I posted the first two "yesterday"; if you want to read the third, then just download On the Sources of Ordinary Science Knowledge and Ignorance . . .
IV. “The recognition problem [that generates conflict over decision relevant science] is a polluted science communication environment.”
The species of pattern recognition that ordinary members of the public normally use to recognize valid science enables them to get the benefit of substantially more scientific insight than any could possibly hope to genuinely comprehend. The evidence I described in the last section, however, evinces the disablement of this critical capacity. The final “thesis of ordinary science knowledge” identifies the source of this disablement: a polluted science communication environment.
Popper (1962b), I noted, attributes the acquisition and exercise of the capacity for science-recognition to immersion in a set of social processes and conventions. When I refer to the science communication environment, I mean to refer to the sum total of the processes and conventions that enable recognition of valid science in this way (Kahan 2015b). Any influence that impairs or impedes the operation of these social practices will necessarily degrade the power of free, reasoning citizens to recognize valid science, and hence to realize the full benefits of it. As a result, we may understand any such influence to be a form of pollution in the science communication environment.
The sorts of influences that can generate such disablement are no doubt numerous and diverse. But I will focus on one, which degrades an especially consequential cue of science validity.
Of all the sources of ordinary science knowledge, by far the most significant will be individuals’ interactions with others with whom they a share cultural commitments or basic understanding of the best way to live. The suggestion that direct communication with scientists is more consequential reflects either the First or Second False Start or both: individuals have neither the time nor the capacity to extract information directly from scientists. Much more accessible, and much more readily subject to meaningful interpretation, are words and actions of other ordinary people, whose use of DRS vouches for their confidence in it as a basis for decision.
Indeed, it vouches as effectively when nothing is said about it as it does when something is. Nothing—including a new National Academy of Sciences expert consensus report (National Research Council 2016) that few members of the public will even be dimly aware exists—will assure an ordinary person that it is safe to eat GM corn chips as will watching his best friend and his brother-in-law and his officemate eating them without giving the matter a second’s thought, the “all clear” signal that obviates the need for the vast majority of Americans even to bother learning that the corn chips they are eating contain GM foods (Hallman, Cuite & Morin 2013).
Of course, ordinary citizens don’t interact only with those with whom they share important cultural commitments. But they interact with them much more than they interact with others, for the simple reason that they find their company more congenial and more productive of all manner of profitable intercourse. They are also less likely to was time squabbling with these people, and can also read them more reliably, distinguishing who really does know what science knows and who is only a poser. It is perfectly rational for them consciously to seek out guidance from such individuals, then, or to form unconscious habits of mind that privilege them as sources of guidance on what science knows (Kahan 2015b).
This process is admittedly insular, but it clearly works in the main. All of the major cultural groups in which this process operate are amply stocked both with members high in science comprehension and with intact social processes for transmitting what they know. No group that lacked these qualities—and that as a result regularly misled its members on the content of valid DRS—would last very long! On issues that don’t display the profile of the Science Communication Paradox, moreover, individuals highest in science proficiency do tend to converge on the best available evidence, and no doubt pull the other members of their groups along in their wake (Figure 5).
But such a system is vulnerable to a distinctive pathology: identity-protective cognition (IPC). IPC occurs when a policy-relevant fact that admits of empirical inquiry becomes entangled in antagonistic social meanings that transform positions on them into badges of identity in, and loyalty to, competing cultural groups (Kahan 2010, 2012). The cost under those conditions of forming factually incorrect beliefs on matters like whether humans are heating up the earth or whether fracking will extinguish or contaminate drinking water sources is essentially zero: individuals’ personal views and actions are not consequential enough to affect the level of risk they face, or the likely adoption of ameliorating (or simply pointless or even perverse) regulatory responses. But given what beliefs on these subjects (correct or incorrect) have come to signify about the kind of person one is—about whose side on is on, in what has become a struggle for status among competing cultural groups—the personal cost of forming the wrong ones in relation to one’s own cultural identity could be high indeed (Kahan, Peters et al. 2012).
In such circumstances, individuals can be expected to use their reason to form and persist in beliefs that reliably vouch for their group identities regardless of whether those beliefs are factually accurate. This conclusion is consistent with numerous studies, observational (Bolsen & Druckman 2015; Bolsen, Druckman & Cook 2014; Gollust, LaRussao et al. 2015; Gollust, Dempsey, et al. 2010) and experimental (Kahan, Braman, et al. 2009, 2010), that link IPC to the Science Communication Problem’s signature forms of polarization. Indeed, individuals who enjoy the highest level of proficiency will display this form of motivated reasoning to the greatest extent, precisely because they will be the most adept at using their reasoning proficiency secure the interest that they share to form identity-expressive beliefs (Kahan in press).
In sum, the antagonistic social meanings that trigger IPC are a toxic form of pollution in the science communication environment of culturally pluralistic societies. They disable individuals’ science-recognition capacities, not by degrading their reason but by conscripting it into the service of advancing their group’s cause in a demeaning form of cultural status competition. IPC does not create the role that social influences play in popular recognition of what science knows. Rather it corrupts them, transforming the role that spontaneous, everyday social interactions play from an engine of convergence on the beset available evidence into a relentlessly aggressive agent of public dissensus over what scientific consensus really is.
Bolsen, T. & Druckman, J.N. Counteracting the Politicization of Science. Journal of Communication 65, 745-769 (2015).
Bolsen, T., Druckman, J.N. & Cook, F.L. The influence of partisan motivated reasoning on public opinion. Polit Behav 36, 235-262 (2014).
Gollust, S.E., Dempsey, A.F., Lantz, P.M., Ubel, P.A. & Fowler, E.F. Controversy undermines support for state mandates on the human papillomavirus vaccine. Health Affair 29, 2041-2046 (2010).
Gollust, S.E., LoRusso, S.M., Nagler, R.H. & Fowler, E.F. Understanding the role of the news media in HPV vaccine uptake in the United States: Synthesis and commentary. Human vaccines & immunotherapeutics, 1-5 (2015).
Hallman, W., Cuite, C. & Morin, X. Public Perceptions of Labeling Genetically Modified Foods. Rutgers School of Environ. Sci. Working Paper 2013-2001, available at http://humeco.rutgers.edu/documents_PDF/news/GMlabelingperceptions.pdf.
Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L.L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change 2, 732-735 (2012).
National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects (National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2016).
Popper, K.R. On the Sources of Knowledge and of Ignorance. in Conjectures and Refutations 3-40 (Oxford University Press London, 1962b).