An Introduction to Dan Kahan

Written by: Matt Seyer

The ideological split on climate change has long been a point of intense frustration for me.  It bewilders me that in the presence of such overwhelming evidence and widespread scientific consensus, people will still wind up on the wrong side, taking the scientifically inaccurate view.  I’ve usually chalked it up to not being exposed to the right studies or to the proper news sources.  Perhaps these people are being intentionally lied to.  Maybe they’re turning a blind eye to anything that stirs up cognitive dissonance.

It’s very easy to point fingers.  It’s much more difficult to actually try to explain such phenomena.  There is a growing body of work which suggests that ordinary citizens react to scientific evidence on public risks in ways that favor their specific cultural group.  People support whichever position strengthens their ties to others with whom they share important commitments.  As a result, public debate about science is badly polarized.  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.

Dan Kahan, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law at Yale Law School, is a leader in the field of cultural cognition (referred to above), a term he coined.  Kahan’s research is fascinating, insightful, and important.  Rather than attempt to summarize it and consequently shortchange his ideas, I’ll let him summarize it for you.  Follow the link to his short piece describing his work and its results, along with his proposed strategy of effective science communication for President Obama.

A quick blurb:

“When our leaders talk about risk, they convey information not only about what the scientific facts are but also what it means, culturally, to take stances on those facts. They must therefore take the utmost care to avoid framing issues in a manner that creates the sort of toxic deliberative environment in which citizens perceive that the positions they adopt are tests of loyalty to one or another side in a contest for cultural dominance.

Where, as is true in the global warming debate, citizens find themselves choking in a climate already polluted with such resonances, then leaders and public spirited citizens must strive to clean things up—by creating an alternative set of cultural meanings that don’t variously affirm and threaten different groups’ identities.”

Science Communication Isn’t Soulcraft (Or Shouldn’t Be)


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