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Friday
Feb052016

Is the controversy over climate change a "science communication problem?" Jon Miller's views & mine too (postcard from NAS session on "science literacy & public attitudes toward science")

Gave presentation yesterday before the National Academy of Sciences Committee that is examining the relationship between "public science literacy" & "public attitudes toward science.'  It's really great that NAS is looking at these questions & they've assembled a real '27 Yankees quality lineup of experts to do it.

Really cool thing was that Jon Miller spoke before me & gave a masterful account of the rationale and historical development of the "civic science literacy" philosophy that has animated the NSF Indicators battery.

There was zero disagreement among the presenters-- me & Miller, plus  Philip Kitcher, who advanced an inspiring Dewian conception of science literacy  -- that the public controversy over climate science is not grounded in a deficit in public science comprehension.

It's true that the public doesn't know very much (to put it mildly) about the rudiments of climate science. But that's true of those on both sides, and true too in all the myriad areas in which there isn't any controversy over important forms of decision-relevant science in which there is no controversy and in which the vast majority of ordinary citizens nevertheless recognize and make effective use of the best available evidence.

Strikingly, Miller stated "the climate change controversy is not a 'science communication' problem; it's a political problem."

I think I agree but would put matters differently.  

Miller was arguing that the source of enduring conflict is not a result of the failure of scientists or anyone else to communicate the underlying information clearly but a result of the success of political actors in attaching identity-defining meanings to competing positions, thereby creating social & psychological dynamics that predictably motivate ordinary citizens to fit their beliefs to those that predominate within their political groups.

That's the right explanation, I'd say, but for me this state of affairs is still a science communication problem.  Indeed, the entanglement of facts that admit of scientific inquiry & antagonistic social meanings --ones that turn positions on them into badges of group membership & identity-- is the "science communication problem" for liberal democratic societies.  Those meanings, I've argued, are a form of "science communication environment pollution," the effective avoidance and remediation of which is one of the central objects of the "science of science communication."

I think the only thing at stake in this "disagreement" is how broadly to conceive of "science communication." Miller, understandably, was using the term to describe a discrete form of transaction in which a speaker imparts information about science to a message recipient; I have in mind the less familiar notion of "science communication" as the sum total of processes, many of which involve the tract orienting influence of social norms, that serve to align individual decisionmaking with the best available evidence, the volume of which exceeds the capacity of ordinary individuals to even articulate much less deeply comprehend. 

But that doesn't mean it exceeds their capacity to use that evidence, & in a rational way by effectively exercising appropriately calibrated faculties of recognition that help them to discern who knows what about what.  It's that capacity that is disrupted, degraded, rendered unreliable, by the science-communication environment pollution of antagonistic social meanings.

I doubt Miller would disagree with this.  But I wish we'd had even more time so that I could have put the matter to him this way to see what he'd say! Kitcher too, since in fact the relationship of public science comprehension to democracy is the focus of much of his writing.

Maybe I can entice one or the other or both into doing a guest blog, although in fact the 14 billion member audience for this blog might be slightly smaller than the ones they are used to addressing on a daily basis. 

 


 

 

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Reader Comments (12)

The theory that it's a 'political problem' does not cover the many countries outside the US (and latterly Australia too) where the issue of climate change has *not* become just another front in local political wars. In most of which countries skepticism about dangerous anthropogenic climate change is nevertheless still rampant. A theory should be a universal one; the US is not the world.

Go wider. Politics is a subset of culture. Therefore 'the climate change controversy is a cultural problem', provides a cleaner generic assumption which prevents the inadvertent ruling out of other identity-defining factors. Then of course, one has to identify these factors :)

Even in the US where the situation appears to be dominated by political tribalism, there are major clues. For instance pretty much all surveys placing the climate change issue in a priority list, or revealing any significant cost to the policy options for fighting CC (e.g. extra taxes), show that *even within Dem / Libs only* there is a dramatic drop in support on the issue. I.e. compared to the big majority who believe in dangerous AGW, only a minority would place this 'ultimate problem' as a top or high priority relative to other issues, or pay significant money to help solve it. Clue: this gear shift in support from Dem / Libs is an identity protective feature.

