The roles of ‘rationality’, ‘toxicity’ and ‘partisanship’ in interpreting scientific information

posted in: Commentary | 14

by Cami Ryan

The article Why we are poles apart on climate change by Yale U law and psychology professor Dan Kahan came across my ‘desktop’ yesterday. Climate change is a topic that is hotly debated in the mainstream media and in social media as well. There are climate change proponents and there are climate change denialists. Personally, I resist resting a foot in any camp as I don’t really know enough about the whole issue of climate change. But I do know that Kahan’s points are certainly relevant when you consider them in the context of the genetically modified food debate.

There are ardent supporters of the technology at one end of the continuum and very passionate opponents on the opposite side. But why are we so deeply divided on the topic of GMOs (genetically modified organisms)? Kahan poses this (à la climate change debate). He suggests that it’s not that people are irrational. Rather, it may be that “their reasoning powers have become disabled by a polluted science-communication environment”…“…[C]itizens are …are, in fact, too rational — at filtering OUT [the] information that would drive a wedge between themselves and their peers.”

Hmmm. Now, what does he mean by ‘polluted’ and what does he mean by ‘too rational’? Well, Kahan’s following remark provide insights into that:

“People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand. Usually, this strategy works just fine. We live in a science-communication environment richly stocked…The trouble starts when this communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings — ones that effectively announce that ‘if you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them’. In that situation, ordinary individuals’ lives will go better if their perceptions of societal risk conform with those of their group.”

So, we are largely influenced by our closely-tied networks, our communities and our families. Makes sense. I am contemplating Kahan’s ideas further in the context of how (dare I say if?) governments acquire / interpret science based information in order to inform policy-making decisions. What gaps out there need to be addressed? What can be done?

I would welcome your comments. Kahan’s article is attached. It’s a one-pager and a quick and relatively easy read.

Kahan, D. (2012). Why we are poles apart on climate change, Nature, 488 (7411) 255. DOI: 10.1038/488255a
Originally posted at Cami Ryan’s blog.

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