dan kahan

Thu, 2012-08-02 05:36Chris Mooney
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Are Conservatives Inherently More Biased than Liberals? The Scientific Debate Rages On

In the first round of critical reactions to my book The Republican Brain, there wasn’t much to impress. As I related at AlterNet, the general conservative response to the book was to misrepresent its arguments, rather than to engage them seriously. (The book predicted this, incidentally.)

But now that some researchers have been able to read and process the book, some highly intellectually serious criticism arrives courtesy of Yale’s Dan Kahan, of whose work I’ve written a great deal in the past. You can see Kahan’s first two responses to the book here and here—the latter includes new experimental data. You can see my roadmap for how I plan to respond to Kahan here.

This is the first post of my response, and it is solely dedicated to clarifying my position in this debate. You see, while many people will read this exchange as though I am claiming that conservatives are inherently more biased than liberals—or in other words, claiming that they engage in more or stronger motivated reasoning—it isn’t actually that simple.

The closing words of The Republican Brain are these:

I believe that I am right, but I know that I could be wrong. Truth is something that I am driven to search for. Nuance is something I can handle. And uncertainty is something I know I’ll never fully dispel.

These are not the words of someone who is certain in his beliefs—much less certain of the conclusion that Dan Kahan calls the “asymmetry thesis.”

Tue, 2012-05-29 05:45Chris Mooney
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A Top Scientist Ignores the Science of Why People Deny Science

In the world of evolutionary science, you don’t get much more prominent than Richard Leakey (pictured here). An anthropologist and conservationist, he’s the son of the archaeologist couple Louis and Mary Leakey, famed for their human origins research in Africa. Richard Leakey is credited with multiple major discoveries, including his team’s unearthing of Turkana Boy, a 1.5 million year old fossil skeleton thought to be either an example of Homo erectus or of Homo ergaster.

None of this, however, necessarily means that Leakey is an expert in the communication of science, or on why people deny science in key areas. In fact, recent remarks by this distinguished researcher show just how far we still have to go before even some scientists accept the growing body of research on the subject of…why people deny science.

According to a recent AP story, Leakey predicted that within the next 15 to 30 years, scientific research will advance so much that there will be no more doubters of evolution. At this point, Leakey reportedly said, the evidence will be so vast that “even the skeptics can accept it.”

Leakey went on to forecast that in such a world, we’ll be better at using science to solve our problems: “If you get to the stage where you can persuade people on the evidence, that it's solid, that we are all African, that color is superficial, that stages of development of culture are all interactive, then I think we have a chance of a world that will respond better to global challenges.”

It’s a stirring vision, and kind of reminds you of John Lennon’s Imagine. But I’m nonetheless floored to find that in this day and age, a scientist as prominent as Leakey can sound so optimistic about being able to “persuade people on the evidence.” For with such remarks–and of course, this is assuming that the AP is quoting him accurately–Leakey seems to ignore everything we actually know about why people reject facts and reason.

Fri, 2012-01-27 08:23Chris Mooney
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The Uneasy Relationship Between Explaining Science to Conservatives...and Explaining Conservatives Scientifically

Over the past year or more, I’ve profited from a series of conversations and exchanges with Yale’s Dan Kahan, the NSF supported researcher who has made great waves studying how our cultural values predispose us to discount certain risks (like, say, climate change). Kahan’s schematic for approaching this question—dividing us up into hierarchs versus egalitarians, and individualists versus communitarians—is a very helpful one that gets to the root of all manner of dysfunctions and misadventures in the relationship between politics, the U.S. public, and science.

Kahan says that his goal is to create a “science of science communication”: In other words, understanding enough about what really makes people tick (including in politicized areas) so that we know how to present them with science in a way that does not lead to knee-jerk rejections of it. Thus, for instance, presenting conservatives with factual information about global warming packaged as evidence in favor of expanding nuclear power actually makes them less defensive, and more willing to accept what the science says—because now it has been framed in a way that fits their value systems.