Cultures tend to align within alliance strings, to a strong or weak degree. So looking which cultures are in play (there are more than 2, ie. the political left and right), and which ones are in alliance, helps to determine the mix of identity protective factors. Viewing through a left-right political lens only will filter out much of what is happening, to a degree which seriously misleads.

February 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

@Andy-- I agree.

About culture vs. left & right.

& about the remoteness of "controversy" from the concerns of most people; the only thing most people worry about is being on the wrong side of the issue w/ their peers.

February 6, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Andy there's a typo in your URL as it appears when I click on your name link here. You wrote 'narrative' with a triple-r, or "narrrative", but I found it anyway.

UK eh? So you are from the land of James Dellingpole? Being myself involuntarily from the land of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, I share your grief. I spent quite a bit of time bothering Judith Curry (mentioned in your last blog post) and her Lost Boys myself, but I gave it up. Wrote on my blog "What to Make of Judith Curry?"; also tried to add some of what I said there to her Wikipedia bio, but it is well protected, and I just ended up in a futile editing war. I only think that a possible conflict of interest should be out in the open.

The 'wearenarrative' blog seemed intriguing, but now I wonder if you're a denier or skeptic. I won't stop calling deniers deniers (denier/denial has been used in a few contexts incl AIDS/HIV deniers who, by spreading misinformation are complicit in many deaths -- as far as I'm aware Holocaust deniers have caused far fewer deaths, if any). Anyway, there are skeptics and perhaps you are one of them, or maybe you are just studying the meme war in fascination, and perhaps you have made some interesting points but I can't tell so far. Your last blog post seems related to scientific consensus. So is one of mine "Global Warming and the Controversy: What is Scientific Consensus? Continental Drift as Example."

February 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHal Morris

When will the climate change discussion admit that people's first concerns are food, housing and paying the bills not a warming of the planet? When will the climate change discussants directly consider that politicians are not trusted and therefore may not be the best salespeople for paying attention to climate change?
You don't communicate better with those who are not listening by yelling at them and telling them that they are stupid or by sending them snake oil salesmen to 'convince' them. Just sayin'.

February 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

@Dan, well this usefully widens the filter, but not nearly wide enough. There are other poles than 'egalitarian' and 'individualist'; these ones are still quite closely coupled to political stripe (especially in US). However, looking into the attitudes of the Independents in the US (not at either political pole, theoretically the least partisan of folks on a purely left-right axis), is I agree very revealing:
http://judithcurry.com/2015/08/14/climate-culture-versus-knowing-disbelief/

February 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

Hal, I think your linked blog post has rather sanitized historic events regarding tectonic plate theory, and avoided the issue that for the best part of half a century there was a solid consensus actively impeding the concept of continental drift. Wegener himself was ridiculed, and scientific authority within the field of geology resisted rather than encouraged the emergence of the theory plus the underlying data that eventually demonstrated its truth. This is despite the fact that a 6 year old child can see that the east coast of South America dovetails with the west coast of Africa. I recall my own geology teacher still being very angry about the issue; he had in earlier years been forced to tow the official line and suppress his true belief (based on data even then available), that the theory was entirely correct. While none of this mattered big-time in the world, because continental drift (unsurprisingly) never became a large-scale social concern, it is indeed a good example of how a consensus can be a very bad thing for science.

An unabused scientific consensus is merely a parking place for the current framework of understanding, for a domain that still contains much uncertainty. It allows for better co-operation and communication and acts as the current beachhead for further advances, yet must always be understood as a position that will change and itself may be wholly overturned, and not infrequently is. Once uncertainty is diminished down far enough and the theory can be independently demonstrated, a consensus is no longer needed anyhow, the conclusion is manifest. Until that point is reached the consensus should welcome update, even serious update.

In contrast, a socially enforced consensus blossoms wherever culture arises, whether this be small-scale closing of ranks of authority figures with particular world-views, say, or right up to full self-supporting cultures, for instance a religion. (From an evolutionary perspective, a large part of the 'job' of a culture is to manufacture a consensus). The prior consensus that the theory of continental drift / tectonics had to overcome, was of the socially enforced type, not the scientific type, though the one can masquerade as the other. It is perfectly fine not to accept something without evidence (labeling it only a possibility); it is not fine when via a raft of (mainly unconscious and emotive) bias mechanisms, the uncovering of evidence and alternate views is suppressed.

