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Ambivalence about "messaging"

State of the art "messaging" 2008From correspondence with a reflective person & friend who asked my opinion on how one might use "message framing" to promote public engagement with specific climate-mitigation policies:

A couple of things occur to me; I hope they are not completely unhelpful.

1. I think one has to be cautious about both the external & operational validity of "messaging" & "framing" studies in this area.  

The external validity concern goes to the usual problem w/ measuring public opinion on any particularly specific public policy proposal: there's likely no opinion to measure.  

People have a general affective orientation toward climate change. You'll know you are measuring it if the responses they give to what you are asking them are highly correlated with what they say they "believe" about climate change. 

But people know essentially nothing about climate change in particular.  For or against it (as it were), they will say things like "human carbon emissions are expected to kill plants in greenhouses." Seriously

Accordingly, if you start asking them specific things about policy, very soon you'll no longer be measuring the "thing" inside them that is their only true attitude toward climate change.  This is what makes it possible [for some researchers] to say ridiculous things like "70% of Republicans want to regulate carbon emissions!" when only 25% of Republicans say "yes" to the question "are human beings causing climate change."  What’s being measured with the policy questions is a non-opinion.

In sum, the point is, as soon as you get into specifics about policy, you'll be very uncertain what you are measuring, & as a result whether you are learning something about how opinion works in the real world.

I'm not saying that it's impossible to do studies like the one you are proposing, only that it's much easier to do invalid than valid ones.  Likely you are nodding your head saying "yes, yes, I know..."

The "operational validity" point has to do with the translation of externally valid lab studies of how people process information on these issues into real-world communication materials that will effectively make use of that knowledge.  

To pick on myself for a change, I'm positive that our framing study on "geoengineering" & open-minded assessment of climate science has "zero" operational validity.  

I do think it was internally & externally valid: that is, I think the design supported the inference we were drawing about the resutls we were observing in the experiment, and that the experiment was in turn modeling a mechanism of information-processing that matters for climate-science communication outside the lab.

But I don't think that anything we learned in the study supports any concrete form of "messaging." For sure it would be ridiculous, e.g., to send our study stimulus to every white hierarchical individualist male & expect climate skepticism to disappear!  

There almost certainly is something one can do in the real world that will reproduce the effects that we observed in the lab.  But what that is is something one would have to use empirical methods, conducted in the field & not the lab, to figure out.

Knowing you, you are likely planning to test communication materials that will be actually used in the real-world, and in a way that will give you & others more confidence or less to believe that one or another plausible strategy will work (that's what valid studies do of course!).

But I feel compelled to say all of this just b/c I know so many people don't think the way you do -- & b/c I am genuinely outraged at how many people who study climate-science communication refuse to admit what I just said, and go around making empirically insupportable pronouncements about "what to do" (here’s what they need to do: get off their lazy asses & do some field research).

Definitely a PR coup for organization that dreamed up this plan, but what is "message" people get when they read (or are told about) a NY Times story that applauds a clever strategy to "message" them?2.  I myself have become convinced that "messaging" is not relevant to climate-change science communication.  Or at least that the sort of "messaging" people have in mind when they do framing studies, & then propose extravagant social marketing campaigns based on them, is not.

For "messaging" to work, we have to imagine either one of 2 things to be true.  The first is that there is some piece of information that people are getting "wrong" about climate change & will get right if it is "framed" properly.

But we know that there is zero correlation between people's positions on climate change & any information relating to it.  Or any information relating to it other than "this is my side's position, & this theirs."  And they aren't wrong at all, sadly, about that information.

TState of the art 2014...he second thing we might imagine, then, is that a "messaging" campaign featuring appropriately selected “messengers” could change people's assessment of what "their side's" position is.  

I don't believe it.  

I don't believe it, first, because people aren't that gullible: they know people are trying to shape that understanding via "messaging" (in part b/c the people doing it are foolish enough to discuss their plans  within earshot of those whose belefs they are trying to “manage” in this way).  

I don't believe it, second, b/c it's been tried already & flopped big time.

There have been multiple "social marketing campaigns" that say, "see? even Republicans like you believe in climate change & want to do something! Therefore you should feel that way or you'll be off  the team!" 

