Getting beyond debates over science

Paul Voosen writes: Last year, as the summer heat broke, a congregation of climate scientists and communicators gathered at the headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a granite edifice erected in the heart of Washington, to wail over their collective futility.

Year by year, the evidence for human-caused global warming has grown more robust. Greenhouse gases load the air and sea. Temperatures rise. Downpours strengthen. Ice melts. Yet the American public seems, from cursory glances at headlines and polls, more divided than ever on the basic existence of climate change, in spite of scientists’ many, many warnings. Their message, the attendees fretted, simply wasn’t getting through.

This worry wasn’t just about climate change, but also stem cells. Genetically modified food. Vaccines. Nuclear power. And, of course, evolution: Challenging scientific reality seems to be an increasingly common feature of American life. Some researchers have gone so far as to accuse one political party, the Republicans, of making “science denial” a bedrock principle. The authority attributed to scientists for a century is crumbling.

It is a disturbing story. It is also, in many ways, a fairy tale. So says Dan M. Kahan, a law professor at Yale University who, over the past decade, has run an insurgent research campaign into how the public understands science. Through a magpie synthesis of psychology, risk perception, anthropology, political science, and communication research, leavened with heavy doses of empiricism and idol bashing, he has exposed the tribal biases that mediate our encounters with scientific knowledge. It’s a dynamic he calls cultural cognition. [Continue reading…]

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