Yes, my interest in the climate domain comes from the cultural evolution / memetics angle.

I'm not sure what point you're trying to make re Judith Curry. I think she does an excellent job running Climate Etc, which quite rarely these days continues to foster opinion and comment from a whole range of positions within the climate debate. I've guest posted there myself, which posts have sparked much healthy discussion, and feel privileged to have been granted some space in this high quality forum. If you have any points to make to Curry or to any other of the posters / commenters there, I encourage you to pitch in directly at Climate Etc.

Thanks for the spell check :)

February 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

Hal, I think your linked blog post has rather sanitized historic events regarding tectonic plate theory, and avoided the issue that for the best part of half a century there was a solid consensus actively impeding the concept of continental drift. Wegener himself was ridiculed, and scientific authority within the field of geology resisted rather than encouraged the emergence of the theory plus the underlying data that eventually demonstrated its truth. This is despite the fact that a 6 year old child can see that the east coast of South America dovetails with the west coast of Africa. I recall my own geology teacher still being very angry about the issue; he had in earlier years been forced to tow the official line and suppress his true belief (based on data even then available), that the theory was entirely correct. While none of this mattered big-time in the world, because continental drift (unsurprisingly) never became a large-scale social concern, it is indeed a good example of how a consensus can be a very bad thing for science.

An unabused scientific consensus is merely a parking place for the current framework of understanding, for a domain that still contains much uncertainty. It allows for better co-operation and communication and acts as the current beachhead for further advances, yet must always be understood as a position that will change and itself may be wholly overturned, and not infrequently is. Once uncertainty is diminished down far enough and the theory can be independently demonstrated, a consensus is no longer needed anyhow, the conclusion is manifest. Until that point is reached the consensus should welcome update, even serious update.

In contrast, a socially enforced consensus blossoms wherever culture arises, whether this be small-scale closing of ranks of authority figures with particular world-views, say, or right up to full self-supporting cultures, for instance a religion. (From an evolutionary perspective, a large part of the 'job' of a culture is to manufacture a consensus). The prior consensus that the theory of continental drift / tectonics had to overcome, was of the socially enforced type, not the scientific type, though the one can masquerade as the other. It is perfectly fine not to accept something without evidence (labeling it only a possibility); it is not fine when via a raft of (mainly unconscious and emotive) bias mechanisms, the uncovering of evidence and alternate views is suppressed.

Yes, my interest in the climate domain comes from the cultural evolution / memetics angle.

I'm not sure what point you're trying to make re Judith Curry. I think she does an excellent job running Climate Etc, which quite rarely these days continues to foster opinion and comment from a whole range of positions within the climate debate. I've guest posted there myself, which posts have sparked much healthy discussion, and feel privileged to have been granted some space in this high quality forum. If you have any points to make to Curry or to any other of the posters / commenters there, I encourage you to pitch in directly at Climate Etc.

Thanks for the spell check :)

February 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

@Hal I think my response has been eaten by auto-moderation, tried twice so there must be something naughty in it. Hopefully will appear in due course.

February 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

Dan, nice post. I particularly like this idea that controversy is
"a result of the success of political actors in attaching identity-defining meanings to competing positions, thereby creating social & psychological dynamics that predictably motivate ordinary citizens to fit their beliefs to those that predominate within their political groups."
and also the much wider definition of 'science communication' that you seem to be suggesting here as the sum of all processes that influence individual decision making.

February 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Matthews

@Andy--

The cultural cognition worldview scheme is admittedly a simplification, a model, a thought/acton-enabling picture of something that doesn't actually look like anything.

Or it is as you say a filter. B/c something -- in fact most of everything-- has to be filtered out in order to make the phenomenon tractable.

I'm certain a better scheme is possible! Actually, I'm certain that the opportunisitic use of schemes as necessary to get the job done is best, so long as there is sufficient standardization or commensurability between researchers' accounts to permit common intellectual exchange.

But what makes a scheme better is not that it is richer or more accurate.

It is that it does a better job enabling explanation, prediction & prescription.

So what's the better scheme you have in mind?

February 8, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

3rd attempt at posting this response!

