August 11, 2010
We all have preferences about how society should be ordered, and whether we believe in hierarchy and individualism or are egalitarian and value community, those cultural values shape our reception to science and communication about science. “It isn’t that the other guys are anti-science. It isn’t that they’re stupid. It’s that we’ve come to a misadventure, a bad situation where diverse citizens, who rely on diverse systems of cultural certification, are in conflict. And that’s not inevitable,” says Yale’s Dan Kahan.
In the second half of this interview, Kahan explores what guidance the “cultural cognition” research that he and his colleagues conduct has for those trying to communicate successfully about climate change and other contentious issues. He discusses in some detail the 2010 paper, Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus, which confirms that people’s sense of what “scientists” believe is strongly influenced by their cultural values.
In a wide-ranging reconnaissance of the culture wars, he argues for a science communication based on narratives that are sensitive to underlying cultural values. Seems obvious? As Kahan jokes, “As my grandmother would say, ‘If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?’ We’ve not been doing this. We’ve been doing almost the opposite!” Apart from his grandmother, insights about Al Gore, Texas Gov. Perry, cholera, humility, and misdiagnosing problems further enrich Kahan’s remarks, which provide a good introduction to the important research of the Cultural Cognition Project.