“Political ideology can corrupt the mind, and science.”
—E.O. Wilson, American biologist
I’d never heard the term “cultural cognition” before, but once I learned what it meant, I realized I was already very aware of the concept. Have you ever wondered why something as scientific as global warming—with facts and evidence to help make it unequivocal—has so many people who either don’t believe it’s real, or accept it as real but go out of their way to find reasons why it’s not our fault? And that those who seem to be in one of those two categories tend to be on one end of the political spectrum compared to those who accept it?
In 2001, 49 percent of Republicans believed that global warming had already begun while 60 percent of Democrats believed it. In 2010, despite even more supportive evidence, Republicans were down to only 29 percent believing that global warming was happening, but Democrats were up to 70 percent. When the facts shouldn’t be up for debate, and when party politics shouldn’t have an impact, why such a discrepancy? And why is one group believing it more while another group is believing it less?
It turns out it all comes down to cultural cognition. The Yale law school has created the Cultural Cognition Project to investigate the phenomenon. From their website, they define the term as ” the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.”
The group recently published a paper on a study they completed. They decided to assess whether differences in people’s beliefs about climate change reflected a lack of scientific understanding, or whether it is an example of cultural cognition. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, and involved a nationally representative sample of 1500 U.S. adults.
According to Dan Kahan, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School and a member of the study team, “The aim of the study was to test two hypotheses. The first attributes political controversy over climate change to the public’s limited ability to comprehend science, and the second, to opposing sets of cultural values.”
The results of the study unfortunately support the second hypothesis. They were consistent with earlier studies which showed that individuals with more egalitarian values disagree sharply with individuals who have more individualistic ones on the risks associated with nuclear power, gun possession, and the HPV vaccine for school girls. The study has been published in Nature Climate Change.
I’ve always believed that if people understood the facts, they’d be more likely to become motivated to change. Although I have my own political beliefs and attitudes as everyone does, they tend to apply to political issues. Should we tax higher or lower? Should we develop commercial or residential in this region or that one? Should we decriminalize marijuana or not? I think these are political questions with no right or wrong answer. The way you answer those questions is going to based on your ideals and beliefs about how things should be done and what’s most important to you.
But my politics doesn’t influence me in any way on scientific questions. That’s because questions like “Is global warming real?” and “Do our greenhouse gas emissions contribute to the problem?” are yes-or-no questions. They have answers that science can provide. And no political belief can change that for me. Nor (I think) should it change it for anyone. That’s why I’ve always focussed on educating the public on global warming and climate change. The facts should speak for themselves.
But it turns out that political ideologies win out. That’s why some people are unwilling to easily accept evidence that will contradict their cultural perspective. One concerning finding from the Cultural Cognition Project study was that the more people were educated in science, the more likely they were to become even more divided on how significant the risks climate change imposes are.
The authors conclude that although information can solve the climate change conflict, it has to take cultural cognition into account. As Dan Kahan states, “…information has to do more than communicate the scientific evidence. It also has to create a climate of deliberations in which no group perceives that accepting any piece of evidence is akin to betrayal of their cultural group.”
For now I think I’m going to continue on blogging about evidence and various topics pertaining to climate change as I have been. I think most of the time I’m preaching to the choir but at least I’m filling in some of their gaps. This study suggests I’m not likely to have much impact on the other side of the spectrum, which explains why no one I’ve argued with on this issue—from the educated to the not-so-educated—has ever come back to me and said “you’ve won me over.” Like politicians, I suppose I’m trying to win over the undecided vote.
But if someone can figure out a way to win over the impasse that arises from cultural cognition, I believe we will have come up with a means to make a real difference and solve many of the world’s problems.