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.

Kahan’s way of explaining conservatives, based on their moral values, is closely related to other approaches, like the well known one of University of Virginia social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt does it a little differently, talking about the different “moral foundations” of liberals and conservatives. But there’s a heck of a lot of overlap. For Haidt, liberals care about fairness or equality, and they care about protecting people from harm. This is roughly analogous to egalitarianism and communitarianism. Conservatives, however, have other “moral foundations”: They care about respect for authority (e.g., hierarchy). They care about loyalty to the group (or to put a more negative spin on it, tribalism). And they care about purity or sanctity and whether someone does something perceived to be, you know, disgusting (especially sexually).

 Again, when one reflects on whether these values are actually, you know, good ones, I would have to answer “no.” I don’t think respecting authority is so great—authorities are too often naked emperors—and this is of course why I am an anti-authoritarian liberal. I definitely don’t like tribalism, though I do appreciate the power of loyalty in a foxhole or on a football team. And I don’t think the “yuck factor,” or someone’s personal sense of what is disgusting, is a good basis (standing on its own, anyway) for deciding how we ought to be governed.

The point is that it is one thing to understand how to reach conservatives—e.g., frame information in the context of these sorts of values—and it is another thing to understand conservatives, and to really think about what it means that human beings divide up, politically, based upon these kinds of differences.

And of course, Kahan’s and Haidt’s approaches are just two out of many scientific approaches for understanding the differences between what makes liberals, versus conservatives, tick. Other approaches have focused on left-right personality differences, on different physiological responses to stimuli and patterns of attention, on some differences in brain structure and function, and even, believe it or not, on genes.

This stuff is, if anything, even more wildly controversial than Kahan’s or Haidt’s work. But it, too, is good science: peer reviewed, insightful, important.

I bring all of this up, by the way, because Kahan has just written me a “Hey, Chris Mooney” open letter. He knows I have a book coming out on the science of liberals and conservatives, a science to which he himself has contributed, even if this is not his primary goal. He says he welcomes my project, but asks me to imagine a different one—he calls it the “Liberal Republic of Science” project–and whether it is worthy:

Imagine someone (someone very different from you; very different from me)– a conservative Republican, as it turns out–who says: “Science is so cool – it shows us the amazing things God has constructed in his cosmic workshop!”

Forget what percentage of the people with his or her cultural outlooks (or ideology) feel the way that this particular individual does about science (likely it is not large; but likely the percentage of those with a very different outlook – more secular, egalitarian, liberal – who have this passionate curiosity to know how nature works is small too. Most of my friends don’t–hey, to each his own, we Liberals say!).

My question is do you (& not just you, Chris Mooney; we–people who share our cultural outlooks, worldview, “ideology”) know how to talk to this person? Talk to him or her about climate change, or about whether his daughter should get the HPV vaccine? Or even about, say, how chlorophyll makes use of quantum mechanical dynamics to convert sunlight into energy? I think what “God did in his/her workshop” there would blow this person’s mind (blows mine).

I actually do know how to talk to this person about climate change—though I wouldn’t be the best person to do it, since I can’t walk the walk and wouldn’t sound at all authentic. But the answer is to talk about the biblical mandate to serve as stewards of the creation. And research like Kahan’s has been critical in helping us generally understand how to frame science for different audiences—for people like this hypothetical conservative.

Kahan goes on to ask:

I look forward to reading The Republican Brain.

But there’s another project out there – let’s call it the Liberal Republic of Science Project – that is concerned to figure out how to make both the wisdom and the wonder of science as available, understandable, and simply enjoyable to citizens of all cultural outlooks (or ideological “brain types”) as possible.

The project isn’t doing so well. It desperately needs the assistance of people who are really talented in communicating science to the public.

I think it deserves that assistance.  

Wouldn’t you agree?

Yes, I agree very strongly, though I don’t think the project is ailing as badly as Kahan suggests. If  you look at now, versus five years ago, there is much more openness to the project than there was before. Approaches that I got virulently attacked for advocating in 2007 and 2009—like “framing” scientific information and pushing scientists to engage in outreach, as I did in the book Unscientific America—now scarcely meet with a peep of protest within the scientific community.

So I actually think that ball—call it the “science communication” ball–has left the pitcher’s hand. People are out there trying to communicate science in all manner of sophisticated and increasingly audience sensitive ways (including conservative audience-sensitive ways). Kahan’s research is, I’d wager, having a profound influence on that enterprise.

I’m part of that enterprise, I devote myself to it every month, and I believe in it deeply.

But here’s the thing: I’ve also read my history of science. And it tells me that sometimes, when science comes along, it is fundamentally challenging to the most firmly held worldviews, and meets with adamant rejection—because people just can’t face the music.

This certainly describes global warming science today. It describes the science of evolution. And although we don’t really know yet, it may well describe the science of liberals and conservatives.

In other words, while you may well be able to use research like Kahan’s to make conservatives receptive to certain types of science, there may also be some aspects science that they are just bound to reject. And ultimately, there may be only so much you can do to blunt the force of such science through some type of frame game.

Science is, let us remember, one of the most destabilizing forces on the planet. It is relentless in its constant driving of change—change not only in how we live, but how we think. In this, it is a liberal force—always searching after the new and different. So sometimes, it can’t help but clash with conservative forces—striving to preserve and avert change.

So Hey Dan Kahan, here’s what I’ll say: Without your project we’d be much, much poorer.

But the fact is that when it comes to understanding our politics, and our politics of science, and our science of politics, we live in really….interesting times. Too interesting, I predict, for some people to handle—and too interesting for other people, including scientists, to resist.

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