Making science documentaries that matter in a culturally divided society (lecture summary plus slides)
Here is the gist of my presentation at the World Congress of Science and Factual producers in Stockholm on 12/7. ( slides)
1. I can make movies, too! Plus “identity protective cognition.” I know most of you are expert filmmakers. Well, it turns out I made a movie once myself.
It was “produced” for use in the study featured in “They Saw a Protest.” The production values, I’m sure, seem quite low. There are two reasons for that. One is that the production values are low. The other is that swinging my recording device around erratically helped to generate a montage of scenes that, with suitable editing, could be made to plausibly appear to be scenes from either an anti-abortion protest outside an abortion clinic or an anti-“Don’t ask, don’t tell” one held outside a college recruitment center.
Subjects, instructed to assume the role of juror, were assigned either to the “abortion clinic” condition or the “recruitment center” condition.
As you can see, subjects’ perc eptions of the coercive nature vel non of the protestors, and the corresponding justification or lack thereorf on the part of the police for dispersing the demonstrators, varied depending on the condition to which the subjects were assigned and their cultural values: subjects of opposing values disagreed with one another on key facts when they were assigned to the same condition; at the same time, subjects who shared cultural values disagreed with one another when assigned to different conditions.
The resulting pattern of perceptions reflects identity-protective cognition. That is, subjects of particular values gravitated toward assessments of what they saw that conformed to the position that was most congruent with their groups’ postion on the cause of the protestors.
2. Identity-protective reasoning on climate change, etc. The gist of my talk is that many public controversies over risk fit this same pattern. That is, when appraising societal risks, individuals of opposing cultural outlooks can be expected to form perceptions of fact that reflect and reinforce their cultural allegiances.
As an example, consider the results of “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus.” That study found that “hierarch individualists” and “egalitarian communitarians” were both inclined to selectively recognized and dismiss the expertise of the featured scientists in patterns that corresponded to whether the attributed position of the putative expert—on climate change, nuclear waste disposal, or concealed handguns--was consistent or at odds with the prevailing position in the subjects’ cultural groups.
This is identity-protective cognition, too. Like the subjects in “They Saw a Protest,” the subjects in “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus” selectively affirmed or disputed the expertise of the featured scientists depending on whether his positon cohered with the one in the subjects’ cultural group.
3. System 2 motivated reasoning. The “identity protect cognition” thesis’s primary competitor is the “bounded rationality thesis. The latter holds that disagreements among members of the public is attributable to people’s overreliance on “System 1” heuristic reasoning. This position predicts that as subjects become more proficient in the deliberate, conscious, analytic form of reasoning consistent with “System 2” reasoning, they ought to converge on the best available evidence on that societal risk.
This result is more consistent with the “identity protective cognition” thesis, which holds that individuals can be expected to devote all their cognitive resources to forming and persisting in the position that predominates in their group as a way of protecting their status within the group.
The problem of non-convergence is a consequence not of too little rationality but instead too much. Forced to choose between a truth-convergent and identity-protective form of reasoning, actors whose personal beliefs have zero impact on their (or anyone else’s) exposure to the putative risk at issue predictably gravitate toward formation of beliefs that secure for themselves the benefits of holding group-convergent beliefs.
But if individually rational, this form of information processing remains collectively irrational. It means that members of a diverse democratic society are less likely to converge on the best-available evidence that is essential to the well-being of all. Nevertheless, the collective good associated with truth-convergent reasoning doesn’t’ change the psychic incentives of any individual to continue to engage information in a manner that is group-convergent instead.
This is the tragedy of the science communication commons.
4. Lab remedies. These dynamics impose severe constraints on the use of science documentaries to inform people on controversial issues. Can anything be done to steer members of diverse groups away from this form of information processing? Here are a couple of possibilities.
a. Two channel communication. One Is the “two channel” science communication model. This model posits that individuals assess information along two channels—one dedicated to the content of the information and the other to the identity-expressive quality of it. The two must be in synch; if they interfere with each other—if individuals perceive the information on the “meaning” channel signifies that assent to the “content” of the information risks driving a wedge between them and others who share their cultural outlooks—then they will fail to assimilate information transmitted on the content channel, no matter how Cleary it is conveyed.
The nature of the dynamics involved here is illustrated by the CCP’s study on the impact of geoengineering and cultural polarization. Whereas the “anti-pollution” message generated a negative or hostile meaning (“game over”; “we told you so”) to individuals predisposed to climate skepticism, the “geoengineering research” conveyed an identity-affirming meaning (“yes we can”; “more of the same”). Consistently with these opposing messages, subjects in the “anti-pollution” condition displayed attitude polarization relative to the control group, while ones in the “geoengineering” condition displayed diminished polarization.
b. Science curiosity. Individuals who are “science curious” process information differently from their less curious cultural peers. They will choose, for example, to read new stories that report exciting or novel scientific findings even when doing so means exposure to information that is hostile to their cultural identity. This plausibly explains why science curiosity, of all the predispositions associated with science comprehension, does not aggravate but rather appears to mitigate cultural polarization.
A useful communication plan, then, might focus on maximizing the congeniality of information to science-curious subjects in the expectation that those individuals, when they interact in their cultural group, will convey—by words and action—that they have confidence in climate science, a message that is likely to carry more weight than “messages” by put-up “messengers” with whom they lack a cultural affinity.
5. What to do? You tell me! But these are very formative and maddeningly general pieces of advice. What would a program that employs them look like?
I don’t honestly know! I know nothing in particular about making science films. What I do know is information about lots of general dynamics relating to science communication; for those insights to be translated into real-world practice would require the “situation sense” of individuals who are intimately involved in communication within particular real-world situations.
My panel mate Sonya Pemberton is in that position. I’ll let her speak to how she is using the “two channel model” and the phenomena of “scientific curiosity” to advance her science communication objectives.
Once she has, moreover, I will happily join efforts with her or anyone else pursuing these reflective, and well-considered judgments to do what I am best equipped to do, which is to furnish tailored empirical information fitted to enabling that professional to make the best decisions she can.