no tension between-- indeed, likely perceived an affinity between-- the dire conclusions of the study and the  “game over!”/“told you so!” meanings that they attach to climate change.

But the conflict between those meanings and the narrative implicit in the "geoengineering" condition woke the egalitarian communitarians up to the CO2 dissipation study's potential policy implications: if CO2 reductions won't be enough to stave off disaster, then we are going to have to do something more.  

Primed to see that the "more" was geoengineering-- "more of the same!"/"yes, we can!"--many egalitarian communitarian subjects pushed back on the premise, either adopting or rejecting with less vehemence the dismissive responses that climate skeptics typically express toward evidence of human-caused climate change.

In sum, by inverting the cultural meanings attached to such evidence, the geoengineering news story made the hierarchical individualists more inclined to believe and egalitarian communitarians more inclined to be skeptical of climate change. That's a pretty nice corroboration, I think, of the cultural cognition thesis!

I don’t think, however, that this result suggests the advent of geoengineering as subject of research and as an issue for public discussion will be a zero sum game for public engagement with climate science.

First, contrary to the warnings of some commentators, subjects exposed to the geoengineering information did not become less concerned about climate change.  Overall, they became more.

Second, the egalitarian communitarians in the geoengineering condition were less open-minded in their assessment of climate change evidence than those in the anti-pollution condition. But in absolute terms, they were still plenty open-minded—indeed, more open-minded, less dismissive—than hierarchical individualists in that very condition.

Third, the major impediment, I’m convinced, to constructive public engagement with climate science is not how much either side knows or understands scientific evidence of it.  It’s their shared apprehension that opposing positions on climate change are, in effect, badges of membership in and loyalty to competing cultural groups; that is the cue or signal that motivates members of the public to process information about climate change risks in a manner that is more reliably geared to affirming the position that predominates in their group than to converging on the best available evidence.

The key, then, is to clear the science communication environment of the toxin of antagonistic cultural meanings that now envelop the climate change issue.

The advent of public discussion of geoengineering, the CCP study implies, can help to achieve this desirable result by seeding public deliberations over climate change with meanings  congenial to a wider array of cultural styles.


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Reader Comments (14)

Sheece - you'd think that at least occasionally I'd think of proofreading:

I'm hoping I can edit this a bit and ask you to delete the first attempt?

"In other words, the incongruence between the narrative implicit in the geoengineering news story and the “game over!”/“told you so!” meanings that egalitarian communitarians attach to climate change risks made the egalitarian communitarian subjects (in both national samples) become more dismissive of climate change evidence.""

Hmmm. I'm having trouble understanding this.

Why, if the experimental condition made the risks of climate change less threatening (by virtue of increasing the possibility of mitigation), did the EGs became more dismissive of the evidence of climate change.?

""That meaning inversion made hierarchical individualists more inclined to believe and egalitarian communitarians more inclined to be skeptical of climate change is a nice corroboration, I think, of the cultural cognition thesis!"

I can understand the former (HI's see the prospect of climate change as less threatening to their cultural identtification), but as I said above, I don't get the latter.

As best I can figure out, you're saying that because the information on geo-engineering undermined the strength of the "game-over" paradigm, it made the "game-over" paradigm less satisfying for someone who is using the "game-over" paradigm as a vehicle for identity affirmation (and because, in being human, we are all "motivated" by identity affirmation). But that would seem to me to be a reason for that person to reject the content of the geo-engineering article, not increase their skepticism about climate change. Increasing their skepticism about climate change would not function to strengthen their identity affirmation, but weaken it.

I guess I"m just missing something.

Anyway, interesting study, IMO.

I still wish that you would conduct a study where you test the effect of providing explicit information about motivated reasoning on outcome measures of motivated reasoning. I am quite convinced that the most effective way to reduce polarization would be to have people become metacognitive about the biases that influence their reasoning. Meta-cognition is such a powerful tool for improving learning, and I would argue, reasoning.

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Don't worry about proof-reading-- you can see I don't!

Does *my* reworkding make clearer?