There has been zero purchase.  Probably b/c people just aren't gullible enough to believe stuff like that when they live in a world filled with accurate information about what "their side" "believes."

To make progress, then, you have go into their world & show them something that's true but obscured by the pollution that pervades our science communication enviornment: that "their side"already is engaging climate change in a way that evinces belief in the science & a resolve to do something.  

That's the lesson of SE Fla "climate political science ..."    I've seen that in action.  It really really really does work.  

But it really really really doesn't satisfy the motivations of those who want to use the climate change controversy to gratify their appetite to condemn those who have different cultural values from theirs as evil and selfish.  So its successes get ignored, its power to reconfigure the political economy of climate change in the U.S. never tapped.

As always, & as you know, this is what I think for now.  One knows nothing unless one knows it provisionally w/ a commitment to revising based on new evidence. You are the sort of person I know full well will produce evidence, on a variety of things, that will enable me to update & move closer to truth.

But for now, I think the truth is that "messaging" (as normally understood) isn't the answer.

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Reader Comments (15)

Hi Professor Kahan.

There's certainly a lot to chew over in this post. However, I'd just like to offer an alternative to this characterization:

But it really really really doesn't satisfy the motivations of those who want to use the climate change controversy to gratify their appetite to condemn those who have different cultural values from theirs as evil and selfish. [linking to a criticism of consensus messaging]

Speaking only for myself, let me perhaps outline why I find this to be a bit wrongfooted.

I have no interest in 'using the climate change controversy to gratify my appetite to condemn those who have different cultural values from mine as evil and selfish'.

Let us stipulate that extreme partisans will attempt to capitalize on any and every opportunity they have to attack their opponents. Is it fair to unilaterally declare that a given message will only or primarily be seen by the public in the form of partisan attacks? (My answer would obviously be "no".)

Indeed, there are a host of efforts underway to use the message of consensus in a way that is not polarizing- as you know some of the work being done has shown little polarization or even some neutralization of the expected conservative backlash to it. Partisan point scoring is not simply not the motivation for these consensus efforts, reducing it is one of the hoped for impacts.

I have seen a bit of circular reasoning in advocating against investment in consensus messaging by non-partisan organizations, because some partisans have used it. If the non-partisan groups are dissuaded from engaging in it, then of course that leaves only the partisan groups using it, allowing continued justification against using it because it's ostensibly polarizing. Surely we can see the problem with this dynamic.

As for the Southeast Florida initiative, I think it's great that the results that have been achieved were achieved. But for myself (and in conversations with a variety of people involved in climate across the science, communication, and policy spectrum), there are two fundamental reasons why I think it has seen less celebration than its advocates might hope: applicability and reproducibility.

While any movement towards adaptation is nice, it gets us essentially nowhere in terms of addressing the magnitude and duration of the climatic changes we face. Adaptation without mitigation is essentially a moving target. Another way of saying this is that the ostensible strength of this approach is a fundamental weakness (i.e. avoiding the issue of human causation).

Without grappling with the expected amount of adaptation necessary, which is dependent on causation, every adaptation measure will be insufficient. How much sea level rise and storm surge a given area should adapt to depends on how much ice we melt and how much we thermally expand the ocean (not to mention alter storm intensity, track, frequency, etc.). It's one thing to get a community to agree to adapt to 30 cm of sea level rise. But without mitigation, over the long run we're talking about meters of sea level rise. But won't people wisely, continually adjust their adaptation measures well ahead of sea level rise? I would be concerned about single action bias hitting with a vengeance.

The other aspect is that adaptation as a strategy at other local levels, as well as the national/Federal level, and political attitudes towards international outcomes are already incredibly polarized. I would not write off the possibility of this being replicated in other areas- I think the politics around adaptation are fluid. But I have a degree of skepticism based on other instances in which adaptation has seen the same sort of backlash as mitigation efforts.

All of that being said, I am very much in support of trying everything. So I would love to see this attempted in other places and will do whatever I can to support it. But at the same time, I will also continue to support other efforts, such as consensus messaging (and from your SE FL commentary, it does not seem that the latter should harm the former).

