So having been freaked out to discover how pervasively polarized members of the public appear to be about fracking despite knowing nothing about it, I resolved to do a little experiment.
In the previous data collection, I had measured perceptions of fracking risks using the "industrial strength measure," which solicits a rating of how "serious" a societal risk some activity poses to "human health, safety, or prosperity."
My thought was that maybe what had generated such a strong degree of polarization might be the wording of the item, which asked subjects to supply such a rating for "fracking (extraction of natural gas by hydraulic fracturing)."
I figured maybe this language--the sort of "dirty" sounding word "fracking" and the references to "extraction" (sounds like a painful and invasive procedure to subject mother Nature to) & "natural gas" ("boo" if you have an egalitarian, "game over, capitalists!" sensibility; yay, if you have an individualist, "yes we can, forever & ever & ever!" one) would be sufficient to alert the ordinary Americans who made up the sample (most of whom likely wouldn't have been able to define fracking without this clue) that this was an "environmental" issue. That would be enough to enable most of them to locate the issue's position on the "cultural theory of risk" map, particularly if they were above-average in science comprehension and thus especially skilled at fitting information to their cultural identities.
So I thought I'd try an experiment. Administer the same measure but vary the description of the putative risk source: in one condition, it would be called simply "fracking"; in another, it would be referred to as "shale oil gas production"; and in a third, the risk source would be identified as it was in the earlier survey-- "fracking (extraction of natural gas by hydraulic fracturing.)"
I figured that relative to the third group, those in the first (plain old "fracking") would be less polarized, and those in the second ("shale oil gas production"; sounds harmless!) would be the least agitated of all.
Actually, I was modeling this experiment loosely on Sinaceur, M., Heath, C. & Cole, S. Emotional and deliberative reactions to a public crisis mad cow disease in France, Psychol Sci 16, 247-254 (2005)), a great study in which the investigators showed that lab subjects formed affect- or emotion-pervaded judgments when evaluating risk information relating to "Mad Cow disease" but formed more analytical, calculative ones when the information referred to either "bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)" or "a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD)" instead.
Well, here's what I found:
Click on the image for a closer inspection, but basically, the difference in effect associated with the variation in wording, while "in the direction" hypothesized, was way too small for anyone to think it was practically meaningful.
Same thing for the influence of the wording on the interaction between political outlooks (measured with a right-left scale) and science comprehension (measured with a cool composite of substantive knowledge & critical reasoning measures; more on that "tomorrow"):
So much for that theory.
But I have another one!
All this agitation about fracking, I'm convinced, is really a battle between those who do & those who don't recognize the supreme value of local democratic decisionmaking!