Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Why 'scientific consensus' fails to persuade

Date:
September 14, 2010
Source:
National Science Foundation
Summary:
A recent study sought to understand why members of the public are sharply and persistently divided on matters on which expert scientists largely agree. How would you determine whether or not a scientist seems like an "expert" on a particular matter? It is likely to depend on whether the position the scientist takes is consistent with the one believed by most people who share your cultural values.

Suppose a close friend who is trying to figure out the facts about climate change asks whether you think a scientist who has written a book on the topic is a knowledgeable and trustworthy expert. You see from the dust jacket that the author received a Ph.D. in a pertinent field from a major university, is on the faculty at another one, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Would you advise your friend that the scientist seems like an "expert"?

If you are like most people, the answer is likely to be, "it depends." What it depends on, a recent study found, is not whether the position that scientist takes is consistent with the one endorsed by a National Academy. Instead, it is likely to depend on whether the position the scientist takes is consistent with the one believed by most people who share your cultural values.

This was the finding of a recent study conducted by Yale University law professor Dan Kahan, University of Oklahoma political science professor Hank Jenkins-Smith and George Washington University law professor Donald Braman that sought to understand why members of the public are sharply and persistently divided on matters on which expert scientists largely agree.

"We know from previous research," said Dan Kahan, "that people with individualistic values, who have a strong attachment to commerce and industry, tend to be skeptical of claimed environmental risks, while people with egalitarian values, who resent economic inequality, tend to believe that commerce and industry harms the environment."

In the study, subjects with individualistic values were over 70 percentage points less likely than ones with egalitarian values to identify the scientist as an expert if he was depicted as describing climate change as an established risk. Likewise, egalitarian subjects were over 50 percentage points less likely than individualistic ones to see the scientist as an expert if he was described as believing evidence on climate change isunsettled.

Study results were similar when subjects were shown information and queried about other matters that acknowledge "scientific consensus." Subjects were much more likely to see a scientist with elite credentials as an "expert" when he or she took a position that matched the subjects' own cultural values on risks of nuclear waste disposal and laws permitting citizens to carry concealed guns in public.

"These are all matters," Kahan said, "on which the National Academy of Sciences has issued 'expert consensus' reports." Using the reports as a benchmark," Kahan explained that "no cultural group in our study was more likely than any other to be 'getting it right'," i.e. correctly identifying scientific consensus on these issues. They were all just as likely to report that 'most' scientists favor the position rejected by the National Academy of Sciences expert consensus report if the report reached a conclusion contrary to their own cultural predispositions."

In a separate survey component, the study also found that the American public in general is culturally divided on what "scientific consensus" is on climate change, nuclear waste disposal, and concealed-handgun laws.

"The problem isn't that one side 'believes' science and another side 'distrusts' it," said Kahan referring to an alternate theory of why there is political conflict on matters that have been extensively researched by scientists.

He said the more likely reason for the disparity, as supported by the research results, "is that people tend to keep a biased score of what experts believe, counting a scientist as an 'expert' only when that scientist agrees with the position they find culturally congenial."

Understanding this, the researchers then could draw some conclusions about why scientific consensus seems to fail to settle public policy debates when the subject is relevant to cultural positions.

"It is a mistake to think 'scientific consensus,' of its own force, will dispel cultural polarization on issues that admit scientific investigation," said Kahan. "The same psychological dynamics that incline people to form a particular position on climate change, nuclear power and gun control also shape their perceptions of what 'scientific consensus' is."

"The problem won't be fixed by simply trying to increase trust in scientists or awareness of what scientists believe," added Braman. "To make sure people form unbiased perceptions of what scientists are discovering, it is necessary to use communication strategies that reduce the likelihood that citizens of diverse values will find scientific findings threatening to their cultural commitments."

The Journal of Risk Research recently published the study online. It was funded by the National Science Foundation's division of Social and Economic Sciences.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by National Science Foundation. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Kahan et al. Cultural cognition of scientific consensus. Journal of Risk Research, 2010; 1 DOI: 10.1080/13669877.2010.511246

Cite This Page:

National Science Foundation. "Why 'scientific consensus' fails to persuade." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 September 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100914102114.htm>.
National Science Foundation. (2010, September 14). Why 'scientific consensus' fails to persuade. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 23, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100914102114.htm
National Science Foundation. "Why 'scientific consensus' fails to persuade." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100914102114.htm (accessed October 23, 2014).

Share This



More Science & Society News

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Ebola Fears Keep Guinea Hospitals Empty

Ebola Fears Keep Guinea Hospitals Empty

AP (Oct. 23, 2014) Fears of Ebola are keeping doctors and patients alike away from hospitals in the West African nation of Guinea. (Oct. 23) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Academic Scandal Shocks UNC

Academic Scandal Shocks UNC

AP (Oct. 23, 2014) A scandal involving bogus classes and inflated grades at the University of North Carolina was bigger than previously reported, a new investigation found. (Oct. 23) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Chameleon Camouflage to Give Tanks Cloaking Capabilities

Chameleon Camouflage to Give Tanks Cloaking Capabilities

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Oct. 22, 2014) Inspired by the way a chameleon changes its colour to disguise itself; scientists in Poland want to replace traditional camouflage paint with thousands of electrochromic plates that will continuously change colour to blend with its surroundings. The first PL-01 concept tank prototype will be tested within a few years, with scientists predicting that a similar technology could even be woven into the fabric of a soldiers' clothing making them virtually invisible to the naked eye. Matthew Stock reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Jet Sales Lift Boeing Profit 18 Pct.

Jet Sales Lift Boeing Profit 18 Pct.

Reuters - Business Video Online (Oct. 22, 2014) Strong jet demand has pushed Boeing to raise its profit forecast for the third time, but analysts were disappointed by its small cash flow. Fred Katayama reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Science & Society

Business & Industry

Education & Learning

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins