Cultural cognition and the role it plays in polarizing debates. (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla)
(Feb 17 2014. New Comments and contributions added at the bottom)
Recently I have received a comment about one of my previous posts (on the awareness of the role played by science and scientists by society) pointing me out the importance of understanding the role played in a debate by the differences in cultural heritage.
(Professor na UCP)
Thank you for your article, precious and timely. In my opinion, these symptoms are more discernible in the Southern Europe (speaking only in terms of Europe), rather than in the Anglo-Saxon culture – a weakness that affects, e.g., our two countries (Spain and Portugal).
This comment made me look at the extent that such influence could have in the broad picture of environmental debates. That is how I found “The Cultural Cognition Project”. The Cultural Cognition Project is “a group of scholars interested in studying how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs. Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.”
A study conducted by the Cultural Cognition Project looked at “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks”. “The aim of the study was to test two hypotheses,” said Dan Kahan, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School and a member of the study team. “The first attributes political controversy over climate change to the public’s limited ability to comprehend science, and the second, to opposing sets of cultural values. The findings supported the second hypothesis and not the first,” he said. In this study it was found that members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest. This result suggests that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.
“In effect,” Kahan said, “ordinary members of the public credit or dismiss scientific information on disputed issues based on whether the information strengthens or weakens their ties to others who share their values. At least among ordinary members of the public, individuals with higher science comprehension are even better at fitting the evidence to their group commitments.”
Kahan said that the study supports no inferences about the reasoning of scientific experts in climate change.
Researcher Ellen Peters of Ohio State University said that people who are higher in numeracy and science literacy usually make better decisions in complex technical situations, but the study clearly casts doubt on the notion that the more you understand science and math, the better decisions you’ll make in complex and technical situations. “What this study shows is that people with high science and math comprehension can think their way to conclusions that are better for them as individuals but are not necessarily better for society.”
According to Kahan, the study suggests the need for science communication strategies that reflect a more sophisticated understanding of cultural values.
For anybody interested in this subject I would suggest to take a look to a post from Roger Pielke Sr’blog: My Comment On “A Closer Look At Why The Climate Change Debate Is So Polarized” By Keith L. Seitter.
He not only gives his own interesting opinion in the subject but also incorporates more sources of information (an article by Keith L. Seitter, Executive Director of the AMS) and the introduction of the Graves Value Theory. This concept categorizes individuals into what someone finds important.
My last thought in this matter is related with a different post from my blog: “Cross-pollinators and the risks of specialization. The screw and the knife.” Could the culture of fast specialization be playing also a role in polarizing debates?