Cultural Cognition of Risk
This is no surprise:
The people behind the new study start by asking a pretty obvious question: “Why do members of the public disagree—sharply and persistently—about facts on which expert scientists largely agree?” (Elsewhere, they refer to the “intense political contestation over empirical issues on which technical experts largely agree.”) In this regard, the numbers from the Pew survey are pretty informative. Ninety-seven percent of the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science accept the evidence for evolution, but at least 40 percent of the public thinks that major differences remain in scientific opinion on this topic. Clearly, the scientific community isn’t succeeding in making the public aware of its opinion.
According to the new study, this isn’t necessarily the fault of the scientists, though. The authors favor a model, called the cultural cognition of risk, which “refers to the tendency of individuals to form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values.” This wouldn’t apply directly to evolution, but would to climate change: if your cultural values make you less likely to accept the policy implications of our current scientific understanding, then you’ll be less likely to accept the science.
But, as the authors note, opponents of a scientific consensus often try to claim to be opposing it on scientific, rather than cultural grounds. “Public debates rarely feature open resistance to science,” they note, “the parties to such disputes are much more likely to advance diametrically opposed claims about what the scientific evidence really shows.” To get there, those doing the arguing must ultimately be selective about what evidence and experts they accept—they listen to, and remember, those who tell them what they want to hear. “The cultural cognition thesis predicts that individuals will more readily recall instances of experts taking the position that is consistent with their cultural predisposition than ones taking positions inconsistent with it,” the paper suggests.
So, it’s not just a matter of the public not understanding the expert opinions of places like the National Academies of science; they simply discount the expertise associated with any opinion they’d rather not hear.
Here’s the paper.