Study Presents Evidence for 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. A new NSF-funded study by authors from Yale Law School, the University of Oklahoma and George Washington Law School presents correlational and experimental evidence showing that cultural cognition also shapes individuals’ beliefs about the existence of scientific consensus.

In a paper on the study published online in the Journal of Risk Research, Dan M. Kahan, Hank Jenkins-Smith and Donald Braman discuss the implications of this dynamic for science communication and public policy-making.

We know from previous research that people with individualistic values, who have a strong attachment to commerce and industry, tend to be skeptical of claimed environmental risks, while people with egalitarian values, who resent economic inequality, tend to believe that commerce and industry harms the environment.

—Dan Kahan

In the study, subjects with individualistic values were more than 70 percentage points less likely than ones with egalitarian values to identify the scientist as an expert if he was depicted as describing climate change as an established risk. Likewise, egalitarian subjects were more than 50 percentage points less likely than individualistic ones to see the scientist as an expert if he was described as believing evidence on climate change is unsettled.

Study results were similar when subjects were shown information and queried about other matters that acknowledge “scientific consensus.” Subjects were much more likely to see a scientist with elite credentials as an “expert” when he or she took a position that matched the subjects’ own cultural values on risks of nuclear waste disposal and laws permitting citizens to carry concealed guns in public. All of these are matters on which the National Academy of Sciences has issued expert consensus report.

No cultural group in our study was more likely than any other to be “getting it right” i.e. correctly identifying scientific consensus on these issues. They were all just as likely to report that most scientists favor the position rejected by the National Academy of Sciences expert consensus report if the report reached a conclusion contrary to their own cultural predispositions.

—Dan Kahan

In a separate survey component, the study also found that the American public in general is culturally divided on what scientific consensus is on climate change, nuclear waste disposal, and concealed-handgun laws.

Kahan said that the problem isn’t that one side “believes” science and another side “distrusts”, referring to an alternate theory of why there is political conflict on matters that have been extensively researched by scientists. He said the more likely reason for the disparity, as supported by the research results, “is that people tend to keep a biased score of what experts believe, counting a scientist as an ‘expert’ only when that scientist agrees with the position they find culturally congenial.

Understanding this, the researchers then could draw some conclusions about why scientific consensus seems to fail to settle public policy debates when the subject is relevant to cultural positions.

It is a mistake to think scientific consensus, of its own force, will dispel cultural polarization on issues that admit scientific investigation. The same psychological dynamics that incline people to form a particular position on climate change, nuclear power and gun control also shape their perceptions of what scientific consensus is.

—Dan Kahan

The problem won’t be fixed by simply trying to increase trust in scientists or awareness of what scientists believe. To make sure people form unbiased perceptions of what scientists are discovering, it is necessary to use communication strategies that reduce the likelihood that citizens of diverse values will find scientific findings threatening to their cultural commitments.

—Donald Braman


  • Dan M. Kahan; Hank Jenkins-Smith; Donald Braman (2010) Cultural cognition of scientific consensus. Journal of Risk Research doi: 10.1080/13669877.2010.511246

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