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Halfway Cultural Theory

In a recent Nature opinion column, Dan Kahan proposes "cultural cognition" -- a version of Mary Douglas's grid-group cultural theory -- as a better way to approach public conflict over scientific issues like climate change. Kahan contrasts cultural cognition to the dominant deficiency model of public understanding, but I think cultural cognition is actually rather closer to the deficiency model than Kahan thinks (and closer than Douglas's original cultural theory).

The deficiency model holds that the failure of the public to grasp certain scientific issues, such as the reality of anthropogenic climate change, stems from ignorance and biased thinking. Thus, the solution is to hit them with facts and education. In contrast, Kahan argues, people's divergent views on these issues stem from their attachment to certain cultural ways of life. People will accept or reject information based on how well it upholds their way of life.

So far so good -- but then Kahan veers back toward the deficiency model. His article is undergirded by an assumption that cultural cognition is a form of detrimental bias on the part of the public, while some undefined community of scientific experts has unbiased access to the truth. The task is then to reframe the expert truth in ways that will be congenial to different cultural biases. This adds depth to the deficiency model, but still retains its basic structure of the need for education by experts.

Kahan seems to assume that any policy proposal that the experts know is right can be effectively reframed to suit any cultural bias. Thus, for example, Kahan says that we should point out to Individualists that battling climate change can be profitable. For this strategy to work, one of two things must be true: 1) battling climate change really is profitable, but Individualists have for some reason failed to discern that despite being dispositionally motivated to seek profits, or 2) battling climate change isn't really that profitable on the whole, but clever rhetoric from experts can fool them into thinking it is. Neither one of those sounds like a particularly appealing option -- nor do I see any reason to believe that at least one of them must be true in any situation of culturally-motivated conflict.

There are several elements of Douglas's thinking that seem to be missing from Kahan's exposition of cultural cognition in this article, and which would push our grappling with climate disagreement further from the deficiency model.

First, Douglas is at pains to emphasize that cultural outlooks are not "biases" in any invidious sense. Rather, each cultural outlook grasps an important part of the whole world, which cannot be grasped in a comprehensive extra-cultural way. This implies that each culture needs the other four and can learn from the other four. Kahan is convinced that we know climate change is a problem and what to do about it, and so the only thing we have to learn from Individualists is how to convince them to change their minds. Douglas would hold that Individualist resistance to belief in climate change reveals something important about how we should handle our world -- while also instructing those Individualists to listen to climate-change-believing Egalitarians for the same reason.

Second, in a vein that echoes pragmatism, Douglas is more careful than Kahan not to frame cultural cognition as mere wishful thinking and groupthink. Focusing on certain aspects of the world really is important for maintaining certain ways of life -- e.g. hierarchical organizations really are more threatened by deviant behavior than egalitarian or individualist ones. If we don't appreciate that, then we easily fall into the spin trap where we can just slot in some different, appropriately framed, beliefs to guide our cultural opponents in a different direction.

Third, Douglas's theory provided for the possibility of changing cultural outlooks. From time to time, "surprises" can force upon people a realization that their cultural orientation no longer works to grapple with the world around them, leading them to seek a new arrangement. In Kahan's presentation, biases can only be accommodated or circumvented. But it may be that climate change is making certain aspects of Individualism fundamentally untenable and the best solution -- though accomplishing this is hugely difficult -- is to become more Egalitarian (which is not to say this is some sort of permanent world-historical victory for Egalitarianism, as cultural theory predicts that a too-Egalitarian world would eventually generate problems that only one of the other cultural orientations can solve).


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