It doesn’t seem to matter which topic we choose – climate change, evolution, gun control, gm organisms, nanotechnology, vaccine use, incarceration methods and sentences, tobacco smoking – all have resulted in angry and polarized confrontations.
Why does this occur over and over again?
In one study he asked his subjects how much risk climate change poses for human health, safety or prosperity. As in all his studies, the sample size was large enough that he could test for age, gender, race, class, education, political party, and cultural world view.
What did he find? For gender, race, class or age, no correlations.
What about degree of science literacy and numeracy? Not only not correlated, but in fact an increase in science literacy and numeracy magnified the polarization of views, perhaps quite the opposite of what you might have expected.
Surely political affiliation was correlated? Only barely: the typical political orientation of a person dismissing the risks of climate change was an Independent just right of center, while that of one who considered the risks to be great was an Independent just left of center.
Only one’s cultural world view strongly predicted the sense of environmental risk. People whose world views were simultaneously more hierarchical (authority respected) and individualistic (individual initiative prized) tended to dismiss the evidence of environmental risk, while those whose values were more egalitarian and communitarian considered the risks to be unacceptable.
Kahan concludes that no matter what the evidence may be, we actually make our own decisions based on what he calls ‘cultural cognition’.
For example, each of us knows that as an individual there is little that we can do to alleviate the effects of climate change, yet at the same time we know that if we take a position on the question that is in conflict with that of our peers, we face the real repercussions of their anger, abuse, disapproval, dismissal, even shunning. Weighing the comparative risks, most of us accept the peer pressure, reject arguments we might otherwise accept, and survive intact in our social communities.
Kahan’s other studies have very similar results. Is all of this surprising? Maybe not. But it does mean that in many situations evidence-based arguments will not prevail.
Kahan proposes that the real challenge then is how to communicate good science in ways that reduce the polarization. For instance in the case of the climate change debate, focusing on alternative energy sources and possible geo-engineering solutions might be helpful. Involving diverse ‘communicators’ apparently may also make a difference.
Of course this isn’t saying that all extremists can be induced to moderate their views. And Kahan’s suggested solutions still look weak. But the problem before us now is clearer: we make some of our important decisions based on our ideologies, not on evidence. More evidence, more clearly presented, may not be the solution.
Kahan’s conclusions are at least based on evidence-based arguments. Now we need unusual ways to communicate them or we probably won’t accept them anyway.
What if we’re just not smart enough to find ways to moderate our polarized positions? That really is too bleak to contemplate. Kahan’s ‘truth’ may be partial, but surely it is worth pursuing.