Uncultured cognition.

by Jen

As I’m reading Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain (and quite enjoying it, as a future post will surely elaborate), I am finding that he references several works by authors I’ve already run across in my research. I almost feel like I’m retracing Mooney’s steps without realizing he was already there, which is, I suppose, reaffirming, but also has me wondering whether I’ll get anything genuinely new out of the book itself. I’ll save that discussion for the next entry, however.

One particularly relevant concept that Mooney includes in his discussion of science denial is that of cultural cognition or, essentially, one’s worldview as influenced by upbringing, life experiences and cultural group. Dan Kahan has studied the cultural cognition of scientific consensus and determined that a person’s cultural worldview affects how he views controversial science topics even more than his level of education or scientific understanding.

Both correlational and experimental evidence confirm that cultural cognition shapes individuals’ beliefs about the existence of scientific consensus, and the process by which they form such beliefs.

In other words, people tend to trust scientists as experts only when those scientists take positions that already match the philosophical and political leanings of the individual’s own cultural group.

When you think about it, there’s a little bit of duh going on here. Human nature right? Sounds a little like confirmation bias, no? But cultural cognition is subtler, and plays a far more critical role influencing people’s acceptance (or denial) of scientific consensus. Cultural cognition certainly warrants more attention, especially from the science community, than it currently enjoys.

Kahan’s research gives rise to some clear implications for science communication, which I’ll certainly be folding into my thesis work this year. Kahan discusses these strategies generally on the Cultural Cognition blog and more specifically in a separate essay:

  • Identity Affirmation

When shown risk information (e.g., global temperatures are increasing) that they associate with a conclusion threatening to their cultural values (commerce must be constrained), individuals tend to react dismissively toward that information; however, when shown that the information in fact supports or is consistent with a conclusion that affirms their cultural values (society should rely more on nuclear power), such individuals are more likely to consider the information open-mindedly.

  • Pluralistic Advocacy

Individuals reflexively reject information inconsistent with their predispositions when they perceive that it is being advocated by experts whose values they reject and opposed by ones whose values they share. In contrast, they attend more open-mindedly to such information, and are much more likely to accept it, if they perceive that there are experts of diverse values on both sides of the debate.

  • Narrative Framing

Individuals tend to assimilate information by fitting it to pre-existing narrative templates or schemes that invest the information with meaning. By crafting messages to evoke narrative templates that are culturally congenial to target audiences, communicators can help to assure that the content of the information they are imparting receives considered attention across diverse cultural groups.

He also echoes something that should be starting to sound familiar:

It would not be a gross simplification to say that science needs better marketing. Unlike commercial advertising, however, the goal of these techniques is not to induce public acceptance of any particular conclusion, but rather to create an environment for the public’s open-minded, unbiased consideration of the best available scientific information.

Add all this to the recent studies that now suggest a strong affective component to science denial, explained in a blog post by Chris Mooney himself, and you get the following conclusion (from Mooney):

Trying to “debate” with a global warming denier today is really a fool’s errand. This issue is affecting people emotionally, on a gut level.

To which I say, maybe science communicators need to work harder on affecting people emotionally, on that same gut level, too.