So I hope that sheds a little light on why I don't think that is a helpful characterization of consensus messaging proponents, and also why some people might not be expressing the level of excitement about the Southeast Florida adaptation experiment as one might hope.


July 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Jacobs

Peter -

You and I have disagreed quite a bit on the issue of "consensus-messaging," but I thought that your comment there was quite good.

IMO, Dan's wording sounds much more like he's making assumptions about "motivations" (in the sense of acts with a focused and deliberate intent) as opposed to speaking to the phenomenon of "motivated reasoning" where motives (such as an intent to get policies in place to address the risk of climate change) might become mixed with identity-protective mechanisms to influence particular pathways that people select to achieve their goal.

I will add that I think that conflating "motives" with "motivated reasoning," unfortunately, tends to add to the toxic environment associated with the public discussion about climate change.

July 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Interesting discussion. I think Dan's comment about partisans wanting to condemn their opponents is essentially true, but is tangential to the more important points raised in the post. And chief among those is the assertion that on issues like climate change, people don't really have opinions. So it is not hard to get people to appear to have opinions in carefully crafted surveys, but using those constructed opinions to influence behavior and attitude change in the real world will quickly reveal their artificiality and lack of utility. And that's because of another key point: people may not have actual opinions of their own, but they know what people on "their side" believe about issues, and that's what guides them.

An historical aside that might be of interest. My dissertation advisor in political science at Stanford many decades ago was the late, great Gabriel Almond, one of the leading political scientists of the 20th century. Almond wrote a book in 1950 (!) called The American People and Foreign Policy, in which he introduced the idea that most members of the public do not have actual opinions about foreign policy because, guess what. they have practically no knowledge about foreign policy facts or issues. He coined the phrase "the attentive public" to describe a small segment of the population, much less than 10%, that actually had some knowledge of the topic and to whom the general public looked to in order to get "cues" as to what their opinions should be. Sound familiar? He correctly observed that the general public's reactions to the policy debate they observed in the media were affective, not cognitive. He was the first to state that the general public "looks for cues for mood responses in public discussion. It does not listen to the content of discussion but to its tone."

Dan may enjoy the fact that Almond concluded, given the general ignorance about foreign policy in the public, that "there is no mass market for detailed information about foreign affairs," and that such campaigns were probably misconceived.

So ... what goes around comes around.

I do want to second Peter Jacobs' absolutely essential point that the Southeast Florida initiative may have achieved tremendous success in providing a framework in which conservatives could embrace actual climate change action, without necessarily giving up their anti-cllimate change beliefs, but that the actual adaptations agreed to were woefully inadequate for actually addressing the likely severity of the coming Florida climate disaster. Dan acknowledges this point in his discussions of the initiative, so this is not something he doesn't recognize as clearly as Peter.

But this is the ultimate dilemma of the current logjam on climate change legislation and action. These anti-climate change beliefs, although they may be completely "rational" in terms of some individual calculus of identity protection, collectively are "irrational" in that, if they are translated into public policy at the societal level, they will lead to environmental disaster. This cannot be said about the opposing beliefs in favor of climate change action, despite the fact that those beliefs may be just as "identity-protecting" for their believers. In other words, there is not a "rational equivalence" across these cultural belief clusters, despite the fact that they all occur inside of people's heads and are explainable by reference to psychological mechanisms like motivated reasoning. They still have real implications in the real world.

With regard to this thorny question of "what is rational?" it is always useful to remember that, in the great baseball game between "Beliefs" and "Reality", Reality bats last.

July 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Genco

Thanks, Joshua.

Thanks also, Steve, for your comments. I certainly was not trying to imply that Professor Kahan was unaware of the mismatch between the scope of the problem and its solution in SE FL.

As to your other points, and as Prof. Kahan and Joshua probably already know, I am skeptical of the notion that political ideology (or "worldview" or whatever term we're using as shorthand) is the paramount and unchangeable determinate of how people will respond when pushed on an issue where they don't really have a deeply held opinion or knowledge base. (Note, I am not saying anyone here has necessarily claimed this, but some of the glossing of Prof. Kahan's work reduces things to this).

