Hit & Run

Climategate and Ideology

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Time magazine's reporting generally embodies the conventional wisdom -- or would that be the "consensus view"? Never mind. In any case, reporter Bryan Walsh takes a look at the fallout from the Climategate affair, and worries that views of climate catastrophe skeptics have gained "traction." All very interesting, but the most amusing part of the article comes when he quotes James Hoggan, cofounder of DeSmogBlog (motto: "Clearing the PR Pollution that Clouds Climate Science") and coauthor of the new book Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming. According to Hoggan:

"Right now for many people, their ideology is driving their view of science," says Hoggan. "Ideology decides what makes a fact a fact."

Now what I find interesting is that the context (and as we've all learned from the Climategaters, context is critical), makes it clear that Hoggan believes that he (and folks like those at the Climatic Research Unit) has risen above ideology. He and the CRU crew are just representing objective science in the face of ideologically (and possibly evil) climate change deniers. Perhaps, but social science gives us some reason to doubt that even as perspicacious an observer as Hoggan can achieve pure objectivity.

I have a couple of times reported on the fascinating work of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project. In my column "The Culture War on Facts," I reported:

"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."

The Yale project finds that based on their values Americans fall roughly into four groups: egalitarians, communitarians, hierarchists, and individualists. I wonder into which value group Hoggan might fall? Hmmm. To see how values might affect how people think of risks, the Yale group conducted a survey on beliefs about man-made global warming:

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.

So are egalitarians and communitarians able to put aside ideology when it comes to technological risks? Not at all. As the Yale project found:

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.

The Time article ended with the usual fond condescension of purveyers of conventional wisdom:

…unless the public's scientific literacy is improved, science itself risks becoming a political debate, like everything else today, with no room for objective data or authority.

So greater public scientific literacy is the solution, right? (Of course, scientific literacy won't help much if scientists are already smuggling ideology into their findings, but I digress.) Unfortunately, the Yale group's findings are not too hopeful about that efficacy of increased information to resolve policy issues. As I reported:

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.

At the end I ask:

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?

Fortunately for us there are objective ideology-free sources of information like Hoggan and Time magazine. Or at least they are pleased to think thus of themselves.