Cultural cognition and the role it plays in polarizing debates. (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla)

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)
Dear Diego:
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?

About Diego Fdez-Sevilla, PhD.

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6 Responses to Cultural cognition and the role it plays in polarizing debates. (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla)

  1. Pingback: Cross-pollinators and the risks of specialization. The screw and the knife. | diego fdez-sevilla

  2. I have received this comment:
    I am not really convinced by Kahan’s arguments. I explain why in detail here:

    My answer:
    Thank you for sharing Michael.
    Still my point is not about the messenger but about the existence of the message. Before tackling the methodology applied to answer the question in itself I would like to understand the issue that it represents and its relevance. I am more into finding the value of the question from different perspectives than in validating the answers individually. Who feels that it is an issue that needs attention?

    Is it there a need for making people aware of the relevant role that polarization is starting to play against unifying efforts and disciplines to find common ground in multidisciplinary debates?

    Is it becoming polarization relevant enough in scientific debates to undermine their functionality?
    Is it significant the role being played by polarization against unifying efforts, criteria and multidisciplinary thinking and thinkers? Is it more extreme than it used to be? If so, why? Is it because cultural heritage, lack of multidisciplinary understanding due to specialization…?

    What makes an argument valid to be contemplated?
    Because I don´t understand something does not make it less valid.
    Because I understand it does not mean that I agree.
    Because it comes from a non specialist in the field and without the specific terminology associated does not mean it cannot contribute to open new valid lines of thinking.

    I have seen arguments like:
    “One person, without scientific position or credentials, will be given scant attention. The force multiplier is then being part of an organization, movement or society with concerns similar to yours. Otherwise you are just another person with a megaphone.”

    So, does it need an argument to come from a relevant positioned member of a renowned institution to be contemplated? In that case, any other person, scientist or researcher could feel the pressure of being the one claiming that the King is naked.

    A discussion from a different group in Linkedin treated the subject of climate change.
    After 450 comments the last one was:

    “Folks, I have been following this discussion, and feel it’s about time for it to have run its course. It’s clear that there are very strong opinions here, but at this point, this particular thread seems to have run its course. I am certain the topic will come up down the road, but for right now, I think the points to have been made, have been.
    I feel right now is a good point, since the last few posts have been fairly well balanced, so closing on a bit of a positive note in the discussion seems very appropriate.”

    Could it be time to stop for a moment from keeping our heads down over each one’s data and think for a second about how limited its meaning can be, not due to the lack of data in itself but due to the lack of interpretations?

    It feels needed a space, a playground where to play freely with concepts, ideas, data, no fear to say something silly since after 5 silly ideas you might find a very good one nobody else thought about. Or by saying what you think you might actually wake up a dormant idea in somebody else’s mind. And all of that involving people open minded and with the skills of being able to adapt the language to communicate complex matters in simple ways, creating an environment accessible for a multidisciplinary exchange of ideas.

    We well might reach a point where the speed developing technological advances to obtain data could overtake the systematic established to interpret it and new strategies will have to come in place (see previous post about this And that would demand avoiding polarization in order to enhance the functionality of the debate.
    So, what do you think about it?


  3. Messsage from
    Steve McCarter (Independent Environmental Consultant)
    Thank you for providing clarification of the point of your post. Unfortunately, I had not followed the earlier posts you had made, so I was likely at a disadvantage in responding to the two posts. Let me attempt to respond to each of your questions in turn, although there seems to me to be an interrelationship among them.

    “Who feels that it is an issue that needs attention?”

    Polarization of thought should be an issue of concern for everyone since it can have a direct bearing on any number of factors impinging on individuals’ lives, but it should be of particular concern to scientists since the scientific method relies on a lack of bias for its validity. Any question is valid, as is any hypothesis proposed to answer the question. The methodology to test the hypothesis (experimental design), the collection and reporting of data, and the results of the experimental process, however, must be without bias and must be repeatable to be valid. Designing a process to collect data that is intended to show a particular result is bias. Kahan’s experimental process, therefore appears flawed to me based on the article to which you referred me. From a scientific point of view, this invalidates the results. Perhaps that response is outside the parameters of this question, but it illustrates the point that scientists need to be concerned with any parameter that takes away from the scientific method and why it should be an issue for them. Likewise, people as a whole need to be concerned with polarization as it can play a part in determining the regulatory environment, tax structure, mobility, and services perceived as needed, among other things. Polarization is rarely balanced, however, and it tends to swing like a pendulum in terms of support. Polarization also creates a paradox in which the prevailing bias influences the perception of whether or not it is an issue at all, and serves mainly to entrench bias rather than resolve differences.