As I mentioned to Prof. Kahan when we spoke a couple of years ago at a AAAS meeting (after some friendly back and forth about the 2013 Cook et al. paper I was a coauthor of), issues like gay rights and young earth creationism seem to be examples where one's political ideology may not dictate one's stance on an issue. There are plenty of non-YEC conservatives, and there are a non-trivial amount of conservatives who don't have a problem with gays getting married. Clearly there is room for people to have opinions on incredibly contentious issues where their political party signals one view while they hold another. And as Joshua and Prof. Kahan are probably tired of me pointing out, the worldview primacy argument (when combined with the assertion that consensus messaging has been tried for over a decade and basically everyone has already been exposed to- an assertion I actually don't agree with but Prof. Kahan does) fails to explain the surprisingly large misperception of scientific agreement among the political left (for lack of a more nuanced label).

So I am unsatisfied with the argument that goes:

- Climate change is polarized along partisan lines
- Therefore people will only respond to it in a way that conforms to their "team"'s stance
- Consensus messaging only exacerbates this
- Consensus messaging has been tried and has failed

You can substitute any number of potential lines of communication for 'consensus messaging' here. Reducing the perceived spatio-temporal distance between a voter and climate change for example, or messages that rely on national histories of stewardship and leadership, and so forth.

There are some pretty fundamental aspects of cognitive and social psychology that, when viewed in light of past instances of remarkable change at a societal (though not unanimous) level, suggest to me that there are a lot of tools that might be brought to bear on this problem that acknowledge human causation even though the issue has already been politically polarized.

There are other discussions that I also think might be worth having about non-utilitarian reasons for trying to bring the public's view of the issue into line with the facts, but those are probably best left for another day or at least an email conversation.

I also agree that my original comment focused on a pretty narrow slice of this blog post, and I hope I made that clear in my first comment. But I suspect that failing to see eye to eye on that narrow slice is causing a lot of unnecessary friction and misunderstanding that go to the overall themes of the post.

July 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Jacobs

Peter -

I hope that we can exchange views from differing perspectives about the efficacy of "consensus-messaging" with less acrimony than previously.


==> "I am skeptical of the notion that political ideology (or "worldview" or whatever term we're using as shorthand) is the paramount and unchangeable determinate of how people will respond when pushed on an issue where they don't really have a deeply held opinion or knowledge base. "

I think that identity-orientation lies below ideological orientation. As such: (1) I don't think that ideological orientation is causal and, (2) I don't think that the influence of identity-orientation towards a given issue is an immutable constant. People can change how they identity-orient towards ideas. (As just one example, look at how conservatives have changed in their orientation towards an individual mandate (it's gone from a prerequisite of personal responsibility to a manifestation of tyranny).

But I do think that the influence of ideological orientation needs to be addressed. Personally, I don't think that "consensus-messaging" has much of an effect either way; I certainly don't think it goes very far at all to explain the lack of concern about the risks of ACO2 among a sizable segment of the American public. IMO, people will react to "consensus-messaging" in alignment with how they locate the "messenger" within their preexisting political taxonomy. This creates a gap, IMO, between the real-world implications of "consensus-messaging" and those that can be examined in a "clinical" setting. (this is something that Dan alludes to that I agree with).

I don't think that Dan's measure of the effect of "consensus-messaging" takes into account the possible impact of "anti-consensus" messaging. How can he know the impact of the one if he hasn't measured the impact of the other? Saying that broadly speaking, "consensus-messaging" hasn't reflected in a dramatic change in public opinion, does not really tell us much about "consensus-messaging.

Yes, looking at other politically-charged issues where there have been broad swings in public opinion over time do show that the influence of identity-orientation is not immutable, but neither does it do much to show the impact of "consensus-messaging." What do we really know about the causal factors that have changed public opinion on issues such as gay rights. For example, how about the broad shift in public opinion over time in the validity of "scientific" theories that blacks are intellectually and morally inferior to whites? Certainly, there are probably many context-specific factors that make it difficult to generalize rules across different issues.

IMO, I do think that an approach that works around political divisions, and that seeks to "de-couple" (I'm beginning to hate that term :-) ) identity-orientation from ideological orientation might well prove best in the long run. IMO, effectively policy adaptation will take place when people see a "win-win" outcome, synergies, and are able to divorce "positions" (which are identity-oriented) and solutions (which run across identity-boundaries). I look to participatory democracy as a potentially effective model. But no doubt, there are huge logistical problems with implementing such an approach on a national let along international scale. Perhaps, then, some of the lessons that can be gleaned from negotiation theory can prove useful if applied in logistically more feasible methods.

