2011-07-07 14:15:07The Cultural Cognition of Climate Change
John Hartz
John Hartz

The Cultural Cognition of Climate Change

2011-07-13 02:02:14important article for SkS
Tom Smerling


Thank you, Badgersouth, for flagging this.   Forgive this long post, but bear with me...

This article deserves further discussion at SkS.     Kahan et al get to the heart of the problem of communication with conservatives.    (Kahan:  people with "hierarchical-individualistic" values)

Bloggers have focussed on the research finding that increased climate science literacy does not lead to opinion change, and in fact may just harden polarized views.  (In itself, a sobering thought for all of us at SkS.)

But, more importantly, the research probes why this is so:

When new information threatens a listener's values, their identity as part of a like-minded community, a deeply-held worldview, or respect for people they admire, they will reject the information or re-interpret it to maintain their identity.   

The same thing happens -- before a word is spoken -- when the messenger is somebody perceived as hostile to their values (e.g. Al Gore, Sierra Club, any obvious "liberal").  

Kahan notes that, at the individual level, this rejection of information is rational behavior, because for a conservative to accept climate science means risking ridicule or ostracision by friends and family.    (e.g. Confessions of a Climate Convert).

Kahan's prescription -- always the weakest link --  is to think carefully about the conservative "cultural cues" we might be triggering, to avoid immediate rejection.

It would be great to see more discussion on SkS on what those conservative "cultural cues" are, and how to avoid triggering them -- i.e. how to avoid getting the communication door slammed in our face before we've even begun.   (Richard Alley, John Abraham et al provide some clues).

For those interested, here's an exceprt from Kahan et al  (free download in full, at the link provided by Badgersouth)


"The principal reason people disagree about climate change science is not that it has been communicated to them in forms they cannot understand.

Rather, it is that positions on climate change convey values—communal concern versus individual self-reliance; prudent self-abnegation versus the heroic pursuit of reward; humility versus ingenuity; harmony with nature versus mastery over it—that divide them along cultural lines.

Merely amplifying or improving the clarity of information on climate change science won’t gener-ate public consensus if risk communicators fail to take heed of the cues that determine what climate-change risk perceptions express about the cultural commitments of those who form them.

In fact, such inattention can deepen polarization. Citizens who hold hierarchical and individualistic values discount scientific information about climate change in part because they associate the issue with antagonism to commerce and industry. That association is aggravated when a communication identifies carbon-emission limits as the exclusive policy remedy for climate change (Kahan in press).

Individuals are prone to interpret challenges to beliefs that predominate with their cultural community as assaults on the competence of those whom they trust and look to for guidance (Kahan, Braman, Cohen, Gastil & Slovic 2010). That implication—which naturally provokes resistance—is likely to be strengthened when communicators with a recognizable cultural identity stridently accuse those who disagree with them of lacking intelligence or integrity."  (Kahan et al, 2011)

2011-07-14 06:04:57How to avoid the cultural spam filter
John Cook


This is one of the key questions for climate communicators. If our messages are triggering these mental booby traps that slam the door in our faces, we can talk science till we're blue in the face, it's a waste of time. So for us as science communicators, we HAVE to listen to the psychological science which tells us it's unscientific to just continue on business-as-usual without considering psychology in tailoring our message. I perceive this resistance when I talk to scientists about these issues - they think this is about manipulating people or tricking them with psychological sleight of hand. It's not that at all. It's about understand how the mind works and communicating in a language that is meaningful.

What are some specific ways to avoid triggering the cultural booby traps? I'm thinking perhaps finding those values you have in common with your audience and begin with those. For example, I've written an article for a Christian magazine where I start by talking about how throughout the Bible, there's an emphasis on establishing truth from two or more witnesses. I explain that scientists operate by the same principle, looking for multiple lines of evidence.

Similarly, skeptics have this conceit that they're about empirical evidence while warmists rely on models. So embrace that thinking, commend them for their reliance on evidence then look at what the evidence says.

This is something I'm experimenting with myself so how effective, I can't tell. Another important point is that hard core deniers will not be dissuaded and it's a waste of time trying to persuade them. It's the disengaged majority who we have to reach. Does Kahan's cultural cognition apply to this group in a strong fashion or does it mainly apply to the more extreme deniers? That's an important question too.

2011-07-14 06:34:46



If we were to assume that we're going to get the door slammed in our faces for the disengaged majority, we may as well give up now.

"Fortunately," we have empirical evidence that the majority ARE persuadable: In the last few years, they've switched from neutral to "skeptical"! The good news buried (very well) in there is that, if they were persuadable one way, they can be persuadable another way.

2011-07-14 07:11:34The value of preaching to the converted
Andy S


This clip is well worth watching. The undecided may well be our main target but what we do has considerable benefit to those already on our side. SkS didn't actually change my mind but I found it very valuable indeed as a reader.

2011-07-15 07:31:17


The above makes a lot of sense.  When in an argument -- whether climate-related or not -- I find it very helpful to start where the other person is at, and try to make my point by using what they know to be true.  Though I often forget to do this...  John, your example of writing an article for a Christian magazine and starting with familiar ideas makes a lot of sense.  Keep up the good work.