Friday, January 21, 2011

Perception of climate change risk depends on world-view

Harvey Leifert in Environmental Research Web: The central question of science communication is: "Why do we see persistent and very intense public conflict over facts that are relevant to policy when those facts, such as those surrounding climate change, have been well established by scientific investigation?" Such a question was put to an audience of science writers by Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale University, US, at the 48th annual New Horizons in Science meeting in New Haven, Connecticut, late last year.

…[One] explanation is "cultural cognition", a term that Kahan and colleagues use to describe "the tendency of people to fit their perceptions of risk and related kinds of facts to the values that bind their identities". That dynamic, he said, "is an important part of the political conflict that we see over issues that admit of scientific investigation". Studies show that when people receive new information about, for example, climate-change research, they do not update their prior beliefs but rather assess the new information in the light of those beliefs.

…The subjects' world-views were assessed, using a scale developed by anthropologist Mary Douglas. One axis measures preference for individualist versus communitarian solutions, the other measures preferences for hierarchical versus egalitarian social ordering.

Douglas concluded that people's perceptions of risk cohere with one or another set of those values, Kahan said. Subjects high in hierarchical and individualist values would believe that if climate change is a high risk, it would lead to restrictions on commerce and industry, activities that are important to their world-view. Those ranking high on the communitarian and egalitarian scales are, in contrast, more ambivalent about commerce and industry and more amenable to the notion that climate change posed a real risk to society…

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