IMO, another huge issue that needs to be dealt with in regard to climate change policy development is the inherent nature of how humans tend to address low probability, high impact risks that play out over long time horizons. I think it is implausible to think that such hard-wired tendencies can be dealt with effectively with a model based on a "deficit model" of solving this problem - where a basic tactic is providing information. Participatory democracy as seen in participatory urban planning relies heavily on supplying constituents with "expert" information, but it does so within a very specific communicative structure.

Sorry for the ramble...and probably you've seen me speak to much of this before....

July 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Peter & @Joshua & @Steve--

I was looking in the wrong place for fireworks, apparently...

Thanks for this great discussion.

I will add something presently; but I need to read everything so far & digest.

Please don't pause your own exchange, though.

July 4, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Perhaps if websites like Skeptical Science stopped having - Climate Misinformers - sections - there would be less polarisation/politicisation

I noted a while back that Skeptical Science labels Roger Pielke Junior - a 'climate misinformer' - yet do not have any quotes, etc, of Roger misinforming, the label being enough?

I did ask about this, the response by one SkS contributor was they are busy/just volunteers.

Perhaps Peter Jacobs could have a word, because I see SkS as one of the problems in the communication of science debate, not a solution


July 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

Hi Barry,

If you're interested in what Skeptical Science says about Roger Pielke Jr., you can simply use the search function, either within the site itself or by typing Pielke Jr into Google.

Different aspects of the site are worked on by different people with different amounts of free time. If you would like to volunteer some time to help excerpt quotes from the existing blog material into the section you're asking about, I'm sure the help would be appreciated.

Also, just as a point of etiquette, you might want to consider making such queries with people at their own spaces or contact points, rather than in third party comment sections.

Hope that helps. If you'd like to continue this conversation, please contact me via email and not here. I am happy to try and satisfy any concerns you have but I am not going to facilitate an attempt to turn this conversation thread into a referendum on a different website.


July 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Jacobs

==> "Also, just as a point of etiquette, you might want to consider making such queries with people at their own spaces or contact points, rather than in third party comment sections."

Barry's just doing his best to contribute to the "solution" to the problems in communication of the climate science debate. I'm impressed with what a hugely positive contribution he makes by coming here to offer his criticism about Skeptical Science.

July 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

I wasn’t referring to you or to anyone who has done research on “97% consensus messaging” when I referred to those who “want to use the climate change controversy to gratify their appetite to condemn those who have different cultural values from theirs as evil and selfish

I was referring to groups that have assumed the financially dominant & highest profile role in climate advocacy in the US.

Perhaps you do realize that.

But I would say that researchrers who have continued to push for a “consensus messaging social marketing campaign” are responsible for feeding dynamics that predictably lead to that form of expressive zealotry, which far from promoting constructive public engagement reinforces the conditions that make climate change a focal point for cultural status competition in the US.

It's absurd to talk about ceding the field to "the other side." The style of advocacy I'm criticizing is what the other side craves. Those who satisfy the demand of conflict entrpreneurs for that style of engagement are science miscommunicators' dopes.

That I feel this way couldn’t possibly be news.

It’s the position I have taken consistently since the Cook et al study was misleadingly presented as a “new” finding & the idea of a “consensuis social marketing campaign” as a new strategy.

From the beginning, too, I've pointed out there was nothing at all new about this prposal.

Nor was there anytihng at all new in my own objection; the flawed understanding of the relevant public opinion & political economy dynamics in "social marketing" campaigns aimed at the general public had been devastatingly pointed out by others.

As I’ve said, too, I’m not against communicating consnsus.

I am against wasting literally *hundreds of millions of dollars* on forms of advoacy that demonstrably miss the point, that distract & divert people from alternatives that have a chance to actually work to reconfigure the political economy surrounding climate change in the US, and that predictably stimulate support for exactly the sort of zealotry that “consensus messaging” is now & always has been.