    “Is it there a need for making people aware of the relevant role that polarization is starting to play against unifying efforts and disciplines to find common ground in multidisciplinary debates?”

    I think that people already are aware that polarization plays against unifying efforts and disciplines to find common ground. Certainly the scientific, academic, and political communities are aware of it. I’m just not certain that the bulk of the populace cares.

    “Is it becoming polarization relevant enough in scientific debates to undermine their functionality?”

    Since prevalent political bias drives scientific funding and research, not to mention business enterprises, I think the answer is self evident. Competition for limited resources tends to reinforce polarization and that does undermine scientific debate, or at least the openness to other ideas and hypotheses, which certainly limits the functionality of the debate. A comment in another post in this forum illustrates this (although it is taken somewhat out of context). “I don’t care about geologic time – Comparing our history to natural cycles is a false debating point often used in climate discussion – it’s a red herring. So what if there are cycles? I will live for 80 years (with luck), and my kids, etc. Eons don’t matter, at the end of the day.”

    “Is it significant the role being played by polarization against unifying efforts, criteria and multidisciplinary thinking and thinkers? Is it more extreme than it used to be? If so, why? Is it because cultural heritage, lack of multidisciplinary understanding due to specialization…?”

    I believe it is, certainly among the more recent graduates. And yes, I believe it is more extreme than it used to be. I believe this has more to do with the trend in higher education that focuses more on “saving the earth” than on the traditional philosophy of scientific thought that focuses on identifying relevant areas of scientific investigation and promotes general scientific curiosity. When education focuses on an objective rather than curiosity it tends to close rather than open minds. Specialization simply further narrows focus to the detriment of multidisciplinary understanding.

    “What makes an argument valid to be contemplated?”

    The validity of an argument has less to do with the source and educational background of the proponent and more to do with its balance, rationality, and relevant data. Any scientific argument proposed (regardless of source) can be considered as a valid hypothesis, but it must stand unbiased scientific scrutiny to be proven valid. Philosophical arguments are an entirely different animal governed by principles of logic, premise (deductive), and probability (inductive). I’m not a philosopher, but I believe, as Ayn Rand said in Atlas Shrugged, “If your conclusions are wrong, check your premises.”

    “Because I don´t understand something does not make it less valid.”

    True to a point. One’s lack of understanding often leads to a valid question, however lack of understanding can make an argument weak, if not unsupportable.

    ” Because I understand it does not mean that I agree.”

    True. This is the basis of scientific hypotheses and the purpose of scientific investigation fundamental to the exploration of ideas.

    “Because it comes from a non specialist in the field and without the specific terminology associated does not mean it cannot contribute to open new valid lines of thinking.”

    True. Scientific thinking has little to do with specialization and specific terminologies. Scientific thinking is a way of discerning a problem or question, applying logic to attain a hypothesis, and developing a method to test the hypothesis. If that required a specialist, how does one explain such innovators as Archimedes, Hero of Alexandria, DaVinci, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Fulton, Henry Ford, and Tesla, just to name a few more well-known generalists? Likewise, it is a mistake to presuppose that all specialists are people of narrow focus.

    Regarding your comment on the lack of interpretations of data, I’m not sure I understand your point. The “lack of interpretations” is rarely an issue in the reviewing data. Interpretations of data are helping fuel the debate. It is lack of tolerance for opposing or conflicting interpretations of data and the narrowness of focus in gathering data that create issues. I suspect that will continue to be an issue.

    As to your last comments, I think the point you are trying to make is akin to saying, “If we could all just get along, there would be world peace.” Historically that is unlikely when it comes to “hot-button” issues, particularly where politics is involved. It is far easier to be open minded on less controversial issues. The good news is that there is still good scientific progress being made on a wide variety of other important issues and translating those into common language is more advantageous. Finally, given the history of controversy, eventually the dynamics of climate change will die out as a political issue. Then, perhaps, we can focus on the real issue… adapting to the change as our understanding of that system increases.


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