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The benefits of cultural cognition

I'm very sympathetic to the "cultural cognition" explanation for controversy over risk issues such as climate change. Cultural cognition holds that our positions in such controversies -- including our interpretation of "factual" evidence -- is largely driven by our identification with certain cultural groups. By and large we believe in or deny anthropogenic climate change because that belief is socially rewarded in our cultural group, not because we've rationally assessed the evidence.

Where I tend to diverge from Dan Kahan (the leading modern proponent of the cultural cognition theory) is over whether cultural cognition is a bad thing. Kahan regards cultural cognition as unreservedly bad -- a sort of disease or pollution in our debate about an issue, something to be prevented or neutralized whenever possible so that we can make rational assessments of the evidence. I, on the other hand (and I like to think this is more in line with the views of Mary Douglas, whose work is the basis for the idea of cultural cognition), tend to believe there are ways that cultural cognition can be functional and beneficial. One such way is suggested in this recent post by David Ropeik.

Ropeik suggests that we shouldn't wait for the public to come around on climate change. Even the most skillful risk communication strategies will never convince the public to make a grand outcry that pushes our leaders to finally take the kind of drastic action necessary to avert the damaging consequences of climate change. Instead, the powerful in politics and business need to be willing to act without a public mandate, exercising foresight to deal with the problem even in the absence of a broad-based push from below. He cites as an example the effort by several major companies, including Apple, to use all renewable power.

It's common for both critics and boosters to think of major corporations as driven wholly by the search for efficiency. The profit motive and the inexorable clench of the invisible hand will, we're told, strip away all extraneous considerations and lead companies into coldly rational decision-making. But in fact corporations are heavily culturally embedded institutions. Even when they're acting purely rationally, they're doing so in a culturally loaded context.

Apple is a prime example of a company heavily intwined with culture. Their brand strategy is all about cultivating a particular image of who an Apple consumer is, and making their products a lifestyle. For convenience, let's call the kind of person who buys Apple products a "hipster." Hipsters are not deeply invested in climate change, and aren't likely (as a group) to generate the kind of mass outcry for change referenced by Ropeik. But they do incorporate a belief in anthropogenic climate change into their cultural identity. And so for Apple to make its operations greener is a good way to align their products better with a hipster cultural identity.

The example of Apple illustrates, then, how the kind of farsighted leadership that might be necessary to solve a problem like climate change can actually be aided by cultural cognition.


Don't sue climate change denialists

Climate scientist Michael Mann has been cleared to proceed with a libel lawsuit against the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the National Review over comments accusing him of academic fraud and comparing him to pedophile ex-football coach Jerry Sandusky. While I think the claims made about Mann are spurious and pernicious, I have doubts that a courtroom is the right place to resolve this issue.

The Sandusky comments seem to me to be obviously permissible, since the CEI and NR didn't accuse Mann of committing specific acts of pedophilia. They fall into the same category of hyperbolic rhetoric as things like "BusHitler" or "Obama is the antichrist." Of more concern is Mann's claim that it's libelious for CEI and NR to assert that his research was biased. Here, he is essentially asking the court to adjudicate a dispute over the quality of scientific work -- to hold that CEI and NR were knowingly calling his research bad when it was in fact good. It seems to me that the court system is in a poor position to do this, and it sets a dangerous precedent for high-profile scientific issues to be subjected to the legal system.

The courts are simply not well-equipped to examine scientific questions. Judges do not have scientific expertise. The court system's own methodological procedures are based heavily on tradition and ritual in contravention to what we know (from scientific research) to be good practice in determining the truth -- such as the heavy reliance on unreliable eyewitness testimony. Perhaps more importantly, a key virtue of scientific procedure is its openness. There is always room for debate and reconsideration within science. Scientific claims never come to one final end where they are declared to be finished fact, though well-supported propositions (such as anthropogenic climate change) do, over time, accumulate broad-based assent. The whole point of the court system, on the other hand, is to issue final rulings. A court must issue a yes or a no, a guilty or an innocent, at the end of its proceedings.

I can understand Mann's desire to take action against people who have ruthlessly attacked him for many years and hindered his ability to conduct his research, but I think that when it comes to allegations about the quality of scientific research, the courts ought to maintain a very high standard for what counts as libel.


Non-Christians are not obligated to fix Christianity

Fred Clark has a very odd post up effectively demanding that non-Christians engage in Biblical exegesis. He posits a friend who believes that Ohio doesn't exist because they believe the Gospel of Matthew denies Ohio's existence. Clark argues that if you take it upon yourself to disabuse your friend of the first falsehood (Ohio's nonexistence), then you are obligated to also disabuse them of the second falsehood (that Matthew denies Ohio's existence). Otherwise, he claims, you have implicitly endorsed the second falsehood, and thus have just shuffled around the falsehoods without decreasing the total number of falsehoods believed. And this is true, he says, even if you are not a Christian and therefore put no stake in what Matthew teaches.