February 26, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I think you're exactly right that the impacts of highlighting geoengineering demonstrate the validity to cultural cognition as an explanation of human psychology. Where I'm not so sure I agree is the idea that emphasizing geoengineering thereby "clears the toxin" from the debate. A debate where lots of people are in the middle because of a lack of cultural meanings and a debate where lots of people are in the middle because of conflicting cultural meanings are not the same. If you got a bunch of speed junkies to smoke some pot that might bring their moods back into the normal range, but that wouldn't make them drug-free.

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterStentor Danielson


Very good point....

Consider 3 possibilities:

a. Meaningless facts. Here facts that admit of scientific investigation and that are of consequence to individual or collective decisions don't bear any particular cultural significance. I think flouridation in water & medical x-rays are probably like that (in the main; some splinter group somewhere attributes meaning to these & gets all worked up; they are viewed as weird for exactly that reason). For those, individuals of divers identities converge on the best available evidence in the way that they normally do -- by immersing themselves in networks of people they trust and can understand and who will be filled with plenty of people who know what's what.

b. Facts entangled in culturally antagonistic meanings.Here opposing positions on facts become ransformed into badges of membership in opposing groups. Individuals, b/c they have a greater stake in forming identity-congruent than truth-congruent beliefs, apply their reason to give information the effect that fits the position predominant in their group. Persistent cultural polarization ensues--b/c in effect the science communication enviroment has become polluted with reason-effacing toxins

c. Meaning over-determined facts Here facts of consequence to indivdiual and collective decisions do become suffused with cultural meanings-- but notculturally antagonistic ones. Rather they exist in a field rich enough with positive meanings for members of all groups to see the crediting of them as affirming their group's values & identity. In this world, too, there is no conflict: most people are not zealots; they are not trying to ram their values down each other's throats, only to put food on their tables; they might not particularly like how others live, but they largely ignore what they don't like -- so long as they do not feel they being made to bear obligations that endorse those other views and denigrate theirs. There is risk, however: some people are zealots; others, moreover, are opportunists. They might find it in their interest to try to deplete the stock of affirmative meanings or turn affirmative meanings against one another in a way that creates antagonism.

Do you accept (a) & (b) as real but not (c)?

February 26, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

"But the conflict between those meanings and the narrative implicit in the "geoengineering" condition woke the egalitarian communitarians up to the study's potential policy implications: if CO2 reductions won't be enough to stave off disaster, then we are going to have to do something more. "

But wouldn't that mean that they were altering their perspective - to one that was less polarized - on the basis of the evidence? Wouldn't that be inconsistent with the premise of cultural cognition - that people will filter (or disregard) any evidence so as to maintain their polarized perspective? Wouldn't cultural cognition predict that the ECs would just reject the information from the geo-engineering article?

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Love this.

If this study (and everything else we understand about cultural cognition) implies a singular call to action, it would presumably for us to begin

"seeding public deliberations... with meanings congenial to a wider array of cultural styles"

This, of course, has been my area of interest over the past year or two-- figuring out just how that seeding/framing can be practically accomplished.

Do you think the ability to do this relies on an understanding of cultural cognition? Do you think it's critical for someone to understand how this dynamic works, how these cognitive tendencies play out, in order to support whatever rhetorical strategies help accomplish that pluralistic affirmation? Or do you think if someone (presumably someone who understands cultural cognition) develops a set of communication strategies or guides that skip ahead to the end of the story and just provide those "seeding guidelines" to someone without an understanding of why this has a positive effect on polarization, it would suffice? I guess what I'm wondering is, how important is one's ability to reflect on his own cultural worldview or understanding of the cultural landscape/audience in trying to accomplish this?

I am always wondering how to make this information actionable.

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJen


The cultural cognition thesis is that people conform their perceptions of risk & like facts to the positions that predominate in their group -- not that they conform fact or risk perceptions to ones that maintain or maximize polarization.

I agree that cultural cognition predicts that ECs will see geoengineering as both ineffective & dangersous. I link to various materials that illustrate that -- including ones that show that the same people who reject claims like "climate can't be modeled b/c it is chaotic" in context of debating climate change evidence adopt them in context of debating geoengineering. Likewise for deferring to NAS, Royal Scoiety etc.

February 26, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


I think understanding the mechanisms enables formation & testing of sensible hypotheses & also comprehension of what worked & why in manner that makes extension to new settings possible.

