The “Cultural Cognition Project” led by Dan Kahan addresses “how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs.” He has a lengthy new paper on how people navigate the connection between what science says about climate change and their membership in particular cultural groups. Kahan points to the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact as a rare example of a diverse group that sidesteps the usual “polarizing cultural status competition” on belief in climate change.
The paper argues that,
…. it is perfectly rational—perfectly in line with using information appropriately to achieve an important personal end—for that individual to attend to information in a manner that more reliably connects her beliefs about climate change to the ones that predominate among her peers than to the best available scientific evidence. If that person happens to enjoy greater proficiency in the skills and dispositions necessary to make sense of such evidence, then she can simply use those capacities to do an even better job at forming identity-protective beliefs. (p. 14)
[People]…form polarized perceptions of scientific consensus even when they rely on the same sources of evidence. These studies imply misinformation is not a decisive source of public controversy over climate change. People in these studies are misinforming themselves by opportunistically adjusting the weight they give to evidence based on what they are already committed to believing. (p. 17)
Kahan, who has participated in Southeast Florida Climate Compact work, asks,
What makes Southeast Florida so different from the rest of the country? Indeed, why is Southeast Florida that engages climate change inside the Compact decision-making process so different from itself as a part of the country that is polarized on whether human activity is causing global warming? The explanation is that the Compact process puts a different question from the one put in the national climate change debate. The latter forces Southeast Floridians, like everyone else, to express “who they are, whose side they are on.” In contrast, the decision making of the Compact is effectively, and insistently, testing what they know about how to live in a region that faces a serious climate problem. (p. 34)
It certainly is correct that people engage in confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and identity-protective behavior. I have major reservations, though, about both the main argument of the paper and the Climate Compact example. It is true that it usually pays to believe whatever the other members of our baboon troop believe. That doesn’t explain, however, why leaders of one side of the political spectrum make fewer false empirical claims. There really is a right-left “fact” difference in American politics. Jonathan Chait offers one answer for this divergence: in American politics, reliance on empiricism is an ideology. [Imagine if policy arguments always had some relationship to facts in the world!]
Second, in regard to the Southeast Florida Climate Compact I also have doubts about why this process is not as burdened by stale posturing. The usual tribal affiliation on climate issues might be set aside in this forum not by superior styles of communication but by embedded historical practices. Floridians have decades of experience in working together on regional Everglades problems. In South Florida, there are strong political rewards for Everglades bipartisanship. The experience of practicing Everglades cooperation may be what leads to a degree of success on regional climate cooperation.
We certainly need better approaches to climate and other policy problems, like those being investigated by the Cultural Cognition Project.