The first problem with this argument is that failing to disabuse your friend of their incorrect Biblical views is not the same as endorsing them. Clark's ultimate goal is to attack secular intellectuals like Neil DeGrasse Tyson who have (falsely) affirmatively endorsed the idea that the Bible teaches young-earth creationism, while (correctly) maintaining that young-earth creationism is wrong. I agree that Tyson and others shouldn't take this position about the Bible (for reasons explained below). But that doesn't mean that someone who challenges the empirical correctness of a wrong interpretation of the Bible is thereby endorsing said interpretation. Our non-Christian Ohio-believer could simply remain neutral on the question of what the Bible teaches about Ohio's existence.

Second, Clark's argument assumes that all falsehoods are equal. He focuses on counting up the total number of falsehoods believed. But of course falsehoods differ in quality as well as quantity. Some falsehoods are farther from the truth than others -- compare "Ohio doesn't exist" to "Ohio is located in the South." And some falsehoods are more relevant to our lives (and thereby more damaging to believe) than others -- compare "Ohio doesn't exist" to "the state of Xhix on the planet Xarth orbiting the star Zeta Reticuli doesn't exist." It is perfectly rational to focus one's energy on the bigger, more consequential falsehoods.

But third and most important, Clark's argument assumes that a non-Christian can engage in debate over the correctness of a Biblical interpretation. Here Clark's non-Christian who insists Matthew teaches nothing on the subject of Ohio's existence is making the same mistake as Tyson is when he claims the Bible teaches young-earth creationism. The Bible (like any other complex text) is not self-interpreting. There is no single meaning that can be proven to be correct through an unimpeachable reading technique. This is a point that Clark himself has repeatedly stressed on his blog. In lambasting Biblical "literalists" (such as the creationists that the post under consideration is aimed at!), he emphasizes that the Bible always requires interpretation and that its meaning cannot be discerned by any simple reading technique. This fact is obscured in the Ohio example because he picked for his Biblical falsehood something so obviously absurd that it's difficult to imagine any realistic hermeneutic that could lead someone to believe that the bible teaches that. But that's certainly not the case for topics like creationism (or gay rights, or feminism, or any other topic where a liberal like Clark would disagree with common assertions about what the Bible says).

In order to determine which reading of the Bible -- the Ohio-affirming or the Ohio-denying, the creationist or the evolution-compatible, the anti-gay or the pro-gay -- is true and correct, one requires faith. I don't mean faith in the sense that God's spirit must guide your reading (though many Christians do believe in such a thing). I mean that if you don't believe in the existence of the Christian god, then it is meaningless to assert that there is a correct and an incorrect interpretation of the Bible. The correct interpretation of the Bible can mean nothing other than the one that God wants his followers to derive from the text. And so if one does not believe in the Christian God, one cannot believe there is a single correct interpretation of the Bible. In the same way that non-Christians can't be asked to distinguish "true" from false Christians, we can't be asked to distinguish true from false interpretations of the Bible. While I certainly hope (for instrumental reasons) that more Christians come around to the kind of pro-science, pro-social-justice strain of Christianity that Clark espouses, that's a debate that has to happen internally among Christians.

Clark's mistake comes from a thread of Christian chauvinism that runs through his otherwise admirable take on his faith. He is rightly appalled by the ends to which people have put Christianity. He believes not just that their ends are wrong, but that they are not true to Christianity, and that the religion can and should be better than that. So far, so good. But in his desire to redeem the faith, to clean his own hands and demonstrate "we're not all like that," he feels entitled to enlist non-Christians in his battle. He wants non-Christians to help him cleanse Christianity of the wrong kind of Christians, so that Christianity can be good and he can avoid being tarred by association with the bad ones. But that is not our battle. Non-Christians have no stake in the fate of Christianity. As long as everyone believes in Ohio (or evolution, or gay rights ...), then it's their own business whether they infer that Christianity must be Ohio-compatible, or whether they reject Christianity as hopelessly Ohio-denying.


The Haraway Projection

Wired has a short piece about amateur cartographer Gene Keyes. The post describes Keyes' lifelong work on the "Cahill-Keyes Octal Gradient," a map projection billed by Wired as a "master map" that optimizes the presentation of the globe on a flat page. But of course there's no such thing as being "optimal." A map (or anything else) can only be optimal for a particular purpose. I can easily list applications for which the CKOG is far from optimal. The interruptions in the oceans make mapping any oceanic features (like ocean life or trade routes) a non-starter. And the wobbling compass directions from octant to octant make it a poor choice for mapping anything with a clear latitudinal component, such as climate zones. Keyes asserts that his projection is meant to help improve geographic literacy by closely resembling a globe. But the aspect of the world that has always seemed to me most strikingly visible on a globe but is lost on most projections is the connectivity of the continents around the North Pole -- which ironically is discarded in the move from the original butterfly-like Cahill projection to Keyes' M-shaped CKOG! What seems clear is that the projection is optimized for Gene Keyes' personal aesthetics. This is made more obvious through a visit to his website, where his comparison between Buckminster Fuller's dymaxion map and the Cahill projection (on which the CKOG is based) is largely in terms of "neatness" criteria like symmetry of the map border and facets having sizes that come to nice round numbers when measured in metric units.

