Since risk and the perception of risk seem to be the topics of the day, let me point you to an interesting and provocative hypothesis on those same subjects.

Brad Plumer refers us to an intriguing paper by social scientists Dan Kahan and Donald Braman of Yale called "Cultural Cognition and Public Policy." The authors make use of the cultural theory of risk to argue that differences in public opinion arise not from incomplete science or inadequate education, but from "cultural cognition":

People disagree about the empirical dimensions of various public policy issues. It’s not surprising that people have different beliefs about the deterrent effect of the death penalty, the impact of handgun ownership on crime, the significance of global warming, the public health consequences of promiscuous sex, etc. The mystery concerns the origins of such disagreement. Were either the indeterminacy of scientific evidence or the uneven dissemination of convincing data responsible, we would expect divergent beliefs on such issues to be distributed almost randomly across the population, and beliefs about seemingly unrelated questions (whether, say, the death penalty deters and whether global warming is a serious threat) to be relatively independent of one another. But this is not the case: factual disagreement is highly polarized across distinct social groups – ethnic, religious, racial, regional, and ideological. Moreover, factual beliefs highly correlate across discrete and disparate issues. What explains these patterns? The answer, we will argue, is the phenomenon of cultural cognition.

What, you ask, is cultural cognition?

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Essentially, cultural commitments are prior to factual beliefs on highly charged political issues. Culture is prior to facts, moreover, not just in the evaluative sense that citizens might care more about how gun control, the death penalty, environmental regulation and the like cohere with their cultural values than they care about the consequences of those policies. Rather, culture is prior to facts in the cognitive sense that what citizens believe about the empirical consequences of those policies derives from their cultural worldviews. Based on a variety of overlapping psychological mechanisms, individuals accept or reject empirical claims about the consequences of controversial polices based on their vision of a good society.

Studying public opinion through the lens of the cultural theory of risk‘s four major biases — individualist, egalitarian, heirarchist, and fatalist — Kahan and Braman’s found much support for this hypothesis. For instance:

The more egalitarian and solidaristic individuals were the more concerned they were, the more hierarchical and individualistic the less concerned they were, about global warming, nuclear power, and environmental pollution generally. Indeed, cultural worldviews more powerfully predicted individual beliefs about the seriousness of these risks than any other factor, including gender, race, income, education, and political ideology.

I leave it mostly as an exercise for the reader to determine how this way of looking at things might affect the debate over global warming, etc. But I’ll just say a few things.

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Those hostile toward the notion of global warming, and environmental protection in general, are often (not always, but often) also against gun control, in favor of restrictions on abortion, somewhat nationalistic, in favor of the "free market," etc. — a whole package of views that have no particular logical connection, but make sense under the rubric of a hierarchical (what Lakoff calls "strict father"), individualist vision of a good society.

Those who wish to build momentum toward action on global warming, reliance on cheap oil, loss of biodiversity, and the like are going to have no luck if they try to make those policies part of a total cultural package antagonistic to the cultural biases of those they are trying to convince. They will have even less luck if they rely on facts — endless scientific studies, each one met with a cry that this, finally, proves that global warming is happening. These both might go without saying, but in practice many greens seem utterly to lack awareness of them. Kahan and Braman put it this way:

Our prescription, counterintuitively, is a more unabashedly cultural style of democratic policymaking. Those interested in helping citizens to converge in support of empirically sound policies — on guns, on the environment, on crime control, on national security — should focus less on facts and more on social meaning. It’s only when they perceive that a policy bears a social meaning congenial to their cultural values that citizens become receptive to sound empirical evidence about what consequences that policy will have. It’s therefore essential to devise policies that can bear acceptable social meanings to citizens of diverse cultural persuasions simultaneously. Because culture is cognitive prior to facts … culture must be politically prior to facts too. (my emphasis)

Green policies must be crafted and advocated such that they are amenable to varied visions of a good society. This will require some serious self-discipline on the part of greens, an attempt to extricate themselves from, or rise above, their own cultural biases.

For help on how to do that, I refer you to David Foster Wallace, strangely enough. There’s much more to be said on this subject, but I need some sleep.

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