We need a *system* of science communication w/ this understanding in general -- & w/ an understanding in particular of all the mechanisms, cultural cogniton but others too, that are of consequence for science communication.

If we have a system, not all contributors to it will have the same sorts of knowledge. Certainly, "front-line communicators" will be unlikely to have the same command of the psychology as empirical researchers. But the front-line communicators will have somethking that the reseachers don't, too: situation-specific knowledge necessary to recognize how the general mechanisms that research identifies as consequential are likely to play out in particular contexts. Those two kinds of knowledge have to be put together. And for that reason, each contributor -- researcher & communicator -- have to be able & committed to understanding enough of what the other knows to fuse their insights. For that reason, I think the model of someone who just receives & executes "how to" instructions isn't the right one.

Am I connecting, though, w/ the issue you are raising? I'm not sure!

February 26, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

The cultural cognition thesis is that people conform their perceptions of risk & like facts to the positions that predominate in their group -- not that they conform fact or risk perceptions to ones that maintain or maximize polarization.

I, for one, am not convinced that there isn't much overlap there. One way to affirm my group identity is by identifying (and vilifying) the "others" who are not in my group.

When I, as an entrenched "movitated reasoner," read about the need for policies that address the "in the pipeline" aspect of ACO2 already in the atmosphere, it doesn't increase my skepticism about the impact of ACO2 on the climate, but it somewhat alters my views on the viability of various policy options.

February 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Thanks for your clear statement of the issue -- the point I was trying to make was to highlight the existence of option c! It seems to me that you tend to take a pretty optimistic view of c -- since there are multiple contradictory cultural meanings available, culture no longer pushes people in specific directions, and so culture is neutralized and science can prevail. My question was prompted by considering a more pessimistic take on c -- with so many cultural meanings floating around, the debate gets dragged even further into cultural contestation because now both sides can use the same science as a weapon without necessarily having any better of an understanding of it.

February 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterStentor Danielson


Yes, I agree: I am adopting a cheery stance here. For sure, "expressive" or "meaning overdetermination" is 90% conjecture, too,

There are some historical & case-study accounts that fit this picture.

One is Steve Teles's Whose Welfare? He argues that there was an expressively overdetermined consensus on AFDC from New Deal to probably end of 1960s, in which egalitarian & communitarian sensibilities favored it as symbolic qualification of markets & in which hierarch sensibilities (communitarian & individualistic) saw it as a symbolic affirmation of the value of traditional, gender division of labor in the face of market pressures that might drive women into the work force. All came toppling down, he says, when activists on both sides began to play up pro-egalitarian "enabling women to be indpendent of men" theme that made AFDC become infused w/ antagonoistic meanings. If this story holds up, it illustrates the fragility of expressive-overdetermination equilibria-- as you were suggesting.

Another good account is Mary Anne Glendon's Abortion & Divorce in Western Law. She tells how expressive-overdetermination detentes emerged on abortion in both France & Germany. Basically laws were enacted that symbolically affirmed the hierarchs by treating abortion as a matter of necessity rather than right but that symbolically affirmed egalitarians by making an individual woman's assertion of necessity essentially unreviewable. An interesting story,anyway!

March 1, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I found it interesting to think how this post relates to your study, Dan.

March 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


"... A total of 97 (25 male, 72 female) undergraduate students [from UC Berkeley]..."

Sound like a good sample for a study of how real-world white male hierarchical individualists, who in fact comprise the core of climate skepticism in US general population?

But it does gets the same result as a study that reached the same sorts of conclusions w/ a very different sample -- "563 (369 female) New York University undergraduates" (Feygina, I., Jost, J.T. & Goldsmith, R.E. System justification, the denial of global warming, and the possibility of “System-Sanctioned Change”. Pers Soc Psychol B 36, 326-338 (2010)-- so maybe there's something to it.

March 5, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Thanks for reminding the present of the past work of Wildavsky, which remains salient because many on both sides of the climate wars are in deep denial as to how their own politics selectively focus their view of the scientific literature.

Far from enjoying an exception to Wildavsky's hypothesis, historians and sociologists seem especially susceptible to it.

March 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRussell

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