Hal, I think your linked blog post has rather sanitized historic events regarding tectonic plate theory, and avoided the issue that for the best part of half a century there was a solid consensus actively impeding the concept of continental drift. Wegener himself was ridiculed, and scientific authority within the field of geology resisted rather than encouraged the emergence of the theory plus the underlying data that eventually demonstrated its truth. This is despite the fact that a 6 year old child can see that the east coast of South America dovetails with the west coast of Africa. I recall my own geology teacher still being very angry about the issue; he had in earlier years been forced to tow the official line and suppress his true belief (based on data even then available), that the theory was entirely correct. While none of this mattered big-time in the world, because continental drift (unsurprisingly) never became a large-scale social concern, it is indeed a good example of how a consensus can be a very bad thing for science.

An unabused scientific consensus is merely a parking place for the current framework of understanding, for a domain that still contains much uncertainty. It allows for better co-operation and communication and acts as the current beachhead for further advances, yet must always be understood as a position that will change and itself may be wholly overturned, and not infrequently is. Once uncertainty is diminished down far enough and the theory can be independently demonstrated, a consensus is no longer needed anyhow, the conclusion is manifest. Until that point is reached the consensus should welcome update, even serious update.

In contrast, a socially enforced consensus blossoms wherever culture arises, whether this be small-scale closing of ranks of authority figures with particular world-views, say, or right up to full self-supporting cultures, for instance a religion. (From an evolutionary perspective, a large part of the 'job' of a culture is to manufacture a consensus). The prior consensus that the theory of continental drift / tectonics had to overcome, was of the socially enforced type, not the scientific type, though the one can masquerade as the other. It is perfectly fine not to accept something without evidence (labeling it only a possibility); it is not fine when via a raft of (mainly unconscious and emotive) bias mechanisms, the uncovering of evidence and alternate views is suppressed.

Yes, my interest in the climate domain comes from the cultural evolution / memetics angle.

I'm not sure what point you're trying to make re Judith Curry. I think she does an excellent job running Climate Etc, which quite rarely these days continues to foster opinion and comment from a whole range of positions within the climate debate. I've guest posted there myself, which posts have sparked much healthy discussion, and feel privileged to have been granted some space in this high quality forum. If you have any points to make to Curry or to any other of the posters / commenters there, I encourage you to pitch in directly at Climate Etc.

Thanks for the spell check :)

February 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

>>It is that it does a better job enabling explanation, prediction & prescription.

Absolutely.

>>So what's the better scheme you have in mind?

Your scheme is ultimately based on a (very limited) set of *types* of culture, or rather cultural values that are presumed to form the heart of an associated culture (e.g. egalitarianism), against which you look for correlations. But there are many more such types, and for instance I'd guess your scheme would be a poor tool for investigating the cultural entanglements with religions, despite these are still the most numerous (and represent some of the strongest) full cultures on the planet.

Cultures have recognized subset characteristics that are independent of 'type', and are universal, as they stem from the evolutionary development of culture itself. So this suggests various and more generic approaches when trying to determine whether a phenomenon is culturally driven or not:
1) Look directly for these characteristics
2) Focus on a particular critical characteristic in more detail
3) Look at survey data that should already capture at least some presence of these characteristics, in some fashion

1 may seem obvious and indeed some characteristics are easy to spot. But as humans are endemically cultural, measuring properly and knowing which behavior attributes to what cultural influence is not so easy. Regarding 2, Cultural Consensus Theory takes this approach, although it is unfortunately still subject to bias as this can creep in through the formation of the necessary question lists . Regarding 3, the link below shows a simple example - yet as you note it is insight rather than sophistication that counts. This 3 step basic analysis shows that Creationism is a cultural not evidential phenomenon. The very same 3 steps executed in the climate domain show that the concept of imminent (decades) climate calamity is a cultural not evidential phenomenon. I.e. 'climate culture' is a type in itself. If one doesn't like the steps for the latter, one would have to say why they're wrong for the former.

http://curryja.files.wordpress.com/2015/11/who-is-who-aux-file.docx

I don't have the time and resources to pursue in much more detail than the example above, perhaps you do; as you can see there is already some of your excellent data on polarization in there :)

February 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

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