There is No Scientific Debate on the Science, so Why is There a Public Debate on the Science?

The Antarctic ice sheet is falling into the ocean, $1.1 trillion of investments are at risk due to a carbon bubble and the U.S. President is saying climate change is already affecting his country — by all accounts, you'd think the debate over global warming would be settled once and for all.

Yet it rages on. Recent polling shows public concern over climate change has fallen in Canada, the U.S., Britain and Australia over the last several years.

If there’s agreement among the world’s experts, why on earth is their disagreement among the world’s non-experts? And why is that disagreement so deeply polarized?

In a recent public lecture about polarized public discourse, DeSmog Canada founder and president Jim Hoggan posed the question: “Why are we listening to each other shout rather than listening to what the evidence is trying to tell us?”

This is not a rhetorical question.

This type of question, however, does tend to be posed rhetorically, perhaps with your hands being thrown up in desperation, moments before walking away. But it’s a question that matters, because so long as we’re just shouting at one another, we fail to make progress on the world’s big issues.

So let’s take the question seriously — it deserves it and it just might get us somewhere.

Cultural cognition: we're all running in cultural packs

Sometimes, arguments aren’t really at all about what they appear to be about. So-called "debate" on environmental or economic policy, for example, can at times be more about articulating competing perspectives than it is about "debating" how we might make progress on important issues.

"Debates" like this can (and arguably do) remain on an entirely superficial level.

But if we’re not engaging in real dialogue, then what are we actually doing?

According to experts at Yale University, we’re engaging in the practice of “cultural cognition.” Simply put, cultural cognition refers to our tendency to conform our beliefs to the cultural packs that we run with. What we might be doing in a “debate” is actually articulating the position our cultural group has on an issue.

This becomes really interesting, according to the folks at Yale, when we’re looking at issues of scientific consensus — that is, issues that aren’t really up for debate.

Debates are as much about culture as about science

Climate change, the disposal of nuclear waste and gun control are all contentious issues that rely heavily on scientific research. Yet, these issues are also largely cultural, and of significant political importance. They tend to be issues for which there is high scientific consensus and low public consensus.

So, how can we better understand the deep running undercurrents of cultural polarization that happen as a result of "cultural cognition?"

According to Dan Kahan, a Yale law and psychology professor who works on the university's cultural cognition project, we’d need to explain how we develop our viewpoints, not based on the research of experts and scientists, but in response to our community, as a means of identifying with our social group.

In a recent paper, "Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk," Kahan and his colleagues outline how individuals develop opinions on scientific matters by identifying trustworthy experts. But just who passes the test of being a trustworthy expert varies widely between groups with opposing worldviews.

“We hypothesized that scientific opinion fails to quiet societal dispute on such issues not because members of the public are unwilling to defer to experts but because culturally diverse persons tend to form opposing perceptions of what experts believe,” the report states.

Overall, this leads to a sort of group-think confirmation bias.

“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.”

A little more plainly, this means that sometimes we’re a little overzealous in our endorsements of those we like. If the right person says it, we’re a little too quick to listen. If it came from "our side," we’ll tone down the criticism.

We listen to the science — when it agrees with us

And it gets more interesting. Kahan ties the tendency to agree or disagree with scientific consensus into deep and opposing worldviews. He divides these into two basic camps: those holding "hierarchical and individualistic” views and those holding “egalitarian and communitarian” outlooks — more or less the groups falling on one side or the other of the left-right divide.

But, even more interesting than that, there was no argument to be made that groups on the "left" were any better at discerning scientific consensus than groups on the "right."

As Kahan’s team found, both groups diverged from scientific consensus and expertise (scientific opinion endorsed by the National Academy of the Sciences) “in a pattern reflective of their respective predispositions.”

It turns out, “both hierarchical individualists and egalitarian communitarians are fitting their perceptions of scientific consensus to their values.”

That means taking a stand on issues like environmental policy is more a matter of personal identification than scientific “fact.”

For this reason, our belonging to a group (which, of course, we all do) can be problematic. We might buy into a group’s entire ideological system, rather than retain an open and nuanced view of a contentious political issue.

Maybe hold off on drinking the Kool-Aid

And, to make matters worse, groups often have internal inconsistencies. And what happens then, when we’ve drunk the Kool-Aid and have adopted a wholesale perspective on an issue, instead of recognizing that a single group can be right on some things and wrong on others?

Advocating for any given environmental policy shouldn’t have to mean you immediately agree with every other supposedly progressive grassroots opinion emerging from that group.

That’s an important distinction: you can say one thing, without saying all those other things. You can advocate environmental policy change without joining the entire club.

Why does that matter?

When we think of polarized debate, we picture opposed extremes talking past one another in a state of logic schism. Two groups, missing one another’s point, and depicting one another in an adversarial light.

How much of your thinking is done for you?

But there is another side to polarization. It’s not just about the two sides repelling one another; it’s also about what happens to each side individually. And it’s about us, as individuals.

The issue is one of how the individual sits within group mentality. Clearly, we share both a cultural and evolutionary propensity for grouping ourselves together. This has, and continues to, serve us well in many regards. But group mentality has a particularly adverse effect: if you’ve already decided which side you’re on, then a lot of your decisions are already made.

A lot of your thinking is done for you.

So, back to that original question: “Why are we listening to each other shout rather than listening to what the evidence is trying to tell us?”

It’s not just because two sides are talking past one another. The problem with this image is that, in it, we fail to take responsibility for our own shortcomings, as if we were saying: "We’re right, but they’re just not hearing us!"

The challenge of overcoming “cultural cognition,” then, lies in our intentional open-mindedness and also our careful communication.

Keeping an open mind is for our own sake: so our thinking doesn’t become stagnated, so that we can remain open to those big ideas when they finally come to us.

If current climate science is any indication (and yes, we’re aware that we’ve chosen to identify with the world’s most prominent scientists), the stakes are high.

Photo: Screen grab from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO): Climate change debate

Carol Linnitt and David Tracey

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