Dan Kahan - The American Culture War of Fact

February 14, 2011

Host: Chris Mooney

Why do Americans claim to love science, but then selectively reject its findings when they're inconvenient? And why do some cultural groups reject certain types of scientific findings (about, say, harm to the environment), whereas others reject others?

Yale law professor Dan Kahan is doing some of the most cutting edge work right now when it comes to figuring this out. Kahan is trying to resolve what he has called the "American Culture War of Fact," by determining how it is that our core values-whether we are "individualists" or "communitarians," "hierarchs" or "egalitarians"—can sometimes interfere with our perceptions of reality. 

Most intriguingly—or, if you prefer, disturbingly—Kahan has found that deep-seated values even determine who we consider to be a scientific expert in the first place.

His results have very large implications for how to depolarize an array of scientific issues-and how to communicate about controversial science in general.

Dan Kahan is the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law at Yale Law School. In addition to risk perception, his areas of research include criminal law and evidence. He has served as a law clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court (1990-91) and to Judge Harry Edwards of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (1989-90).

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Comments from the CFI Forums

If you would like to leave a comment about this episode of Point of Inquiry please visit the related thread on the CFI discussion forums

I thought Chris tried to gently push the answer out there (that probably most of the listeners of the podcast were muttering/screaming) that it is the religious and political differences that seem primarily the cause of scientific denialism. These differences are certainly not black and white, but are a continuous greyscale, but the correlation, thus considered, seems even stronger to me. The stronger the religious convictions, the stronger the denialism.

A constructive dialog could be had on the causes and correlations between Kahan’s four personality traits and the resulting religious and political beliefs, and one set probably leads the to the second. I suspect Kahan would lean toward his traits leading to the beliefs, however I would argue the opposite, or some co-development. As children are raised, the family’s religious inclinations, particularly if strongly held, are nearly the first concepts the child is indoctrinated with, and start with baptism and ‘baby’s first christmas’. In any case, it is the family/social atmosphere the child is raised in that influences it the most.

All that said, the strategy to overcome these problems, can only really be addressed by strong education in logic, reasoning and critical thinking in childhood. A strong basic understanding of science and skepticism is the best weapon against poor thinking.

Posted on Feb 15, 2011 at 8:51am by Texas Skeptic Comment #1

He’s still not letting it go.. unbelievable! I am sick of him going on about the “right approach”.. and really, all it comes down to is the fact that he doesn’t like people criticizing religion or any activism relating to atheism. He won’t shut up about this study and uses it as the be-all-and-end-all.

And I couldn’t stop laughing at the intro to this podcast, what was with the shouting? Haha!

Piss off Chris.

Posted on Feb 15, 2011 at 3:47pm by kennykjc Comment #2

Of course people can’t know enough about most things to reach independent conclusions. They decide who they can trust and go by that. That’s survival value for human societies, evolution, remember?
    The left, not just forthrightly but stridently to in-group audiences, starting with the Communists and including the new left Alinsky disciples has and does constantly proclaim that truth is not a virtue. Lies in the service of power are good. People can see the left has a lot at stake in the climate controversy. It doesn’t matter as much that the left is sometimes right about science as it does that it is usually calculatingly dishonest about everything. Leftists are such snobs they think everyone else is too stupid to ever notice. But they aren’t.

Posted on Feb 20, 2011 at 6:34am by rg21 Comment #3

Wow, that’s a big steaming pile of projection if I’ve ever seen one. I used to hold somewhat moderate to conservative views and was mildly religious. What finally woke me up was that I finally decided that truth, real objective truth and not that fuzzy make you feel good religious ‘truth’, was a must. What I found was the exact opposite of your assertions, that the right has systematically pushed out whatever story line it thought was expedient to accomplish their desired goals, like BushCo fabricating whatever fiction it needed to justify a war that George was itching to have anyway.

What I found was that through skepticism, logic, reasoning and following the general principles of scientific inquiry, you are going to achieve the highest chance of discerning the truth than through any other method. Oh sure, there are plenty of people on the left, just as on the right, that never really embarked on a real objective truth quest, they just dogmatically follow the ideology of their side. Their side just happens to be chosen for them by accident of birth and the family and culture they are raised and indoctrinated with. However, those that truly embark on the search for truth using the tools I mentioned, seem to wind up on the left. As for your jab about snobs & stupid people, there are plenty of both to go around and both the left & right are well populated with them. They mostly fall into the group I referenced that just uncritically follow their indoctrination, whatever side they fall on.

As I said in my earlier post, which I think bears repeating, the strategy to overcome these problems, can only really be addressed by strong education in logic, reasoning and critical thinking in childhood. A strong basic understanding of science and skepticism is the best weapon against poor thinking.

Posted on Feb 20, 2011 at 9:55am by Texas Skeptic Comment #4

The right has no explicit, overt, stated policy of condoning, much less advocating lies to achieve power. I can’t think of any self described conservative I ever met who disdained truth or despised someone for respecting it. And I’ve made it my business to get inside and have a real look at both sides. Your statement makes me wonder if you even know who Saul Alinsky was. Getting down to cases and applications. I think most people can see that once you declare carbon dioxide a pollutant subject to federal regulation, liberty is left with precious little range. And they can see even if we grant climate warming is real and anthropogenic, the remedies proposed are of questionable to small value but creatively effective for centralizing political power. Apolitical and minimally political people, far too late, are learning not to trust the left.

Posted on Feb 20, 2011 at 10:16am by rg21 Comment #5