This is a very worthy project—but it doesn’t only tell us how to communicate science to conservatives. It tells us something scientific about who conservatives are. They are people who are often motivated—instinctively, at a gut level–to support, default to, or justify hierarchical systems for organizing society: Systems in which people aren’t equal, whether along class, gender, or racial lines. And they are motivated to support or default to individualistic systems for organizing (or not organizing) society: People don’t get help from government. They’re on their own, to succeed or fail as they choose.

It is one thing to accurately and scientifically explain how these values motivate conservatives. And it is another to reflect on whether one considers these values to be the ones upon which a virtuous and just society really ought to be built.

Mon, 2012-01-09 07:19Chris Mooney
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How to Get a Liberal to Question Global Warming

Readers of my posts will know that I’ve often focused on the work of Yale’s Dan Kahan and his colleagues, who have published fascinating research on how our political and cultural views skew our perceptions of scientific reality. In particular, Kahan et al find that “hierarchical-individualists” (aka conservatives) have very different responses to a variety of facts than do “egalitarian-communitarians” (aka liberals), and that these responses spring not from objective assessments of the evidence, but rather, from deeply seated worldviews that color our perceptions of what is true.

Such research has often been interpreted in a way that has made conservatives look, well, kinda bad. In one Kahan study, for instance, hierarchical-individualists overwhelmingly rejected the very idea that a scientist could be considered a real and legitimate “expert” because of that scientist's opinion that global warming is real and caused by humans. This is not exactly what I would call open-minded behavior.

But the research coming out of the Kahan group is actually quite balanced and does not merely target conservatives. And since I myself am often drawing on these sort of studies to criticize the right, I think it’s only fair to discuss a new Kahan et al study that, if you look closely, appears to show liberals also reasoning in a biased fashion.

[Don’t worry: I still think conservatives have much more deeply rooted issues with science. But it’s a complicated world out there, and it isn’t like liberals and environmentalists are complete innocents all the time. In my view, if we're going to criticize our ideological opponents, we've also got to try hard to see our own blind spots.]

So how do you get liberals to behave in a manner that, at least to my mind, might be called ideologically biased?

Wed, 2011-08-03 08:19Chris Mooney
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The Bias Trap: Are We All Just A Bunch of Motivated Reasoners?

There were a ton of great responses to my last post about conservative white men and climate change denial. Perhaps most notably, some savvy respondents called into question whether there is anything unique about these “CWMs” when it comes to being biased in favor of supporting their own beliefs and identities. 

For instance, risk assessment guru David Ropeik had this to say:

May I note that the “identity protection” theories Riley and Dunlap cite are relevant not just to CWMs. The underlying worldviews of how we want society to operate drive selective perception of the facts by all of us. It’s the same phenomenon that fuels leftist denialism re:GM food or nuclear power, for example. We believe, or deny, so our views agree with OUR group, so OUR group will be stronger and the group will accept us as a member in good standing. This is important for the survival of an animal that has evolved to be social and rely on the group for health and safety. And this is true of all of us, not just CWMs. Your post, and ‘Cool Dudes’, feeds the polarization around climate change, by singling out one group (which does happen to be the group the most clearly refuses to accept the overwhelming evidence on climate change) for doing what we all do on various issues.

Meanwhile, Dan Kahan of Yale wrote the following:

Mon, 2011-06-27 05:53Chris Mooney
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“A Little Knowledge”: Why The Biggest Problem With Climate “Skeptics” May Be Their Confidence

Last week, an intriguing study emerged from Dan Kahan and his colleagues at Yale and elsewhere–finding that knowing more about science, and being better at mathematical reasoning, was related to more climate science skepticism and denial–rather than less.

Kahan’s team simply structured a survey in a way that no one—to my knowledge, at least—has done before. In a sample of over 1,500 people, they gathered at least four different types of information: how much scientific literacy they possessed (e.g., how well they answered questions about things like the time it takes for the Earth to circle the sun and the relative sizes of electrons and atoms), how “numerate” they were (e.g., their ability to engage in mathematical reasoning),  what their cultural values were (how much they favored individualism and hierarch in the ordering of society, as opposed to being egalitarian and communitarian), and what their views were on how serious a risk global warming is.

The surprise—for some out there, anyway—lay in how the ingredients of this stew mix together.

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