The tragedy of the science commons

How to communicate climate change science

One of the major problems to curbing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and thus to some extent globally, is the fact that a large fraction of the American public is skeptical about the proposition of human-induced climate change. According to a multiple-country study by Resources for the Future (RFF) released in 2010 only 40% of the American public think that environmental improvements should be a priority. This is in comparison to 77 % of the Chinese public and 62% of the Swedish public  (figure 1). Dan Kahan, a professor in law and psychology at Yale University, has studied this phenomenon which he calls the science communication problem, referring to “the failure of sound, widely disseminated science to settle public controversies over risks and other policy-relevant facts that admit of scientific investigation” (Kahan, 2012). This post will deal with the topic of understanding different cultural/group attitudes towards scientific information.

Figure 1. Source: Resources for the future
Ever since the 1970´s there have been many suggested reasons to why science has not been able to settle debates about e.g. climate change, gun control, and nuclear power in the U.S. and elsewhere. One common thesis is the so called "science denialism" which posits that we see disputes over risks because there is a significant portion of the population that doesn't accept the authority of science as a guide for policy-making. Suggested solutions related to that type of reasoning has thus been to promote more education and outreach. However,  Kahans research on this topic in the case of the U.S. shows that no cultural group favors policies that diverge from scientific consensus on climate change, for example. Rather, due to identity-protective cognition, groups are culturally polarized over what the scientific consensus is on those issues. 

A second common explanation is the "misinformation" thesis. Although there is plenty of misinformation on topics such as climate change Kahan argues that it may not be the case that misinformation is actually causing public controversy but rather that causation runs the other way. Meaning that people tend to find evidence supportive of erroneous but culturally supportive beliefs which in turn can set of a cascade of misinformers who benefit from this viewpoint being promoted e.g. coal industry. 

The third explanation comes from economics and is called "bounded rationality". To some people, controversy over climate change can be explained by deficits in the public's reasoning capacities. According to this view, ordinary members of the public know too little science and can't understand it anyway because they use faulty strategies for interpreting risk information. Although it's plausible Khan argues that even this explanation is wrong. He does so on the basis of evidence from his studies that higher levels of science literacy and quantitative reasoning ability did not lower the cultural polarization on climate change, but rather magnified it. This seems intuitively wrong to most people who would have guessed that with greater science literacy also comes increasing awareness of scientific truths. But Kahn explains this phenomena in terms of that people who are motivated to form perceptions that fit their cultural identities can be expected to use their greater knowledge to further facilitate erroneous beliefs about societal risks.

The fourth and last, less common but increasingly mentioned, explanation for why science has not been able to settle the public debate on climate change in the U.S. is termed "authoritarian personality". This explanation method posits that personality traits such as closed-mindedness on the one hand and conservative ideology on the other correlates, and that this would indicate differences in e.g. republicans and democrats positions on climate change. However, as Kahn shows in his cultural cognition studies, both republicans and democrats tested equally protective of their cultural beliefs whether they were wrong or not and open-mindedness did not matter as a factor. Moreover, the subjects most inclined to employ reflective reasoning were also the most prone to identity-protective cognition, agreeing with findings in disproving the third explanation mentioned above. This means that in the case of the U.S., at least, cultural cognition and group identity is a major problem to people trying to achieve a truthful and effective science communication. Different cultural and ideological values shape peoples risk perception on issues such as climate change as demonstrated in the figure below.
Source: adapted from Cultural Cognition 
The tragedy of the science commons
According to Kahn these results indicate that indentity-protective cognition is the problem to why science has not been able to settle certain debates such as climate change. It affects groups of all ideologies and interferes with the judgment of even the most scientifically literate and reflective citizens. The public space for debate can be defined as a common good. For this public space to benefit society at large, and not only certain cultural groups, standards has to be put into place to protect this common good. This would include not allowing pollution in form of erroneous but culturally protective beliefs to take over the space. Kahn thus suggests that there needs to be a separation between meanings and facts, allowing for a public space were discussions about policy-consequential facts can be fruitful. Leaving all that has to do with meanings outside of the science debate so to protect democratic societies from that which makes the science communication environment toxic. But to do this one also needs to understand how such meanings are formed, which today is still poorly understood.

Carlsson et al. (2010). Paying for Mitigation: A Multiple Country Study

Kahan, D (2010). Fixing the Communications Failure. Nature 463, 296-297


Out of the ashes into the fire

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