What motivates me to write this post is not so much the strengths or flaws of the CKOG in particular, but the general tendency captured in the title of the Wired post: "the search for the perfect map." When I was younger, I had the same sort of fascination with finding a "master projection" that would give a universally optimal representation of the world. Though I lacked the resources to try to design my own projections, I pored over the atlases I had at home and at the library, trying to imagine how to smooth out every distortion to create the one true map. The desire to explore and master the world through one perfect map, labored over by an isolated genius, seems to be a common fantasy for white dudes like Keyes, Cahill, and my younger self.

Today, however, my attitude toward projections -- and maps in general -- has shifted by 180 degrees. What fascinates me about mapping is how many different ways we can represent the earth. The projections I find compelling are not ones like CKOG or Robinson or Gall-Peters that try to give a single "best" view of the world, but weird ones like star projections and oblique aspects of more familiar projections. I want maps to challenge me to see the world, and think about how it all connects, in new ways. I want to preserve the sense that the complexity of the world far exceeds any one attempt to map it, and that we can only move between different and mutually conflicting partial perspectives. We could perhaps call this juggling of multiple partial maps the "Haraway Projection," after the feminist philosopher Donna Haraway, who famously criticized (.pdf) the quest for a "God's eye view" or "view from nowhere," preferring instead grasp the world through multiple "partial perspectives" rooted in specific social locations. I'll take the disorienting and open-ended instability of the Haraway Projection over the CKOG's illusion of mastery any day.


Sriracha and hipster environmental racism

It has been well established that polluting facilities are disproportionately forced on communities of color. This pattern of environmental racism ought to be a source of grave concern for anyone of a progressive political bent. It's an easy position to take when the pollution comes from toxic waste dumps and coal-fired power plants. But it all falls apart when the culprit is the factory that produces Sriracha, the hot sauce that has become essential to the hipster way of life.

The issue begins with complaints by residents of Irwindale, California that the Sriracha factory was producing noxious fumes that caused severe eye irritation. Irwindale is 90% Hispanic, suggesting that this case could be seen as a potential case study of environmental racism, highlighting how polluting industry (of which there is a lot in Irwindale) gets placed on the doorsteps of people of color. The city has taken Sriracha maker Huy Fong Foods to court over the issue, unsuccessfully seeking an injunction to shut the plant down while the case proceeds.

But instead of an environmental racism angle, news coverage has taken a very different tone. The message of nearly every article has been "OMG they're coming for your hot sauce!" We have been warned of a looming Sriracha shortage, while the situation has been dubbed a "Sriracha apocalypse" -- meaning an apocalypse for foodies deprived of their condiment, not for the plant's neighbors getting a facefull of fumes. The city of Irwindale is consistently presented as just killjoy jerkfaces trying to spoil everyone's spicy fun. A variety of other cities, from Philadelphia to Denton, have invited Huy Fong to relocate, again focused more on the coolness of the product and the hipster cred of saving Sriracha than on the environmental risks the plant is allegedly producing. When the environmental and health impacts of the plant are acknowledged, it's in a sarcastic and ironic way, as if to say "yeah, yeah, we all care about the environment, but talking about real structural inequalities is so uncool."

The Atlantic compiles a set of White Whine-worthy tweets on the subject, presented with just enough ironic detachment that they can laugh with the tweeters while maintaining the cover story that they're laughing at them. And while humorously exaggerated panic over a Sriracha supply interruption is adequate to get yourself quoted in this national magazine, nobody thought to ask any of the people suffering burning eyes from the factory what they thought about the situation.

The contamination from the Sriracha plant may not turn out to be as big a deal as alleged, and Huy Fong has seemed to make some serious efforts to control the plant's emissions. But it's telling that so many people's first reaction was not to take the claims of possible environmental racism seriously, but rather to panic about the possible loss of their hot sauce.

Emotional biases toward nuclear power

It's never a good rhetorical strategy to talk about how important it is to make decisions on the basis of reason and facts rather than biases and (excessive) emotion. Certainly we should be making our decisions based on reason rather than biases -- but at this level of generality, everyone already agrees. The real question is always what decision is supported by reason and what decision is supported only by bias.

