So I said in my post “yesterday” that I’d share a “freakout” experience I had where data didn’t seem to fit my expectations in an area in which I like to think I’m at least moderately well informed!
It occurred when I made a 3-day visit to the Ohio State University last week.
I had a great time!
I got to learn about the awesome convergence of interest across programs there in the science of science communication, reflected in the new initiative on Behavioral Decision Making.
And I got to do a workshop on “Motivated System 2 Reasoning,” in which I got a ton of good feedback from an audience that was as diverse in their backgrounds and perspectives as they were enthusiastic to engage (slides here).
Now, the freakout part occurred in connection with my participation in panel on fracking.
The panel was a “town meeting”-style event produced as part of the University’s “Health Science Frontiers” series. In the series, public-health and science issues are introduced by a panel discussion and then opened up for a broader discussion with audience members, all of whom are assembled in the studio of the University’s public television affiliate, which records the event for later broadcast.
Besides me, the panel for the fracking show included Mike Bisesi, a super-smart OSU environmental scientist, and Mark Somerson, a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch who has been doing very extensive, fine-grained coverage of public controversy over the expansion of fracking in Ohio. The moderator, who displayed amazing craft!, was Mike Thompson, WOSU’s news director.
Not really sure what I could add to the discussion, I figured I’d at least be sure to make the point that most members of the general public don’t know what fracking is.
I mean this quite literally.
A George Mason/Yale Climate Change Communication Project study found that 55% of the respondents in a nationally representative poll reported having heard “nothing” (39%) or only “a little” (16%) about fracking, and only 31% reported knowing either a “little” (22%) or a “lot” (9%).
These sorts of self-report measures, moreover, are known to overstate what people actually know about an emerging technology.
In a recent Pew survey, 51% were able to select the right answer to the question “what natural resource is extracted in a process known as ‘fracking’ ”—in a multiple-choice question in which the likelihood of getting the right answer by simply choosing randomly would have been 25%. We can infer the percent who actually knew the answer, then, was lower than 50%--& surely no more than 46% (assuming, over generously, odds of 9:1 that any respondent who got the right answer knew rather than “guessed”).
The lack of familiarity with an emerging technology is a good thing to keep in mind when a group of people who are well-informed about and highly interested in a novel technology get together to talk about (among other things) “public attitudes” towards it.
Precisely because those people are well-informed and highly-interested, they will have been exposed to a very unrepresentative sample of opinions toward the technology, and are vulnerable for that reason to grossly overestimate the extent to which the risks it poses are a genuine matter of public dispute.
This effect, moreover, will be magnified if those people, disregarding the biased nature of the samples that are the basis of their own observations, talk a lot to themselves and credit one another’s reports about who believes what and why about what is in fact a boutiquey issue in which most ordinary people don’t have views one way or the other.
This was one of the point’s I stressed in “yesterday’s” post, which noted the echo-chamber amplification of misimpressions about the extent and partisan nature of conflict over GM foods. People who know a lot about it—particularly ones who write about it for the media and on-line—take it as gospel that the public is “polarized,” when in fact they just aren’t.
Why would they be? Most of them have no idea what GM foods are either (not to mention that they are consuming platefulls of them at pretty much every meal).
I anticipated that people attending the fracking session would likely be under the impression that “fracking” is a controversial issue that has the public up in arms, and I’d be able to say, “well, wait a second . . . .” In fact, I wasn’t really sure I’d have anything more to say!
So we arrive at the studio for the event and tell the receptionist we are here for the “fracking panel.”
“Fracking?,” she says. “What’s that?”
“Score!,” I think to myself. This exchange will make for a nice, concrete illustration of my (solitary) point.
At this stage, Eric Nisbet, whom I had arrived with answered, “It’s a technique by which high pressure water mixed with various chemicals is used to fracture underground rock formations so that natural gas can be extracted.”
“Oh my god!,” the receptionist exclaimed. “That’s sounds terrifying! The chemicals—they’ll likely poison us. And surely there will be earthquakes!”
And shit, I thought, now what am I going to say?
Actually, the receptionist’s response made things even better!
Because it turns out that even though people don’t know anything about fracking, there is reason to think that they -- or really about 50% of them-- will react the way she did as soon as they do.
That’s what is freaking me out!
Consider this snapshot of public opinion on climate change:
This is the “profile” of a “stage 3” science-communication pathology.
Not only is there intense political polarization (not just on “how serious” the risk of climate change is, btw, but also on more specific empirical issues like “whether the earth has been heating up” and “whether humans have caused it”; responses to the industrial strength risk perception measure will correlate very highly with responses to those more specific, “factual” issues).
The polarization is even more intense among individuals who know the most about science generally and who possess the aptitudes and critical reasoning skills most suited to understanding scientific evidence.
The reason “science comprehension” magnifies polarization, CCP research suggests, is that individuals of opposing cultural identities (ones you can often measure adequately with right-left political outlooks but can get an even more discerning glimpse of with the two-dimensional cultural worldview scales) are using their knowledge and reasoning proficiencies to fit all the evidence they see to the position that predominates in their group.
