A social science approach to global warming denialism--Part 3

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sun Jan 10, 2010 at 19:00


This is the third of a three-part series devoted to explaining global warming denialism in terms of recent developments in social science.  In Part 1, I introduced the general framework of the Cultural Theory of Risk (CTR), as well as the more refined conceptualization of CTR known as "Cultural Cognition". The basic idea behind this approach is that individuals tend to form beliefs about societal dangers that reflect and reinforce their visions of the ideal society. I also briefly introduced four specific mechanisms that play a role in shaping those beliefs.

In Part 2, I discussed the four specific mechanisms in greater detail, describing empirical examples of how they work.  In this part, I'm going to talk some about how proponents of cultural cognition propose that their insights be applied, as well as how I see these mechanisms relating to the issue of global warming and global warming denialism.

In particular, in the primary paper I've been relying on, "Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk", Yale law professor Dan M. Kahan writes:

Cultural cognition suggests that the influence of worldviews on risk perceptions can be collectively managed in a manner that simultaneously advances of the interests of persons of all cultural persuasions.

In my view, this aspiration is delusional in much the same way that Obama's rigid bipartisan ideology is delusional.  The approach is much more sophisticated than Obama's bipartisan ideology, but it falls prey to the same ultimate problem: there are some actors who aren't simply uninterested in working together so that everyone wins, they are actively opposed to any system in which everyone wins.

This is my way of agreeing with the neocons--yes, there is evil in the world, and they are a prime example of it.  That said, I do believe that cultural cognition can help a very large subset of humanity reach consensus in a way that validates diverse worldviews that otherwise might appear irreconcilably opposed to one another.  This is not a perfect solution, but it is, I would argue, a good-enough one.

But first, let's refocus on the question that started it all: How does all this help us understand global warming denialism?  That's the first issue I'll handle on the flip.

Paul Rosenberg :: A social science approach to global warming denialism--Part 3
Cultural Cognition & Global Warming Denialism

In Part 2, I discussed four different mechanisms that are part of the cultural cognition approach: identity-protective cognition; biased assimilation and group polarization; cultural credibility; and cultural identity affirmation. The first three unambigiously have the potential to contribute to global warming denialism.  In fact, in "Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition: Explaining the White Male Effect in Risk Perception", global warming denialism was, in effect, one third of the environmental risk scale, which was composed of the following three items:

ENVIRON - Environmental pollution is a serious risk to public health in our country.
GLOBWARM - Global warming poses a serious danger for the future of our planet.
NUKES - It is dangerous to live near a nuclear power plant.

Now recall what the authors of that study wrote about the power of worldviews, when they were added as variables to the previous regression model (#2):

Together the worldview measures increased the explanatory power of Model 2 by over 50%. Hierarchy and Individualism have the first and second largest effect sizes, respectively, of all the independent
variables. When combined, they explain almost 5 times as much variance as gender, 34 times as much as education, and 17 times as much as residing in a rural environment. They explained 20 times as much as party affiliation and ideology when combined, and 10 times as much as the religious affiliation variables when combined. Again, the results strongly supported the hypothesis that cultural worldviews exert a strong identity-protective influence on cognition.

Of course it would be ideal to test people for a whole battery of questions related to global warming, but the findings already on record are enough to show that there is a an effect, and it's part of broad-based effect on risk perception across a range of subjects--three different types of environmental risks as well as risks associated with guns and abortion.

The biased assimilation experiment did not involve global warming, but we can clearly see evidence of something similar ourselves.  In my previous diary, one commentator posted something about snow in Florida.  No matter how many times scientists explain that weather and climate are not the same, and that isolated weather events don't prove anything, there is a strong tendency for global warming denialists to grab onto every possible weather event that can be used to "contradict" global warming.  ("Hey, it was colder last night than it was the day before!")

Strictly speaking, biased assimilation refers to the assimilation of different facts during a nuetral presentation, but it's generally the same sort of thing as when deniers pay more attention to weather that goes against general warming trends, while ignoring weather that goes with it.

And, of course, part of what helps them do this is cultural credibility--public figures that conservatives trust telling them repeatedly that global warming is bunk.  We've all seen that too many times to count.

Of course, the mere fact that these three mechanisms can all contribute to global warming denialism does not prove that they are sufficient to explain it.  To do that, we would have to conduct some empirical experiments specifically with that in mind.  And to exclude Dan's hypothesis that they reject global warming because of the liberal policies that recognition would entail, we would have to include questions about the those policies as well.

One experiment I discussed in Part 2 bears directly on this--one dealing with the fourth mechanism, which I haven't yet talked about in this diary--cultural identity affirmation.  In that experiment, presenting nuclear energy as a solution for global warming made those who were ordinarily inclined to deny or minimize the risks to be more open to them.  Clearly, this mechanism is indicative that there is almost certainly some truth to Dan's hypothesis.  At the same time, however, remember what the chart showed--it was a dimunition of differences between those with different worldviews, not an elimination of those differences:

Suffice it to say, although we don't yet have enough data to say anything definitively, I think there's a very strong probability that the mechanisms presented can explain the vast majority of global warming denialism without any independent recourse to ideological considerations.

Cultural Cognition & COMBATING Global Warming Denialism

But if that's the case, then what of the claim cited earlier:

Cultural cognition suggests that the influence of worldviews on risk perceptions can be collectively managed in a manner that simultaneously advances of the interests of persons of all cultural persuasions.

