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Polarization Of Views On Climate Change Is Healthy

Dan Kahan presents two graphs illustrating what he calls "healthy" and "unhealthy" distributions of risk perception for two different risks:

The upper graph is the "healthy" situation -- a nice bell curve distribution of perceived risk for both of the cultural orientations (hierarchical-individualist and egalitarian-communitarian) into which he divided his survey respondents. The lower "unhealthy" situation shows a polarization of views about climate change -- hierarchical-individualist respondents were skewed toward thinking climate change poses little risk, while egalitarian-communitarians think it is a major risk.

The cultural groups that Kahan uses as his key explanatory variable are drawn from Grid-Group Cultural Theory. But his use of them has a decidedly Rawlsian or Habermasian flavor. That is, he prioritizes the reaching of consensus and deplores polarization or conflict between irreconcilable views. Thus, the perceptions of nanotechnology are healthy because culture is not driving people to see the risk differently, and thus the possibility to negotiate a broadly acceptable policy on the topic is open. Climate change, on the other hand, is not amenable to such consensus-driven policymaking because culture has trumped reason or science and driven people into opposing camps.

I usually have little patience for insisting on fidelity to the views of the founder of a theory (whether said founder be William Stephenson or Karl Marx, to use two examples that frequently rub me the wrong way). Nevertheless, in this case I think my disagreements with Kahan are centered on topics where he seems to me to depart from GGCT inventor Mary Douglas. Douglas would argue (I think) that risk perceptions that are not culturally engaged are not functional. After all, Kahan's second graph shows that the lack of polarization of views on nanotechnology is due to a lack of knowledge about the risk -- once exposed to information, views polarized on cultural lines. People have middling views of nanotechnology's risk because they don't see it as affecting their lives, and so they can't make sense of its pros and cons. People can only evaluate risks by understanding their implications for their favored way of life.

Climate change, on the other hand, has clear implications for people's way of life. It poses a severe threat to hierarchical-individualist culture because it exposes the failures of that way of life's techno-optimism and pursuit of economic growth, and serious action to deal with climate change could severely hamper the enactment of hierarchical-individualist values. Egalitarian-communitarians, on the other hand, are quite open to believing the danger of climate change because it validates what they were calling for all along.

Douglas would argue that this polarization is a good thing. It shows that people are engaging with the risk and its implications. There is no objective, culturally neutral viewpoint (of the sort that Kahan seems to aspire to) from which vantage point we can make unbiased judgments of risks. Rather, we have different cultural groups that are highly attuned to different sorts of threats. The polarization between the two groups Kahan is evaluating illustrate a society teasing out the implications of dealing with the threat. (What will climate change do to us? What will action on climate change do to us?) A good policy must be open to and address all cultures' concerns, rather than trying to de-culture consideration of the risk.


Blogger Bill Baar said...

FWIW, "Climate Change" fails Popper's Falsifiability criteria for demarcating Science from Religion (leaving Climate Change squarely a faith) because it sets up a hypothesis that when tested will always evaluate as "true": yes, climate is changing.

Considering US Court rulings on teaching science in schools, it really shouldn't be taught in a Science Class.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Joel Monka said...

There are dramatically different risks involved. One is the risk of not precisely known effects to occur one or more centuries from now if we don't act; the other is the certainty of economic disruption and possible loss of job and future if we do act. It's like comparing the risk of cancer to the need to urinate... if the only restroom available were radioactive, giving the risk of developing cancer 30-50 years from now, would you give up urinating?

9:20 AM  

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