The Science Communication Problem – and Prospects for an Enlightened Democracy

dreamstime_s_31754266My wife, Sheara, who is the Ph.D. scientist in the family, and I often debate science and its practical implications for society.  She often laments the public’s ignorance of science and how science is commonly misunderstood and distorted to support one’s beliefs.  Dan Kahan, a Yale law professor, spends much of his time doing the same, except using studies and robust statistical tools to demonstrate our cognitive challenges.

Kahan, whose excellent work I’ve cited many times on this blog, remains mystified by conservatives and the GOP when it comes to how we think.   You can hear and sense his frustration (and even slight twinge of derision) in a recent post, Congratulations tea party members: you are just as vulnerable to politically biased misinterpretation of science as everyone else!  Is fixing this threat to our Republic part of your program?

But he’s also troubled by those on his side of the political aisle who blame the denial of science and the science communication problem on the political right.  Despite his own admitted leftward leaning biases, Kahan is seeking to single-handedly save our democracy from ourselves, through helping us evolve into more enlightened species making us more aware of our many self-contradictions and oft irrational thinking, promoting more rational human thought and respectful engagement.

“I want reasoning people to understand . . . I want them to understand it so that they won’t be lulled into behaving in a way that undermines the prospects for enlightened democracy.   I want them to understand it so that they can, instead, apply their reason to the project of ridding the science communication environment of the toxic partisan entanglement of facts with cultural meanings that is the source of this pathology.” 

Kahan, who’s acknowledged not knowing any Tea Partiers, explains:

The 14 billion regular readers of this blog (exactly 2,503,232 of whom identity with the tea party) know that I believe that there is no convincing empirical evidence that the science communication problem—the failure of compelling, widely accessible scientific evidence to dispel culturally fractious disputes over societal risks and other policy-relevant facts—can be attributed to any supposed correlation between a “conservative” political outlook & a deficit in science literacy, critical reasoning skills, or commitment to science’s signature methods for discovery of truth.

On the contrary, I believe that the popularity of this claim reflects the vulnerability of those who harbor a “nonconservative” (“liberal,” “egalitarian,” or whatever one chooses to style it) outlook to accept invalid or ill-supported empirical assertions that affirm their cultural outlooks.

Translation, the stereotyping of the political right by the political left is empirically wrong.  Kahan continues:

That vulnerability, I believe, is perfectly “symmetrical” with respect to the right-left political spectrum (and the two-dimensional space defined by the cultural continua of “hierarchy-egalitarianism” and “individualism-communitarianism”).

I believe that, in part, because of a study I conducted in which I found evidence that there was an ideologically uniform tendency—one equal in strength, among both “conservatives” and “liberals”—to credit or dismiss empirical evidence supporting the validity of an “open-mindedness” test depending on whether study subjects were told that the test showed that those who share their ideology were more or less open-minded than those subscribing to the opposing one.

Not only do I think the “asymmetry thesis” (AT)—the view that this pernicious deficiency in reasoning is disproportionately associated with conservativism—is wrong.

I think the contempt typically evinced (typically but not invariably; it’s possible to investigate such hypotheses without ridiculing people) toward “conservatives” by AT proponents strengthens the dynamics that account for this reason-effacing, deliberation-distorting form of motivated cognition.

I want reasoning people to understand this.  I want them to understand it so that they won’t be lulled into behaving in a way that undermines the prospects for enlightened democracy.  I want them to understand it so that they can, instead, apply their reason to the project of ridding the science communication environment of the toxic partisan entanglement of facts with cultural meanings that is the source of this pathology.

Good stuff.

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