Science & Technology

The Culture War on Facts

Are you entitled to your own truth?


"There is a culture war in America, but it is about facts, not values," declare the researchers at the Yale Cultural Cognition Project in a new study called "The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of-and Making Progress In-the American Culture War of Fact" (full study not yet available online). Contrary to the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous maxim, the study finds that most Americans believe they're more than entitled to their own opinions; they believe that they are entitled to their own facts. Obviously, this complicates public policy debates.

The chief aim of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project is to show how cultural values shape the public's risk perceptions and related policy beliefs. Project scholars define "cultural cognition" as "the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact to values that define their cultural identities." Their research found that cultural identity values "exert substantially more influence over risk perceptions than does any other individual characteristic, including gender, race, socioeconomic status, education, political ideology and party affiliation."

This is intuitive to most of us. Ask nearly any American a couple of questions about what they think of a list of policy issues: the death penalty, abortion, gay rights, the minimum wage, school choice, nuclear power, public health, gun control, climate change, the propriety of Christmas crèches in town squares, and affirmative action. You will quickly get a pretty good idea of what they think about all of the issues on the list. But why do the ways people think about policy issues tend to cluster together? The answer turns on how people feel about societal risks and the policies aimed at reducing those risks. And how people feel about risk is shaped by their core values.

The Project usefully classifies cultural values on two cross-cutting axes: hierarchy-egalitarianism and individualism-communitarianism. Hierarchs think that rights, duties, goods and offices should be differentially distributed on the basis of clearly defined and stable social characteristics (e.g., gender, wealth, ethnicity). Egalitarians believe that rights, duties, goods and offices should be distributed equally without regard to such characteristics. Individualists think that people should secure the conditions of their own flourishing without collective interference or assistance. Communitarians believe that societal interests trump individual ones and that society should be responsible for securing the conditions for individual flourishing.

To see how these cultural values affect people's policy views, the Project has conducted a number of opinion surveys on various issues. A 2004 survey found that egalitarians and communitarians worry about environmental risks and favor regulating commercial activities to abate those risks. Individualists were skeptical of environmental risks because they cherish markets and private orderings which regulation threatens. And hierarchs worried about the risks of illicit drug use and promiscuous sex because they challenge traditional social norms and roles. So far, so good. The research basically replicated what most of us already intuit about how cultural values affect (distort) policy judgments.

In the new study, the Project researchers conducted one survey of 1700 subjects about their attitudes about the risks of climate change. As the researchers expected the egalitarians and communitarians were worried about global warming and the hierarchs and individualists were skeptical. In one part of the survey some subjects read one of two newspaper stories about a study by a group of climate change experts. The stories were identical with regard to the facts about global warming, e.g., the earth's temperature is increasing, humans are causing it, and that it would likely cause dire environmental and economic damage if unabated. The only difference was the policy solution. In one story the experts called for "increased anti-pollution regulation" and in the other they recommended the "revitalization of the nuclear power industry."

The subjects who read the nuclear power version were less culturally polarized than the ones who read the anti-pollution version. Why? Because the individualists and the hierarchs who read the nuclear version were less inclined to dismiss the facts about global warming than the individualists and hierarchs who read the anti-pollution version were, even though the factual information and the source were identical in both stories. Interestingly, the individualists and hierarchs who read the anti-pollution version were more skeptical of global warming than those in a control group that did not read either version of the newspaper story. This suggests that a real-world consequence might be that media reporting on scientific evidence coupled with calls for interventionist policies such as the Kyoto Protocol hardens individualist and hierarchal skepticism on global warming.

The Project researchers see this response of the individualists and hierarchs to the newspaper stories as an example of "identity protective" cognition in which people subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values. The nuclear power version tended to affirm the individualist and hierarchal value commitments to technological progress, thus mitigating their skepticism of the dangers posed by global warming. "When policies are framed in ways that affirm rather than threaten citizens' cultural beliefs, people are less likely to dismiss information that runs contrary to their prior beliefs," notes the study.

The new study also reports the results of the Project's first survey in 2004. That survey focused on how cultural values shaped how people feel about the risks of new technologies about which they know little, in this case, nanotechnology. Some 80 percent of the subjects surveyed had previously not heard much about nanotechnology. As part of the survey, a subset of 300 subjects was given identical factual statements about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology.

Unfortunately, more factual information about nanotechnology led to more polarization on its risks and benefits. The study found that after reading the factual information that "egalitarians and communitarians were significantly more concerned with risks of nanotechnology relative to its benefits than were hierarchs and individualists." Why? Because of "biased assimilation." This is the predisposition of people to selectively notice and credit information that affirms their values. "When this dynamic is at work, individuals of diverse values don't converge but instead polarize when exposed to a common body of information on some disputed factual issue," say the researchers. (I earlier reported on this particular Project study here.)

Press relations gurus have long known the value of credible spokespersons when an issue arises. For example, if a company wants to assure the public that its products are safe, they more or less automatically trot out a woman expert who is also a mother to say so. If an environmental lobby group wants to claim that a company's product is killing people, they too more or less automatically trot out a woman expert who is a mother to say so. The Project researchers confirmed this insight with a survey about attitudes toward proposals for the mandatory vaccination of teenage girls with the new human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine to prevent cervical cancer. In this case they exposed subjects to culturally identifiable advocates, e.g., some men in suits and others without ties and with facial hair.

In this case, when culturally identifiable hierarchal and individualist experts argued unexpectedly in favor mandatory vaccination against communitarian and egalitarian experts who unexpectedly opposed it, polarization declined as expected. In fact, individualists and communitarians actually swapped places, with communitarians worrying more about the risks of vaccination than the individualists did (although the difference between the two groups did not achieve statistical significance). So perhaps when a well-known environmentalist such as Stewart Brand comes out in favor of nuclear power and genetically enhanced crops, egalitarians and communitarians may be prompted to reevaluate the risks and benefits of those technologies.

One additional survey dealt with the risks of terrorism and national security. Both hierarchs and egalitarians are very concerned about the risk of terrorism, but differ radically on the source of the risk and what how to deal with it. According to the survey egalitarians believe that war in Iraq has increased the risk of a terrorist attack while hierarchs don't. Individualists also split with hierarchs on how best to handle the risk of terrorist attacks. Individualists see great risk in endowing the government with more authority and thus oppose proposals such as reintroducing the draft and allowing warrantless wiretaps.

In their earlier nanotechnology study, the Project researchers concluded that that "mere dissemination of scientifically sound information is not by itself sufficient to overcome the divisive tendencies of cultural cognition." In the new study, the researchers note that when policies are framed so that they affirm rather than threaten citizens' cultural values, people are less likely to dismiss information that runs contrary to their prior beliefs. In their conclusion, they hold out the prospect of scholars someday "identifying [a] deliberative process that make[s] it possible to fashion regulatory policies that are both consistent with sound scientific data and congenial to persons with diverse cultural outlooks."

Hoping to devise such a deliberative process basically ignores the fact that politics is often a zero sum game in which some actors necessarily win and others must lose. The facts is that the best solution to the culture war is to shift more decision-making to the win/win dynamic of markets which offers greater scope for citizens to act on and express their diverse values. But of course, I would say that since I culturally identify as an individualist.

So is the proper framing of public policy issues really enough to bring an end to the culture war? I doubt it. After all, just who is going to make polluters, green scaremongers, Republicans, gun control nuts, neocons, fetus fetishists, Democrats, drug warriors, neo-luddites, global warming catastrophists, climate change deniers and the like stop distorting, I mean, framing the facts to fit their cultural values?

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.