Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Why most of us look at evidence and action arse-about

Posted by Dave Bath on 2010-02-10

A very thought provoking paper on why people do not want to, and therefore reject, overwhelming scientific concensus, has just been released on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN): "Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus" (2010-02-07) with the lead author from Yale Law School.

It posits and tests the idea that your worldview will make you, near-instinctively, reject evidence based on whether the actions guided that evidence would conflict with your worldview.

Putting it a bit simplistically, libertarians hate the science of climate change because it demands action involving regulation, and supranational concerted action, while lefties, viewing big business as intrinsically untrustworthy, will not credit any evidence that nuclear waste can be managed.

We are all screwed, unless there are enough people who have the intellectual discipline and inclination to make evidence-based decisions.  The number of "people-of-faith" (e.g. base their lives on the idea that evidence is less important than other drivers) in the world means that evidence will hardly get a look-in, so evidence-based politics and consequence evidence-based policy will remain a pipe dream (unless we convince those with imaginary sky friends to be internally consistent and pray rather than seek medical help).

An agonizing crash of human civilization and population is inevitable unless we get rid of both theists and libertarians (hopefully by educating them properly rather than a pogrom).

Here is the abstract:

Why do members of the public disagree – sharply and persistently – about facts on which expert scientists largely agree?  We designed a study to test a distinctive explanation: the cultural cognition of scientific consensus.  The "cultural cognition of risk" refers to the tendency of individuals to form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values.  The study presents both correlational and experimental evidence confirming that cultural cognition shapes individuals’ beliefs about the existence of scientific consensus, and the process by which they form such beliefs, relating to climate change, the disposal of nuclear wastes, and the effect of permitting concealed possession of handguns.  The implications of this dynamic for science communication and public policy-making are discussed.

It’s really worth reading in full, and I wish the authors had time for a larger study (1500 test subjects), but here are a few choice snippets (not in the same order as the paper):

To start, cultural cognition influences perceptions of credibility.  Individuals more readily impute knowledge and trustworthiness to information sources whom they perceive as sharing their worldviews; … individuals of opposing outlooks will end up with different impressions of what "most" credible experts believe.

Rather than looking at evidence to determine appropriate actions, prejudices about the desirability or undesirability of the actions has an improper and arse-fronted influence on whether the evidence is given proper weight.

The following is a killer quote, which I’ve broken up into point form for easier reading, removing the "generally speaking" type qualifications (because I’ve just alluded to them):

  • persons who subscribe to individualistic values tend to dismiss claims of environmental risks, because acceptance of such claims implies the need to regulate markets, commerce, and other outlets for individual strivings.
  • Persons with more egalitarian and communitarian values, in contrast, resent commerce and industry as forms of noxious self-seeking productive of unjust disparity, and thus readily accept that such activities are dangerous and worthy of regulation.
  • persons who subscribe to hierarchical values resist claims of environmental risk, which they perceive as subversive indictments of social and governmental elites

If there is a better example of hierarchical values than the notion of an infallible pope, then I can’t think of it.

As the Liberal/National coalition is a bastard conjunction of libertarian and hierarchical authoritarian schools of thought (no wonder Tony Abbott is their leader), is it any surprise that they are even more against effective action on climate change than the ALP?

Even the ALP, while making noises about the criticality of action on climate change, are ignoring the expert opinion (from scientists to economists like Garnaut – who was appointed by them to advise!) on how significant and pressing are the changes required.  In the light of this paper, does this mean that the ALP’s claims to egalitarianism are empty?

Those who want action on climate change should obviously be voting for parties with a leadership team that bases their core values on evidence from climate scientists, in other words, leadership teams that have no "people of faith", on leadership teams with good socialist credentials.

Let me go further: the best best are those parties that are most diametrically opposed to the policies of a hierarchical faith-based organization, in other words, disagree most markedly on social policy (abortion, euthanasia, school funding, school secularism, stem cell research) with the Roman Catholic Church.


2 Responses to “Why most of us look at evidence and action arse-about”

  1. Lyn said

    “I wish the authors had time for a larger study”

    This is one little bit of a huge body of work the Yale Law people have been accumulating on cultural cognition. So even though the small sample here doesn’t carry much weight, references to other work in the paper will.

    Have a look here:

  2. Raf said


    Thanks for this. It’s a very serious issue and a problem for many of us who like to treat issues on a case by case basis rather than is it “left” or “right”. This blockage keeps us from evolving to the next level of political structure. The Third Way was an initial attempt to meld left and right but it produced the worst of both worlds.

    I’ve give up talking to people about politics in any shape or form because I already know their reaction!! I used to think this applied only to older folk but it seems embedded in all age groups now.

    It’s akin to watching groups of people run around in a forest looking for somewhere to camp when it fact we can see from the outside that the forest is on fire.



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