While theoretically possible, I do not believe this is a realistic promise under current conditions of hegemonic warfare.  Even under the best of circumstances, the results so far only show that differences can be reduced under special circumstances.  There is no showing of robust results over time and across different circumstances.  I am all for further explorations, of course, and I have no doubt that things can be done to reduce polarization relative to what it might otherwise be.  So I'm by no means hostile to the Cultural Cognition research agenda.  Indeed, I'm all for it.  I just don't think it can provide us with the whole story, particularly when economically and culturally powerful institutions are arrayed against finding common ground solutions to problems such as global warming.  Rather, my perspective is that we need to fight such institutions vigorously on multiple fronts, simply to create conditions in which a more-or-less level playing field might exist.  Then and only then would it make sense to realistically talk about finding a solution that "simultaneously advances of the interests of persons of all cultural persuasions"

Indeed, I would go even farther than that.  In the first diary in this series, commentator spork made an excellent point about the broader issue of what might be called "responsible stewardship":

The real debate about global warming is: what should we do about it? ....

As depressing as it is, global anthropogenic climate change is one of several manifestations of the unsustainability of present human behavior. Unrelated to it is wilderness destruction, soil erosion, and many other inevitable results of unabated population growth. Now of course, global climate change will only make the latter problems worse. But they would be absolutely existential problems even if we didn't have global climate change.

In contrast to this very reality-based observation, one of the cultural cognition suggestions about combatting denialism already mentioned above was the presentation of nuclear power as a "solution."  While it's true that much popular opposition to nuclear power is itself based on erroneous risk perceptions, it's also true that nuclear power has real risks that are virtually impossible to calculate, partly because they involve long-term stewardship problems that directly relate back to the more fundamental issue of responsible stewardship.

This is not, I would argue, an isolated example.  The orientation towards narrowly-focused selfish individualism on the one hand, and toward broadly focused altruism on the other is one of the most fundamental differences in worldview we can observe in human societies.  And thus it seems virtually certain short-sighted pseudo-solutions will repeatedly present themselves in the guise of "promising" means to draw together people with differing worldviews, only to prove themselves drastically unequal in the results they actually produce.

Furthermore, it was part of the essential genius of liberalism as a political philosophy to hit upon a variety of ways to strike a balance between these two tendencies--one prime example of which is the promotion of free, non-monopolistic markets, which create and maintain conditions such that individual self-interest is restrained from its more destructive consequences and channeled towards its most constructive ones.  The fact that markets today--both in fact and in theory--have strayed so far from this conception is itself an indication of how badly out of balance we are.

What cultural cognition is offering us, I would argue, is another bite at the apple of political liberalism.  Although they focus more on how they differ from classical liberal assumptions--a topic for another time--the over-arching purpose involved is similar, if not identical: to reconcile disparate cultural visions as well as human appetites. This is, in my view, not a bad thing.  But it needs to be done in a realistic framework that fully takes the measure of the illiberal forces that it is up against.  And the only way to do that is to realistically appraise the world from a perspective that gives full due to the least powerful and the most voiceless.

In order to see anything clearly, one first must fight the powers that be.


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Well said (0.00 / 0)
This is my way of agreeing with the neocons--yes, there is evil in the world, and they are a prime example of it.


You bring it all together (0.00 / 0)
What cultural cognition is offering us, I would argue, is another bite at the apple of political liberalism.  ... to reconcile disparate cultural visions as well as human appetites. ...  And the only way to do that is to realistically appraise the world from a perspective that gives full due to the least powerful and the most voiceless.

And to give full due to the deniers "to reconcile disparate cultural visions."

It's all about messaging.  


The silent aspect of liberalism (4.00 / 2)
What I mean by silent is that in order to fight the powers that be, i.e. to do genuine politics, you have to do your own thinking. Yes, liberals have models of trust, and we have identities -- often created at great personal cost, I might add -- which tend to limit our perception, cognition and thought processes exactly as discussed here, but we also have, by definition, an allegiance to self-reflection which we hope will mitigate any negative effects which might result from them.

Is this a forlorn hope? No, I don't think so, and as evidence, I'd submit Paul's writing in general, and this three-part essay in particular. Reality testing, using all the means at our disposal, including a willingness to share our thoughts with others, whether we perceive them to be acting in good faith or not, seems to me to be the sine qua non of any genuine politics. What turns the activities in Washington which pass for politics into what Digby calls kabuki, is that the real agenda is never part of any discussion, beyond the nudge, nudge, wink, wink of those supposedly in the know.

Whatever else we do, we must always be aware of this, and we should never, ever argue on ground that has been chosen for us, even if it sometimes means that we appear to be talking only to ourselves.


Statistical vs. anecdotal (4.00 / 1)
Much of the argument in favor of global warming is statistical.  World-wide temperatures have been increasing.  Six of the top ten world temperature years have occurred in the last x years, etc.  Much of the denialism is anecdotal.  It snowed yesterday,therefore global warming is impossible.  Gee, snow in January ....

Unfortunately, according to Myers-Briggs test scores, about 65% of the population are sensors and think in specific, black-and-white terms rather than patterns of thought.  We will lose that argument consistently.

This leads to a second subset.  We have global warming.  The glaciers are melting in Alaska and the snows of Kilimanjaro have been cut in half.  Effective yes but these arguments are not reinforced nearly as often as the anti arguments.  It is snowing.  It is cold.  It is January in NJ, you fool.

My brother finds the anti argument very satisfying because he's a wise guy (in the non-mob sense) who always likes to take swipes.  Oddly, he is able to do that while maintaining a Republican and mainly conservative viewpoint.

We need to be able to feed the anecdotal and wise guy threads better.  An aunt of mine used to do that quite often talking about what :they" were doing meaning the rich and powerful and corporate.  Nowdays, the rich and powerful and corporate are supported by the sensors rather than opposed by them.  Obviously, living throught the New Deal made my aunt more susceptible to watching "them" and distrusting what "they" did.

A good liberal reform era would do wonders for us.


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