Consider, for example, a letter recently sent by four prominent climate scientists to a variety of organizations urging them to endorse nuclear power as a solution to climate change. They write:

We ask only that energy system decisions be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st century nuclear technology.

The letter cites a number of empirical claims supporting the advantages of nuclear power. But the fact is, it's easy enough to imagine emotional biases in favor of nuclear power as well as those against it. Advocacy of nuclear power has become a powerful symbol of "reasonableness" in the modern environmental debate. Saying "we should build more nuclear plants to stop climate change" is a good way of sending the message "I care about the environment, but I'm not one of those crazy hippies that wants us all to live in back-to-the-land eco-communes!" This symbolic power is in part a function of the practical reality of nuclear power. Of all of the options out there for replacing fossil fuels, nuclear power comes the closest to maintaining the status quo of a mass-scale, high-tech, high-consumption society. This connection is surely a source of bias toward nuclear power on the part of those with an emotional attachment to our current way of life. The fact that nuclear power has for so long been a target of environmental protest, and is linked to the rise of 1960s radicalism, only enhances the emotional significance of the green nuke position.

My point is not that the authors of the letter are acting out of emotional bias. Rather, it's that there is ample potential for bias on both side of the debate, and so singing the praises of rational and unbiased decision-making in the abstract is unlikely to get us far.


Most people believe in evolution so that their friends will like them

Hemant Mehta has some fun with an article by a painfully ignorant pastor who repeats some of the usual creationist nonsense. I won't in any way defend Pastor John Martens' substantive arguments against evolution, which largely boil down to a fallacious argument from incredulity. But I do think he says one thing that has a grain of truth to it.

Near the end of the piece, Martens says "But many of these very smart people cling to evolution because they want the approval of their peers." Mehta mocks this line, saying "We accept evolution because we just want people to like us. That’s really the secret of the whole scientific method right there." Nevertheless, I think Martens is right about most people who say they believe in evolution -- as well as most people who say they're creationists.

The level of understanding of the theory of evolution in the general public is extremely low. Even among people who are the most strongly convinced that evolution is the correct explanation for the origins of life, misinformation abounds about biological processes, fossil evidence, and other important aspects of evolution. Because people have limited mental space, and because an understanding of the details of evolutionary theory has little practical usefulness to the average person, most people don't retain a solid base of knowledge about evolution. On the other hand, one's position on the basic question of "evolution or creationism?" is quite important. It's a way of signalling what kind of a person you are and what kind of society you want to live in. I'm pretty sure I would have a big negative impact on a lot of my friendships if I posted to Facebook that I had carefully considered the issue and come to the conclusion that creationism was true. If you sign up for an OKCupid account, one of the first match questions they ask is about evolution vs creationism, because it's such an informative question in sorting out which of these thousands of potential dates you're likely to be compatible with.

Thus, for most people on either side of the debate, their position on evolution vs creationism is largely a product of aligning themselves with a cultural group. That doesn't mean people are being completely irrational or arbitrary. Certainly aligning yourself with the group that contains the actual experts who have followed a rigorous method for determining facts about the world is not a bad approach if you don't have the time to go through said rigorous method yourself. But it does mean that social factors play at least as big a role in whether the average person accepts evolution as logic and evidence do.


Poor farmers know about vegetables

Nathanael Johnson has written a pretty fair article about "golden rice," the long-promised genetically modified crop that would have increased levels of beta carotene in order to address vitamin A deficiencies in the developing world.

Rather than addressing the larger issue of the merits of golden rice, I want to pick on a comment that Johnson makes near the end of the article. On the topic of alternatives to golden rice, he says:

Are there other fixes? Yep, you could give people pills, or convince them to grow (and eat) more vegetables.

The idea that poor farmers would need to be "convinced" to grow more vegetables gets things exactly backwards. It's true that poor farmers end up with deficiencies of nutrients like vitamin A because their diets contain too much cheap calories like white rice and not enough vegetables. But that's not because these farmers don't know about the importance of eating vegetables. Their problem isn't that they need convincing. The problem is that economic pressures prevent them from growing a diversity of crops.

Traditionally, farmers in most parts of the world grew plenty of vegetables -- sometimes in among traditional varieties of rice, corn, and other carbohydrate staples. The economic pressures that shifted farmers away from this system and toward monocropping staples are complex, and vary from region to region. They involve some combination of tax policy, farm subsidies, changing domestic and international market conditions, loss of land rights, population growth, and ecological degradation. Poor farmers would love to grow more vegetables if they could, but it's not economically feasible.

What poor farmers need is not "convincing" to grow more vegetables, but policy and market changes to make it possible for them to do so. This is the core of the critical view on golden rice. Malnutrition arises from policy systems that are tilted against the poor, and so it seems to make more sense to fix those policy systems rather than finding a technological band-aid for the worst effects.