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You hear what you want to hear

The proverb: Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but no one is entitled to their own facts. The adage is cute and it makes sense, but that’s not the way it works. In reality, you hear what you are predisposed to hear, and that includes facts.

It’s pretty much accepted that around 98% of the world’s climatologists believe that human-caused global warming is indeed established fact. Therefore, it would be only reasonable to expect that around 98% of the general population should agree that global warming is real. Hmmm… well, no, “Fewer Americans See Solid Evidence of Global Warming” according to Pew Research.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Sept. 30-Oct. 4 [2009] among 1,500 adults reached on cell phones and landlines, finds that 57% think there is solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades. In April 2008, 71% said there was solid evidence of rising global temperatures.

It drives me crazy that people who are looking at the same data that I see can come to exactly the opposite conclusion. As a good card-carrying liberal, I have always believed that given the facts, reasonable people will arrive at the correct judgment. The good people at Zogby found that “80% of Republicans did not view a threat with respect to global climate changes as opposed to 7% of Democrats that had this same perspective.” The “facts” support my case. What the hell is wrong with those people?

That’s the question the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School is trying to answer. “The cultural cognition thesis posits that individuals tend to form perceptions of risk that reflect and reinforce one or another idealized vision of how society should be organized.” They found that:

…generally speaking, persons who subscribe to individualistic [conservative] values tend to dismiss claims of environmental risks, because acceptance of such claims implies the need to regulate markets, commerce, and other outlets for individual strivings. Persons with more egalitarian and communitarian [liberal] values, in contrast, resent commerce and industry as forms of noxious self-seeking productive of unjust disparity, and thus readily accept that such activities are dangerous and worthy of regulation.

People will tend to seek out information and experts who agree with their worldview. People will even work harder to find views that support their own than to find views that conflict with their perceptions. Data that agrees with their view will be readily incorporated into their argument, conflicting data is not absorbed. The amount of data on either side of an argument is seen as merely another disputable “fact”.

Individuals systematically overestimate the degree of scientific support for positions they are culturally predisposed to accept as a result of a cultural availability effect that influences how readily they can recall instances of expert endorsement of those positions.

In the journal Nature, Dan Kahan, a member of the Cultural Cognition Project, puts it this way,

The same groups who disagree on ‘cultural issues’ — abortion, same-sex marriage and school prayer — also disagree on whether climate change is real and on whether underground disposal of nuclear waste is safe.
The ability of democratic societies to protect the welfare of their citizens depends on finding a way to counteract this culture war over empirical data.

So, how do we connect? Kahn says that science needs better marketing. We need to find ways of communicating, not a particular conclusion, but ways to create “an environment for the public’s open-minded, unbiased consideration of the best available scientific information.

The article goes on to say that one method would be to present the information in a way that is not threatening to the values of either side. People tend to resist scientific evidence that might lead to restrictions on activities that they value. On the other hand, if the evidence is presented in a way that upholds their values, they are more likely to react with open minds.

The other method would be to make sure that the “experts” used to present the data are a more diverse group. People tend to seek out authorities that agree, or appear to agree, with their value systems. People will believe the messenger who they consider to be the most like them. Information presented by a mixed group of scientists will be more openly considered.

Our brains are culturally wired to accept only one side of every argument. More data won’t solve the problem. We must find ways to communicate that do not promote a continued culture war. In the end, this really is about whether our democracy works, or doesn’t work.

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