But we don’t see it very often. Indeed, the number of facts that are important for individual and collective decisionmaking that reflect this pattern is miniscule relative to the ones that don’t.
Consider medical x-rays and fluoridation of water:
No polarization, and as diverse individuals become more science comprehending, they tend to converge on the position that is most supported by the best (currently) available evidence.
And I could go on all day showing you graphics that look exactly like that! That pattern is the normal situation, the existence of which tends, for reasons similar to ones I’ve discussed already, tends to evade our notice & result in wild overestimations of the degree to which there is conflict over science in our society.
In fact, consider GM foods:
Despite what people think, there's no polarization to speak of here. It’s true, science comprehension seems to have a bigger effect in reducing risk perception among those who are more right-wing than it does on those who are more left- in their political outlooks. But since the effect on both is to reduce concern, it’s hard to believe that that sort of difference portends political conflict over whether GM foods are risky.
The perception that these issues are part of the cluster of politically or socially controversial set of risk issues in our society is a consequence of the selection bias and echo chamber effects I also discussed above.
I’ve talked about these things before (and talked before about how it seems like everything I ever talk about is something I’ve already talked about). And when I talk about GM foods, I usually add, “Of course, there isn’t political polarization over GM foods—most people don’t even know what they are!!”
But now consider fracking . . . :
This is a “stage 3” pathology picture!
How could this be? After all, polarization that increases conditional on science comprehension is not the norm! And most people haven’t even heard of this friggin’ fracking thing!
I know, I know: many of you will say, “of course, the answer is blah blah blah”—an answer that will in fact be perfectly plausible. But if that’s your instinct, you should teach yourself to stifle it.
“Everything is obvious once you know the answer!” Before you knew it, moreover, the opposite was just as plausible. If I’d shown you that fracking looked like medical x-rays or vaccines or GM foods, you would have said, “Of course—polarization that increases conditional on science comprehension is unusual, and no one even knows about GM foods, blah blah blah….”
More things are plausible than are true!
That’s why we look at evidence.
It’s why, too, it’s no embarrassment to learn that one’s plausible conjecture about a phenomenon is wrong!
The only thing that would be embarrassing—and just plain wrong—would be the failure not to adjust one’s previous, plausible views in light of what new and surprising information shows.
So what’s going on?
I can only conjecture—in anticipation of yet more study. But here’s what I’d say.
In measuring subjects’ perceptions with the “industrial strength measure,” I defined fracking, parenthetically, in terms very much like the ones that Eric used to describe it to the receptionist.
As was the case for her, that was enough for the participants in the study to experience the sort of affective reaction to this technology that assimilated it to the putative risk sources--like climate change, and guns, and nuclear power—with which they are more familiar and on which they are already strongly divided along cultural lines.
The experience was even more intense among those highest in critical reasoning dispositions. But that makes sense to—for contrary to the dominant “instant decision science” (take 2 cups of “heuristics & biases” literature, add water & stir”) story-telling account of polarization over decision-relevant science, that phenomenon is not a consequence of overreliance on “System 1” heuristic reasoning. Rather it is a form of information processing that rationally serves individuals’ interest in forming and persisting in perceptions of risk that express their stake in maintaining their status in affinity groups essential to their identities.
We might well infer from these data, then, that there is something pretty peculiar about fracking that makes it distinctively vulnerable—much more so, even, than GM foods, which after all have been around for decades and which advocacy groups incessantly try to transform into a culturally polarizing issue—to the pathology that characterizes climate change and other issues that display the “stage 3” pattern.
Indeed, one of the points of developing a science of science communication—one that tests conjectures as opposed to engaging in “instant decision science” —is to create forecasting tools that can spot public-deliberation disasters like the one over climate change or the HPV vaccine in advance and head them off.
But in that regard, we also shouldn’t assume that every novel technology that has this sort of special incitement quality will in fact become the an object of reason-distorting cultural status competition.
So – I don’t know!
But I want to: I want to know more about fracking, and about the mechanisms and processes that comprise our science communication environment.
So I'll collect even more data.
And expect --indeed, eagerly and excitedly embrace--even more surprise.
Oh-- should add: I don't have a clue about risks of fracking!
I see lots of potential benefit, but I just don't know enough about the hazards associated with producing it.
The folks in the audience at the panel discussion were by & large strongly opposed.
Many said lots of interesting things that I took (mental) notes on as matters to read up on.
And they were reasonable, friendly citizens who obviously were disposed to listen to others (including the visible & candid minority who, if not pro-fracking, were insisting that the issues were unclear & would in the end likely come down to values, not facts).
The anti-fracking audience members also were filled with strikingly deep distrust -- of government, and of any scientific authority responsible for studying risks.
Should they be? I don't know.
But I do know they--along w/ all the other citizens of the Liberal Republic of Science-- deserve a science communication enviornment in which they don't have reason to experience that sort of suspicion.