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.