Those researchers who have continued to push for "consensus messaging" & like "social marketing campagins" w/o acknowledging the failed history of what they are proposing, the thoughtful criticisms made of it, and how weak their "new" evidence is are doing a huge disservice to those who rely on them for advice.

If people refuse to learn from evidence, then for sure nothing will ever change

July 5, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Hi Prof. Kahan,

On some points, we seem to be in violent agreement.

On others, I think there still seems to be some sort of miscommunication, and I am happy to assume that it's coming from my end.

For example, when you write:

"But I would say that researchrers who have continued to push for a “consensus messaging social marketing campaign” are responsible for feeding dynamics that predictably lead to that form of expressive zealotry [link to your post What is the *message* of real-world "scientific consensus" messaging? 3]"

That post makes the assumption that the way in which the public will be exposed to consensus messaging is through partisan attacks. My point was that rather than see more of those, there are a lot of people pushing to see non-partisan groups like AAAS or other trusted sources use consensus messaging.

It is one thing to say that consensus messaging has been used by partisans for their own ends in the past. I don't think there's much to disagree with there. I think it's quite another thing to assume that consensus messaging cannot be successfully used by non-partisans going forward. Or to argue against funding such an endeavor because of the failings or sins of the partisan groups. It sounds a little like you're saying you're not doing that, but also a little like you are.

I am not interested in seeing how (for example) the political left can leverage consensus to demonize the political right. I'm interested in seeing how getting the public to agree that a consensus exists shifts other attitudes (or fails to). So I am a little hard pressed to see what responsibility someone in my position holds for some sort of "failed history" that has little bearing on my goals, interests, or research. I don't want to speak for anyone else involved in consensus messaging research, but I would hazard that this opinion (and confusion) isn't uniquely mine.

[Also and as an aside, I have no idea where the 'hundreds of millions of dollars' being mentioned is supposed to be coming from. I can assure everyone, I've certainly seen none of it. My primary research focus has been physical science, and I had until quite recently been doing all of my comm related work on an entirely unfunded, volunteer basis in the few hours a month I had left after working a full time job, attending graduate school full time, and being a new dad.]

I think I am maybe zeroing in on one of the big misunderstandings here. Which is the notion that the work I've been involved with has in any way been funded by or associated with some ostensible social marketing campaign that's been supposedly running for a decade. I was actually asked about this by a reporter and literally had to ask her if she was interviewing the wrong person because it's so far from reality.

There are some messaging campaigns that I hope get enacted in the future that I have done some supporting work for, but they sure as heck weren't hundreds of millions of dollars supported, they haven't actually taken place yet, and they absolutely avoid the sort of partisan tone (and sources) that you are vehemently critical of.

I don't know if you're aware of that or not. It might explain some of the conflation of very unrelated aspects of consensus messaging that I find so confusing.

In terms of the strength of the evidence, I think it's a matter of perspective and time. If we have a tool that could potentially move public opinion for millions of voting citizens (which what a few percentage points translates into), I don't know why we wouldn't want to make use of that even as we worked on other messages that might reach even larger swathes of the public. (To reiterate, consensus messaging is just one message among many that I support and contribute a small amount of work on. I don't know anyone working on consensus messaging who thinks it's a sufficient solution to the whole problem rather than just a piece of it. Hell, I don't know anyone who works on consensus messaging who isn't personally working on a bunch of other messaging strategies at the same time.) I'm struggling to think of who wouldn't take advantage of a tool that could shift the opinion of millions of voters on a contentious issue.

I hope this is making some headway in clearing things up. As you are not against all consensus messaging, as you are not in favor of ceding the message to partisans (and presumably acknowledge the message can be used in a non-partisan fashion in principle), and as I am in favor of using the message in a non-partisan way, I see no reason why we can't end up on the same page (if indeed we aren't already there).

July 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Jacobs

Also, I assume it goes without saying, but to be perfectly clear I of course outright reject the notion that consensus messaging is relying on the deficit model.

July 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Jacobs

Peter -

Sorry for being a budinski - but as I spoke to the deficit model above:

==> "Also, I assume it goes without saying, but to be perfectly clear I of course outright reject the notion that consensus messaging is relying on the deficit model."

