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« Today's activity: read new Pew Report on climate change polarization | Main | Law & Cognition 2016, Session 6: Reading list & questions »

Et tu, AOT? Fracking freaks me out part 3

What happens to politically diverse citizens’ perceptions of the risk of fracking as those individuals' scores on an "Actively Open-minded Thinking" (AOT) battery increase?

Why, their perceptions become more polarized, of course!

Actually, this is a weird result. It's another reason why “Fracking freaks me out!

To be sure, fracking is not the only putative risk that twists, distorts, eviscerates reason in this way.

AOT polarization of belief in climate change-- not so freaky! click me click meClimate change does, too, something that Jonathan Corbin & I demonstrate in connection with AOT in our forthcoming Research & Politics paper, & that I & collaborators have observed in connection to various other measures of critical thinking as well.

But not every putative risk exerts this effect; indeed, most don’t.

Consider nuclear power: citizens are politically polarized over the risks it poses in general, but as they score higher on AOT their perceptions converge.

That fracking is part of the toxic family of risk sources that generate more disagreement as reasoning proficiency increases might be not be so amazing but for its relative youth.  The basic technology is in fact quite old, but fracking really didn’t assume a large profile in U.S. energy production and certainly not in public consciousness until at least 2010, when large-scale operations started to ramp up in the massive Marcellus formation.

hey, what about me -- drones?! click on me!In that short interval, fracking has catapulted from “huh?” to “whaaaaa!,” leaping over blue-chip polarizers like nuclear, not to mention long-standing pseudo-polarizing junk bonds like GM foods.

Anyone who thinks he or she can “easily” explain this development for sure earns a low score on actively open-minded thinking and science-of-science communication curiosity.

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Reader Comments (5)

I do think it is very easy to explain. Current hydraulic fracturing/horizontal drilling sites are huge industrial operations. Potentially going down over a mile deep and with 20 or more horizontal drills from that one site going out over a mile in various directions. Frequently these sites are located in areas that are now residential. To do this, they sometimes install hay bale or metal soundwall isolation around the active drill sites but still, even the trucks coming in and out are a major commotion. Fracking production tails off quickly so the process is likely to be repeated. The sorts of governmental entities that regulate oil and gas the least are also the same sort of "free market" types who do not put zoning breaks on development in general. But local people have been caught unawares. But now that the drilling is known they worry that they can't sell out as their property values may have declined below their mortgage debt. The density and intensity of these operations is leading to major regional air quality problems. And lack of appropriate regulation of methane at some sites is defeating the concept that natural gas is an appropriate bridge away from coal towards other renewable energy forms as needed to combat climate change. So there are new concerns for those at some distance from the wells also. Excessive pumping for disposal of the return water into rock layers is now causing earthquakes in some areas. Return water may have been dealt with inappropriately before but the massive size of the new operations make the volumes of return water much, much greater as well. Which didn't bother the cows much and could thus be ignored. Some farmers also may have held mineral rights and thus financially benefited. That is rarely true of people who have bought into subdivisions. It is not just the Marcelous formation, these problems have come forward in other places such as Colorado, California, and Oklahoma as well. Even the farm areas like North Dakota have gotten a well density that exceeds what farmers may have anticipated.

All of this is a far cry from the sort of drilling that a decade ago might have resulted in a pumpjack on somebody's farm.

Why do some people in the area still support this? Why did most of the residents of Donora Pennsylvania keep living and working in the shadow of the steel mills? Why did most of the residents of Toms River NJ, look the other way as pollution gave children cancer?

The people most at risk here are the drill workers. But jobs are important.

"Anyone who thinks he or she can “easily” explain this development for sure earns a low score on actively open-minded thinking and science-of-science communication curiosity." ???? What is my score now?

October 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis


I can see why people who live in areas that either are affected by the enviromental impacts or that participate in direct production benefits will form interests that might polarize them. That's such a small fraction of the population that it would be noise in general population survey -- and their stakes will have a very uneven relationship to ideology.

But your score remains high, so I 'll revise my assessment of the probability of thinking "easy" & score on AOT

October 3, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

So... how confident are you that the AOT test is effectively delivering on the relevant behavior or characteristics it's meant to measure?

October 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterScott Johnson


I'd say that it is measuring what is suspposed to do except in some small class of cases in which it doesn't.

We take this up a bit in our AOT/climate change paper, where we consider & express skepticism about the idea that the standard AOT measure isn't valid, which is one possible explanation for the result.

1st, the measure *has* been validated in various sorts of decisionmaking tasks.

2d, it's failure to generate the result one might expect on climate change or fracking (likely other issues pervaded w/ antagonistic cultural meanings) doesn't make it any different from various other critical reasoning proficiency measures such as science comprehension, numeracy & cognitve reflection, all of which have been validated too yet have this perverse magnification-of-polarization effect.

There is something about these particular risk issues that turns them into occasions to use reason to form identity-congruent rather than truth-congruent beliefs, something that Keith Stanovich & I note is true only of a peculiar class of issues in our recent paper on evolution, cognitive reflection & polarization.

All that said, it's interesting to see that *science curiosity* does predict open-mindedness and convergent on fracking & climate change & other issues. Arguably, it's tapping into a very durable open-mindedness disposition that is evading critical-reasoning measures.

October 3, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan, If people don't care about things beyond their own immediate needs, then we can't have a "liberal republic of science". Also, I believe that you are underestimating the people who have "direct interests", for example, the people who see their current and future welfare tied to fossil fuel extraction and utilization is a very large group! On the other hand, there are many who worry that higher CO2 emissions will endanger the planet (and thus their welfare or at least that of future generations).

I don't think that we can make much progress towards understanding measures of such things as actively open minded thinking without developing a new philosophy of scientific revolution for the modern age.

What would Karl Popper or Thomas Kuhn say now? If we were going to write a modernized part 3 to Open Society and its Enemies, I think that a large role needs to be attributed to the mechanizations of our existing power structure.

In my opinion, the polarization is a secondary result of power structure exploitations and diversions of an underlying public angst and anger. The world is at a critical juncture. A fairly abrupt cultural transition is necessary. One aspect of that is the rapidly increasing automation and computerization of the workplace. This, more than corporate offshoring, is making many jobs obsolete. A further layer of change comes from the impacts of anthropogenic climate change and the needed reductions in CO2 emissions to reduce its impacts. These impacts are not at all equal. Some may be delighted with the future prospects, for example, look at Russia's build up in the Arctic. The futurists for Shell Oil came up with various scenarios. Perhaps the one that is coming to fruition is “chaos”. Making a buck is still possible for the elite few.

In our political system, the public needs to be divided into two constituencies for the existing, and solidly embedded, political parties. These have always been amalgams of assorted “base” constituencies. Successful politicians must navigate between positions that attract voters and those that attract campaign funds. New issues that arise need to be fit within these existing structures, and the two party, us vs them divide. Issues tend to get framed in simplistic terms. This creates the "class of issues" subject to polarization.

It is harder to see the introduction of new technological applications of scientific advances as nuanced, with advantages and disadvantages that could best be handled by careful regulation and attention to details.

October 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

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