Not wanting to ask you to explain why you aren't beating your wife, but I'm curious if you could explain that a bit more. Isn't a main tenant of "consensus-messaging" the idea that if more people knew that there was a wide-spread consensus it would be easier to implement mitigation policies? IOW, filling in the "consensus-gap" related to expert opinion would bring about material change?

July 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Hi Joshua,

I don't think you're being a buttinski. And I apologize for not answering your earlier comment, I intended to but just didn't get around to it over the weekend. I find myself a bit more time constrained than I like these days.

Briefly, my argument is as follows.

Science carries enormous weight in our society. Most people like to believe they are pro-science. Even people who reject a mainstream scientific conclusion (such as anti-vaxxers). People scienticize political or moral debates precisely because science has such enormous cultural cachet. I think probably Prof. Kahan agrees with most or all of this.

People are also limited in the amount of time and cognitive energy they can devote to a given issue. The perception of scientific consensus functions as a rational heuristic for people who cannot devote time to examining an issue themselves. I think Prof. Kahan would still agree. Certainly industry groups like tobacco companies (not to mention creationists, anti-vaxxxers et al.) have long known this and sought to create the appearance of a scientific debate where none really exists because they know that once the issue is perceived as scientifically agreed upon they will have lost much of the public.

Perceived scientific consensus, that is the perception of an overwhelming level of agreement on a subject by scientists (plural, in the aggregate, not as individuals or small subgroups), is a powerful socio-normative force. I have experienced it first hand as I confess to falling victim to the idea that there was no scientific consensus about the safety of GMOs and was shocked to find there was. I quickly changed my tune on that. It's one thing to dismiss a scientist or handful of scientists who present views consistent with the consensus position, it's quite another to be faced with the actual fact of consensus.

There is an ever growing body of research that shows this to be true for at least a large percentage of the public, if not literally all people. When motivated reasoning comes into play, whether consensus messaging from non-partisan sources creates a backlash or neutralizes it is something still worth studying. But the overall impact of perceiving scientific agreement, or conversely perceiving a scientific debate, appears to have knock on effects across the public, not simply among those already predisposed to accept a given position. This is probably where I lose Prof. Kahan, but I think there is a pretty decent body of literature pointing in this direction.

I find looking at the converse case to be instructive, as I think it defuses some of the angst around consensus messaging. We have a pretty good idea that showing scientific disagreement reduces not just the perceived level of consensus, but that it also impacts people's attitudes towards addressing a problem and even the existence of a problem at all without any factual, deficit model information about evidence, causation, etc.

So I suspect that perceived consensus is a heuristic that works, like motivated reasoning based on political ideology, as a form of consistency maintenance of one's own self-image. I do think more study would be helpful in teasing out the processes by which perceived consensus mediates other key beliefs, but that's my suspicion until we get some evidence otherwise.

July 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Jacobs

Peter -

Hopefully this response doesn't come too late for you to notice...

I was with you all the way to here:

==> "But the overall impact of perceiving scientific agreement, or conversely perceiving a scientific debate, appears to have knock on effects across the public, not simply among those already predisposed to accept a given position. This is probably where I lose Prof. Kahan, but I think there is a pretty decent body of literature pointing in this direction."

and you didn't lose me there, and I suspect you wouldn't lose Dan there either - in a condition where the issue at hand isn't already polarized and seen as a cultural/identity marker. But type of condition ain't climate change. At least in the U.S., stances on climate change are, largely, cultural identity markers - even among those who aren't overtly identified with the climate debate per se.


==> "So I suspect that perceived consensus is a heuristic that works, like motivated reasoning based on political ideology, as a form of consistency maintenance of one's own self-image. "

Seems to me like the most important question, and something about which you and I, and I suspect Dan, are in complete agreement.

==> "I do think more study would be helpful in teasing out the processes by which perceived consensus mediates other key beliefs, but that's my suspicion until we get some evidence otherwise."

I think it's more of a moderator than a mediator (I always have trouble keeping the differences straight)...and I also think that the directional flow of the interaction might be different. My guess is that identity-orientation mediates (not moderates) the relationship between views on climate change (or other contentious issues) and views on the importance/value of an "expert consensus."

July 8, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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